Supporting our town centres is a civic duty

27 Jul 22

The Times have found that council offices are between a quarter and half as busy as offices in the private sector.


Let’s face it, if you were choosing your optimum property portfolio right now, it wouldn’t necessarily have too many town centre shops, parades, or whole shopping centres within it.  You’d be focusing on your industrial and logistics assets, and the usual smattering of prime residential and office holdings.  And that’s because you’d be following market forces.  There’s no responsibility on you to hold retail and other town centre uses, and if you’re not sure on when to call the bottom of the market, why wouldn’t you concentrate on industrial estates on the edges of our towns and cities, which are the rock star holdings of the property world.

But if you’re a local authority, you’re obliged to think differently.

Long before Covid, many centres were being acquired by councils up and down the country, often stepping in where private investors were cautious to do so.  It’s also common to see the formation of town centre task forces, BIDs, local authority-backed masterplans to encourage redevelopment and regeneration, and marketing and consultation exercises to bring people back into town centres.  All laudable efforts, and important contributors to maintaining the purpose and future of our cities and towns.

However, there is one hugely important step that councils could do immediately that is not to any consistent degree being followed, and that is returning to their place of work in town halls and civic centres. Whilst the majority of people have returned to the office in some degree (albeit by no means full-time), it is noticeable how few local authority employees have followed suit. Freedom of Information requests by The Times have found that council offices are between a quarter and half as busy as offices in the private sector. Buckinghamshire Council, for example, supports nearly 3,000 desk spaces across its buildings but an average of only 514 of its 2,400 office-based staff are coming into work each week. 

Wiltshire County Council had the highest share still at home at 91 per cent. Data from Freespace, a technology company that has 120,000 workplace sensors in corporate offices across the country, shows that private sector offices have occupancy rates of 40 per cent, compared with an average of 60% before the pandemic (as quoted by The Times, Tues 21st June 2022).  Not perfect, but certainly better.  

And of course, this is often not the choice of the individual; I know of many a council worker who has been instructed to continue working from home for the foreseeable future.  Irrespective of the impact this may have on wellbeing, team morale, and collaborative working for the local authority individual, it deprives many town centre traders of their lifeblood – the council employee who regularly and consistently pops out for a coffee, lunch, convenience and comparison shopping, after-work drinks, and so on.

For many provincial towns, who else bar their local council can they look to for such a high level of local white-collar employment?  Some may be lucky to point to a hospital, but these are more often than not based beyond the town centre limits, where time-starved workers are just as likely to make use of on-site facilities.

There is also a growing trend for local authorities to review the ownership of town halls and civic centres.  Whilst it is totally understandable that cash-starved authorities are having to be creative in saving (and generating) money, this has the potential to be an ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’ strategy.  Once these assets are gone, they are often very difficult to be re-provided. And what incentive is there for a local authority employee to spend time and money in a town centre if they have no place of work there?

There may clearly be opportunities for local authorities to underpin a town centre regeneration project by anchoring a more efficient, multi-purpose building (a la Brent), but first base is bringing council employees back into their town centre as soon as possible.  This shouldn’t be a decision made by the finance department; councils have a civic duty to support their town centres, and if they don’t lead by example, it makes it more difficult for them to advocate others following suit, or spending money on new town centre developments.

It is ironic that I am writing this on the day of a rail strike, when the media is awash with stories over the damage being done to the economy by workers being kept away from their place of work. 

It’s a pity more isn’t being done to shine a light on a problem that is now well over two years old.

Ian Anderson Chief Executive,Planning