Disposal of Municipal Offices
Report of the Cabinet Member for Finance and Assets
The Cabinet Member for Finance and Assets said the report sought Members’ agreement to put the Municipal Offices up for sale - a hugely significant decision, as the council has been involved with this iconic building for over 100 years. The council’s Strategic Asset Management Strategy reviews and monitors its properties to ensure they are delivering the best financial and strategic returns and delivering the best value for Cheltenham residents. The many changes in the size and shape of the council, and particularly hybrid working which was grown since the pandemic mean that our accommodation needs are no longer suited to this building.
This has presented a timely opportunity to consider the long-term purpose and uses of the Municipal Offices, to ensure it continues to play an active role in shaping a vibrant future for the town centre whilst enabling CBC to remain financially sustainable. Wide consultation across the town has been undertaken, with the views and opinions the Civic Society, Local History Society, Architects’ Panel, Chamber of Commerce, BID, community sector representatives and representatives of youth groups, including CBC’s apprentices, taken into account – these are summarised in the report. English Heritage is also keen to be involved.
He recognised that Members would have a range of valid views and opinions to share, and ended by summarising the recommendations of the report, including a commitment to bring a report to Council for a final decision on the future of this iconic building.
In response to Member questions, the Cabinet Member for Finance and Assets and Executive Director for Finance, Assets and Regeneration confirmed that:
- there is currently no firm plan for where the council might move to when the time comes, with the focus currently on the disposal of the Municipal Offices. The council-owned Delta Place and Ellenborough House have been discussed, but it could be some time before future accommodation needs to be sought. Where it goes will depend on what is available at that time, and how the needs of the council may have changed;
- the Cumulative Annual Cash Flows by Option graph does not include the increases in the value of the asset with the investment of a full refurbishment; it models the cash flow impact rather than a balance sheet valuation of any additional investment;
- the value of the asset would increase at the point of investment, but a formal valuation for the Statement of Accounts 12 months later may very well decrease significantly. Local government finances don’t allow for depreciation in absolute cash terms; any revaluation downwards would be treated in the accounts as an impairment loss but wouldn’t have any impact on the council-tax payer.
In debate, Members made the following comments:
- whilst recognising the need to make changes in the way the building operates, the report focuses on the sale but doesn’t analyse options at this stage, which is not entirely satisfactory. Previous discussions over the last 50 years have concluded that the council needs to retain an interest in the building, needs a town-centre presence, needs the Council Chamber. There are still a lot of unanswered questions;
- it is important to remember that the Municipal Offices is a listed building;
- this matter has been under consideration for a long period of time;
- when thinking about alternative accommodation, it’s important to note current uses and special functions of the building which might be difficult to replicate elsewhere, such as the A1 plotter for plans, archive requirements, and meeting spaces;
- noise insulation for any potential residential use in a town centre, in line with the agent of change principle, will be a challenge, but if a solution can be found with the planning department, this will be a positive advantage for residents of listed buildings and conservation areas across the town who face the same issue;
- officers are to be congratulated on the process they have gone through to reach this stage, particularly the engagement with important stakeholders. It has taken a long time, and is a massively exciting opportunity for the building to evolve and change again;
- selling the building is the right decision, rather than trying to adapt it to the council’s changing needs. A new use could be life-changing for the town, and the council will be leading by example as owner of a fantastic building, in doing the right thing by the town and by its heritage. There are still some questions, but it will be good to get on with the development brief and see what opportunities come back;
- it is important to be flexible and consider all viable propositions. It seems likely that the building will move to some form of residential use, like Royal Crescent and Imperial Square. There may be some compromises, and it will be important to consider any development opportunities which could enhance the rear of the building, but it is important to get the best value for the people who elect us, and a scheme which isn’t a loss for the town but an asset;
- the sequencing, vision, engagement-led discussions and brief laid out in the report are all commendable. Local Plan Policy MD3 flags the potential sale, and the time is clearly right for this, with the offices now too big for current needs - the council needs somewhere more modern and flexible. There are massive planning protections to respect heritage assets and conservation areas, and although the Council Chamber is held in great affection by many, a space with multiple uses and better access will bring huge advantages;
- around the year 2000, there were 950 staff working out of the Municipal Offices, with the Trust, Ubico, and CBH; now there are about 200 staff, who occupy a maximum of 25% of the building, yet the council is custodian of the whole building. This is a great opportunity to put it back on the map, properly used and loved, and was highlighted in the peer review. Somewhere along the line we will need to consider where the council will relocate, but the primary issue is making the Municipal Offices work for the people of Cheltenham;
- it is difficult to understand the approach of taking options off the table unnecessarily and only consider selling the whole plot. With technology and hybrid working, selling part of it for residential but keeping some as offices would seem an option;
- there is also an element of civic pride in the Municipal Offices as the centre of Cheltenham’s democracy which is not articulated in the report;
- with no alternative arrangement proposed, and no public consultation on the use of this central asset, the recommendations are difficult to support;
- although there was a long-held perception that the Municipal Offices were an important part of the town’s democracy and must be protected by the council for future generations, the building has now served its purpose and we need to move on. It is important, however, that any future accommodation is located in the town centre, easily accessible for the people of Cheltenham;
- CBC made a commitment many years ago to retain the Municipal Offices, as belonging to the town and its residents, and it is disappointing that this commitment is to be abandoned with outright disposal, and that the council hasn’t moved forward with its redevelopment before embarking on other projects. The building should remain in council ownership, whether or not the council remains in it;
- regarding the poor carbon footprint of the building and not achieving CBC’s net zero goals by 2030, offloading the asset and making it someone else’s problem isn’t the same as offsetting.
Summing up, the Cabinet Member for Finance and Assets thanked Members for their views and opinions. He agreed that this is a tough decision, and that conversations have been going on for decades. The council has been open with residents, including a question about its future in the last residents’ survey, and it is clear there are more questions than answers at present. It is clear, however, that the building is for the betterment of the town – solving how this can be achieved is the first priority, with conversations about a new home for the council to follow.
1. dispose of the Municipal Offices on the open market, in line with our agreed Asset Management Strategy, as the Municipal Offices are now surplus to our operational requirements;
2. commission a development brief for the Municipal Offices which will take a creative and conservation-led approach to the reuse, adaptation and extension of the listed building, its setting and the setting of neighbouring listed buildings and the conservation area;
3. on completion of the development brief, invite bids for development proposals for the Municipal Offices; and
4. request that the Cabinet Member for Finance and Assets bring back proposals to Full Council for a final decision on its future use and disposal.
[27 in support, 7 in objection]
- Disposal of Municipal Offices - report x, item 11. PDF 503 KB
- Appendix 2 - CBC Financial Analysis, item 11. PDF 626 KB