Do buildings (and toilets) matter?
This post could be full of spluttering outrage as it is a post about council accommodation and the battering it has taken in the press over the past month. But I’ll try to be more restrained.
For those who weren’t watching our good friends at the DCLG have decided that being the Department FOR Communities and Local Government actually means working very hard to discredit local authorities. There are many ways to do this but the method of choice at the moment is the planted news story with handy Ministerial quote provided.
The stories in question are all about council accommodation, what you or I might describe as the ‘1960s office block I work in’ is described by Bob Neill (DCLG minister of choice for getting upset about buildings) as part of the:
age of vanity makeovers
The particular story that this quote comes from relates to the amount of money councils have spent on refurbishing their council buildings. Bob Neill didn’t do his research and discover that the chief offender (Richmond) were moving out of a rented accommodation that cost £700,000 per year and updating their accommodation had allowed them to do so.
It follows a similar story criticising Newham council for spending £111 million on a new all purpose council building. Bob Neill was also upset about this (even I thought the figure was a bit high) despite the fact that the council were closing 26 other offices and in the words of a spokesperson:
Moving from 26 different locations to one at Newham Dockside will already have saved us £12m by next March
The (largely unfounded) criticism raises three questions:
1) Open data (especially when manipulated by Ministers) doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
Many councils own their buildings which are often old and therefore need to refurbish them or at least keep them up to scratch. For example, our building still has single glazing which can make it quite cold in the winter and noisy all year round. Double glazing would no doubt count as part of the ‘vanity’ makeover I’m sure. If council’s were spending £2 million per year on rent I don’t think Mr Neill et al would be too concerned; so do councils who own their buildings face double standards, punished for keeping their properties up to date whilst those who rent have this cost factored into their rent.
2) One of the items identified in the articles was that council’s were spending money on toilets. Is this really the sort of thing where you can be too extravagant? I strongly believe otherwise.
Toilets matter to me. In my experience the quality of a toilet can have a major effect on the quality of your work life and it’s hard to imagine an authority that would have spent what I would consider ‘too much’ on providing their staff with somewhere vaguely comfortable to relieve themselves. Citizen R, in describing the ten things she wouldn’t miss when made redundant identified the toilets as one of her key bug bears. She even took a photo of it and put it on her site. Would Eric Pickles get upset if these were upgraded?
3) As a public sector worker am I wrong to expect that the facilities offered to me in which to work are of a reasonable standard? I sort of know that the office facilities won’t be as nice as some of those gleaming offices seen in the centre of London, Manchester or similar cities but surely I’m not being outrageous to expect something half decent? Or am I? Does working in the public sector mean that I should expect a lower level of comfort? After all it is the public’s money that is being spent.
I’m sure there is a middle ground between the DCLG people and a shiny new office and I’m confident we’ll find it.
On the issue of toilets though; I’m not moving.