[Julia Nock,Head of Assets and Mark Bassett, Project Director,to present report]
Julia Nock, Head of Assets, presented the headlines of a report on the work done with the Our Assets service area to respond to the issues arising from the pandemic.
The Head of Assets advised the panel that the work of the service is presented to the Asset Management Board for comment. The Head of Assets commented on the important role of Our Council Scrutiny Panel in reviewing draft documents and giving feedback before moving forward with proposals.
The Head of Assets commented on the fundamental changes to the future demand for built assets as a result of the pandemic which was expected to change the way in in which some buildings are used and in some cases some buildings will be left empty.
The Head of Assets added that the findings from employee survey showed support for a blend of remote and office working. In addition, the feedback showed people see the benefits of this arrangement. The Head of Assets commented the opportunities presented by the pandemic to consider ideas for working differently and to become more efficient which will lead to changes in current policy.
The Head of Assets commented that the Council will pro-actively reviews and rationalise the current property portfolio to look for opportunities to save money, reduce the carbon levels and improve outcomes for our communities. The work will be done in discussions with local partners and communities.
The Head of Assets outlined the outcomes for the programme.
The Head of Assets commented on the key drivers that will inform the review of Council assets and added that there was likely to be some form of rationalisation in the current portfolio which will then have a reduction in the levels of carbon emissions. A smaller property portfolio will have other benefits such as reduced expenditure on running cost repairs and maintenance. The overall aim will be to have the right buildings and assets in the right place that delivers better outcomes for residents, employees, partners and local communities which works alongside our future operating model.
The Head of Assets outlined some of the factors that will help to maintain a more manageable property portfolio, which could in some situations mean the Council acquiring new assets with the aim of making make sure that our assets contribute to the economic recovery of the City and links to other work across the Council.
The Head of Assets commented on the work being done to improve the quality of data to help make more informed decisions about the management of Council assets. This will be a key workstream in the future work plans and also provide a challenge about whether we have the services in the right places.
There is a separate workstream considering the future use of the Civic Centre which involves working with health partners in discussing ideas about how assets could be used to deliver services in the future.
The Head of Assets commented on the disposal of assets policy and the work done to support the transfer of assets to community groups to manage. The views of the panel will be useful in helping to develop this policy in the future and also to better understand the impact of such decision on the property estate and the importance of working with a range of stakeholders.
The Head of Assets commented that many Council buildings were closed following the lockdown, however some buildings were needed to remain open to deliver services, for example the setting up of the Food Distribution Hub at Aldersley Centre. The buildings to be used were checked to make sure they still safe for occupation and also the necessary building maintenance work was completed before they were opened.
In preparation for the reopening of buildings a range of work was done to allow people to do so safely and in compliance with guidance on social distancing.
The Head of Assets detailed examples of new cleaning specifications in all buildings with a focus on key touch points areas in an office environment such as desks, keyboards and screens and the provision on hand sanitisers at main entrances.
In addition, work is also ongoing to identify buildings that potentially will not reopen in the future and discussions with health partners about reshaping the current property estate. This may involve changes in the location of services which can more directly benefit the communities across the city.
The panel were invited to comment and or ask questions about the presentation.
The panel queried if there was any unexpected learning or surprises since the start of the pandemic. The Head of Assets responded that she was surprised how quickly people responded positively to the challenge of having to work from home overnight, not only within her own service but also across the Council as a whole. The Head of Assets praised the response and highlighted the fact that services were able to continue to deliver services when people are working remotely with minimal impact to customers.
The Head of Assets added that the pandemic has opened up opportunities and led to new thinking about how the Civic Centre could be used differently in the future.
The panel discussed ideas for the future use of the Civic Centre and possibility of voluntary groups or businesses using spaces within the building. The panel commented on the need to recognise the importance of strategic assets, which need to be maintained and will contribute to future regeneration plans.
The panel expressed concern about any plans for the rapid disposal of Council assets in response to the economic impact of the pandemic but suggested that the policy could move from the position in the past where soft market testing of assets was done, to a situation in the future of moving much more quickly towards a negotiated sale.
The panel discussed the community asset transfer policy. The Head of City Assets explained the policy and process for checking that the organisation wanting to take over the management of an asset has the capacity to manage the building and also a plan to secure it, if it becomes empty at a future point. Head of City Assets added that the Council will work with people who are looking to buy land or property but will check that there is a plan to develop the site within a reasonable time scale, to avoid examples in the past where approved developments have not gone ahead as expected.
The panel queried the difficulty in finding out the owner of empty properties in the City. The Head of City Assets advised the panel that a tool has been developed to collate this information.
The panel query the loading limits which has prevented the use of the piazza space and requested further evidence to support the policy. The panel suggested the space would be ideas for mobile Covid 19 testing units. Head of City Assets agreed to investigate and report back to a future meeting.
The Cabinet Member for Resources advised the panel that the sale of Council assets has been part of the budget planning process for several years.
The Cabinet Member added that the approach is to focus on the services needed by different communities in the city and how they can best deliver them from the portfolio of buildings.
The panel discussed the important symbolic role of the Civic Centre and the different ideas about how it might be used in the future and the range of factors that might influence the decision about how services might be delivered regardless of the impact of Covid 19.
The panel expressed concern about ideas for the future use of the building which may be based on employees continuing to remote working on a large scale and the unused space could then be made available to community or local businesses, given the significant level of investment in refurbishing the building.
The Cabinet Member for Resources commented on the need introduce changes to support employees to work remotely from home, but there was also an acceptance of employees who are finding it difficult to work from home and therefore there will remain a need to have a main central building that can be used to deliver services.
The Head of City Assets advised the panel of further work planned to the mezzanine and the registrar's office building in the future.
The Council will consider a business case from any organisation or public sector partner interested in using the space in the Civic Centre.
The Head of City Assets added that the Civic Centre is a very important building for the city.
The panel agreed to note the report.