Re-birth after 50 years 

Chris Dobson reflects on the major plans that are set to bring Newcastle’s iconic Civic Centre into the 21st century

It was a typical November day in 1968 when King Olav V of Norway snipped the ribbon across the main entrance to the Council Chamber.

Cementing our age old links with Scandinavia, the presence of such a venerable member of European royalty gave the city a huge lift, only repeated when President Jimmy Carter visited the city.

Now the George Kenyon-designed building is set for transformation. Officially completed in 1967, the building was extraordinary at the time with a roof-top clarion donated by the Adamson family of the then-British Paints business in Ouseburn, two impressive David Wynne sculptures and a line of gas-fired flambeaux. Impressive to say the least.

So why the investment, why the change?

Cllr Ged Bell, Cabinet Member for Inclusive Growth, Newcastle City Council, says it’s all about the ongoing financial challenges facing the Council that “require continual innovation over how we operate and how our assets are utilised”.

He continues: “The refurbishment of the Civic Centre is an ‘Invest to Save’ programme of works that will result in net savings of £32 million over a 25 year period – savings that will relieve budget pressures on Council services.”

There are several key objectives – to increase the quality and value of the Civic Centre asset by modernising and improving office working environments. This will improve organisational efficiency and performance through the adoption of agile working practices.

This will increase rental income through the letting of surplus areas of the Civic Centre, reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions by around 30 per cent and, above all, result in a net £32 million revenue saving.

Cllr Bell adds: “To achieve these savings, there is a requirement to make a capital investment of £45.4 million, but this will be paid back and generate the additional saving of £32 million over the next 25 years.”

The redevelopment will see the FaulknerBrowns-led design delivering a new main entrance to the Civic Centre incorporating a café facility and some 90,000 sq ft of refurbished office accommodation designed to facilitate agile working practices. This would be occupied by council employees.

An additional 90,000 sq ft of refurbished space will be leased to other public sector organisations. For example, around 60,000 sq ft will house the Family Civil and Employment Tribunal court facilities. There will be a new Coroner’s Court and a new Data Centre.

Old plant and services will be replaced to improve energy efficiency performance, there will be new shower/change staff facilities and the external façade of the estate will be repaired and cleaned.

The introduction of agile working has reduced accommodation needs, releasing substantial areas for external letting. The Council has been working closely with the Government Property Unit to introduce other public sector organisations to the Civic Centre.

This will extend and enhance the use of the facility, increase employment in the city centre, and potentially open opportunities for joint service delivery and shared working that could improve the quality and efficiency of the Council’s operations.

The demand for accommodation from third parties has been positive and tenants now occupying the site include ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), Insolvency Service and Northumbria Police Occupational Health.

Negotiations are now at an advanced stage for a long-term lease with HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The lease will bring together Civil, Family and Tribunals work in the Civic Centre and facilitate the bringing together of Magistrates and Crown Court work under the same roof in the Combined Court on the Quayside.

So far, seven floors in the Tower Block have been refurbished providing 70,000sq ft of office space, 60,000 sq ft of which are occupied by around 990 Council employees.

A five-year lease for c10,000 sq ft has been entered into with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, Heads of Terms have been agreed with HM Courts and Tribunal Service to secure a 25-year lease for Blocks 1 and 2 from summer 2019 to house the Civil, Family and Tribunal Courts.

The introduction of agile working is a new approach to the way in which the Council operates. It is based on a modern flexible working environment where staff are allocated a range of different resources to suit their working patterns and requirements. Staff will have their own personal storage and filing spaces, but will not be allocated an individual desk.

The move to agile working will allow the Council to harness the benefits that it can bring such as greater flexibility, new work styles within the office and beyond it, so encouraging and supporting a culture that is focused on delivering outcomes.

Among an array of benefits, the new approach will facilitate differing styles of individual and collaborative working including quiet rooms, hot-desking, informal discussion areas and formal meeting rooms.

Space is more intensively, intelligently and efficiently used. It is harnessing new technology with increased use of Wi-Fi, more mobile devices and greater digitisation of information speeding up processes and transactions. King Olav would be amazed.

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