10am Wednesday, and Slough’s new £40m council HQ is like the Mary Celeste… as most staff are STILL WFH: Just one of Britain’s deserted local authority buildings exposed in a damning dossier – as the services you pay for go to pot
The lights are turned on when I walk past the glass-walled debating chamber of Slough Borough Council — but there’s no one at home.
It’s the same story when I poke my nose into the Mayor’s Parlour, an empty room adjacent to an equally empty waiting area filled with vacant sofas and unoccupied executive chairs.
Around the corner is an office ‘breakout zone’, where trendy dangling lights hover over a deserted communal table and row of soundproof egg-shaped pods where staff are supposed to be tapping away on laptops — but instead they are completely uninhabited.
Not a soul can be found in adjacent work-spaces and meeting rooms, either. And the five-storey atrium I glimpse through a security door appears to contain a closed canteen and several cubic acres of fresh air — but no actual people, aside from a lonely looking receptionist.
Inside the vacant Slough Borough Council HQ that was purchased for an astonishing £39million to replace its existing town hall. Around £1million went into giving the place a makeover, yet it remains heavily unused as staff continue to work from home
This vast building is eerily quiet, save for the constant hum of air conditioning. One might describe the vibe as Mary Celeste.
Yet this is not some abandoned movie set. Instead, it’s the scene I witnessed at exactly 10am on Wednesday at the main HQ of a local authority that employs about 800 people.
We are in Observatory House, an office block purchased by Slough’s Labour-run council in 2018 for an astonishing £39million (four years earlier it had changed hands for just £10million) to replace its existing town hall.
Upwards of £1million was then spent giving the place a lavish Silicon Valley-style makeover, fitting it out with fashionable wood panelling, exposed brickwork, dangling mood lights and a host of modern gadgets, including electronic waste paper baskets.
Hundreds of thousands more taxpayer pounds went on ‘ergonomic’ desks and chairs (the council’s existing office furniture was either given to charity or dumped in landfill) plus a ‘tranquil’ chill-out room decorated with Astroturf carpets and designer rocking chairs.
As part of a ‘biophilic’ design to improve ‘mental health, wellbeing and workplace productivity’, they even decided to spend £28,000 on pot plants and hired contractors to water them for a reported £10,000 a year. Staff took up residence in 2019.
An empty room adjacent to an equally empty waiting area filled with vacant sofas and unoccupied executive chairs. Working from home was meant to be a temporary arrangement but there are still no plans to bring staff back
Then came Covid. In common with most offices, Observatory House emptied overnight, with staff instructed to perform day jobs from the comfort of their own homes.
Yet what was initially a temporary arrangement quickly became a sort of quasi-permanent entitlement. Today, two years after the first lockdown was lifted, and four months after every remaining pandemic restriction was scrapped in England, it remains firmly in place: Slough Borough Council continues to allow its staff to work from wherever they fancy.
There are no plans for them to be ordered back to the office, either. Indeed, one executive was recently allowed to relocate to Wales, on the understanding that she wouldn’t ever have to darken the office door again.
So it goes that this six-storey, 110,000 sq ft building that cost the people of Slough at least £40million — the equivalent of £50,000 for every single council employee — currently sits largely empty, with its entire top floor vacant and cardboard boxes and other rubbish filling several empty meeting rooms.
When the Mail visited, on what ought to have been a busy work day, just 130 people showed up to work between 8.30 and 9.30am (of which several had signed in as visitors) and tennis court-sized clusters of empty desks were visible everywhere.
Just one in four of the rooms on the second and third floors seemed to be occupied, and the only level that contained more than a handful of staff turned out to have been sub-let to a different organisation.
Several ‘gender neutral’ toilets had been out of order for a month (perhaps because maintenance staff, or the people who manage them, aren’t around to ensure they get fixed) and not a single person could be glimpsed in an area supposed to house the council’s main telephone call centre.
If Slough were running like a smoothly oiled machine, one might say: ‘So what?’ But the machine is breaking down.
For while executives pedal their Pelotons, the town’s 165,000 residents are being sorely neglected. According to the council’s own website, taxpayers who wish to speak to a human being in their organisation must expect to wait on hold for at least 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, the site carries ominous warnings of ‘bin collection delays’ caused by ‘staff shortages’. That, however, is just the tip of an iceberg. ‘It’s a shambles,’ is the considered opinion of Wayne Strutton, one of the handful of Tory opposition councillors.
‘Residents are being failed on every level and it’s all down to mismanagement and a complete lack of accountability.
‘Council house repairs aren’t happening, because nobody is running things properly. In my ward, we have a home with 25 tiles missing from the roof because they blew off during Storm Eunice in February. No one has fixed it. There are trees that blew down in the same storm that haven’t been cleared away.
‘Managers simply aren’t doing their jobs. I’ve been trying to help a resident who has had leaking pipes in their house for months, but can’t get them sorted out, so is living with damp.
‘Vulnerable people who call to report problems with their homes can be left waiting two hours on the phone before it automatically hangs up. The call centre’s IT for working from home simply doesn’t work properly. Some directors are taking it in turns to come in on alternate weeks. I know of housing officers who have been refusing to actually visit people’s homes.’
Madhuri Bedi, an independent councillor, agrees. ‘On several occasions recently, I’ve needed to ask questions of a member of council staff and simply not got a response. Nothing seems to ever get done. Pavements are full of weeds. Grass is unmown. Communication with residents is dire. Bin collections are a state.
‘The basic things every council is supposed to do for residents simply aren’t happening.’
Those benighted residents, whose council tax bills range between £1,233 and £3,700 a year, might be tempted to move.
But the grotesque situation in Slough is in fact playing out at local authorities — of every political persuasion — across the land. The scandalous result: a host of gleaming office buildings, built at a cost of tens of millions, now sitting almost entirely empty.
Take Cambridgeshire, controlled by a Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition. In April, it emerged that its newly built £18million HQ has been left virtually empty because staff were being instructed to remain at home, months after Covid rules were abolished.
Pictured: Southend Borough Council offices. The 16-storey HQ was refurbished at vast expense a few years back but may now be sold because, according to recent reports, only 250 employees are turning up each day
Members of the public who visit seeking help were being told that nobody actually works there, while only 22 councillors were being permitted to physically attend council meetings, in a chamber designed and built to hold 80.
On a normal weekday, our reporters saw just three cars in its extensive car park, while a female employee told the Mail that just five people of her 30-person team had been allowed to work from the office — and some of those for just one day a week.
‘A couple of my colleagues are struggling with relationships at home,’ she said. ‘They’ve asked to work from the office and been told to wait. We’re becoming “de-skilled” — we’re not mixing with other professionals. If you need advice I can’t just ask, I have to call colleagues and sometimes they don’t pick up.’
Or take County Durham, where a Tory council has decided to sell off a brand new £50million HQ to a local university rather than move into it because, as one cabinet member puts it, ‘post-Covid, we don’t need as big a building’.
Or Southend in Essex, where the council’s 16-storey HQ, refurbished at vast expense a few years back, may now be sold because, according to recent reports, only 250 employees are turning up each day, a number that the council’s spokesman described as being a third of pre-pandemic levels. That not one of the people in charge of these councils — each of which oversees the spending of hundreds of millions of pounds each year — seems to have considered telling employees to simply return to the office lays bare everything you need to know about the resistance of public sector workers, and their managers, to the Government’s efforts to reopen Britain.
It also speaks volumes for their cavalier attitude to spending: Government Technology, a trade magazine, estimates that an empty desk space costs taxpayers up to £13,000 per year to run.
This week, for example, research by The Times revealed that more than nine in ten staff at some local authorities are still working from home, with senior executives placing no pressure on employees to return to their desks.
Data released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that Tory-run Buckinghamshire has 2,780 desk spaces but, on a recent week, an average of just 514 office-based staff came into work each day.
PICTURED: Cambridgeshire County Council HQ. In April, it emerged that its newly built £18million HQ has been left virtually empty because staff were being instructed to remain at home, months after Covid rules were abolished
Wiltshire, also Tory-run, has 91 per cent still at home, while Labour-run Bradford admitted to 89 per cent of employees remaining absent from the office.
Westminster, another Labour fiefdom, had 66 per cent of staff working remotely.
Of authorities that responded to FOI requests, the average proportion of staff working from home was 81 per cent. However several councils preposterously don’t even know whether their employees are showing up or not. A spokesman for Birmingham’s dysfunctional city council told reporters: ‘We don’t record the numbers of staff who attend the office.’
One source told the newspaper that Plymouth, again Tory-run, has 92 per cent of staff working remotely. Another, described as a senior figure in a major county council, said: ‘Nobody is applying any pressure over where people work. I would say less than 10 per cent of office workers are back at their desks.’
Importantly, the figures show a stark difference in attitudes to home-working among people running private companies and those who derive their income from the public purse.
For they suggest that council offices are between a quarter and a half as busy as ones in the private sector, where bosses are anxious to get people back to the coalface.
In Scotland, meanwhile, it last month emerged that West Dunbartonshire Council makes a mere 64 of 1,300 office staff come in throughout the week, with 445 working from home for four out of five days. At East Ayrshire, with 1,809 office staff, no one is based at their desk all of the time. Only 144 staff spend four out of five days in the office.
Those who suspect this ongoing phenomenon is damaging productivity include the Prime Minister, who recently told the Mail: ‘My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee, and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.’
A more robust contribution to the public debate was made by Ian Selby, a Conservative member of South Kesteven District Council in Lincolnshire, who was recently quoted telling a council meeting: ‘Working from home is a culture that breeds laziness.’
That is certainly the prevailing view in Bournemouth, where two 60ft 5G telephone masts that had been refused permission by a local authority were recently erected outside residents’ homes because home-working council staff missed a 56-day deadline to file paperwork that would have blocked their construction.
Lib Dem councillor Marcus Andrews blamed the fact that planning officers are still working remotely. ‘Whenever I have a Zoom meeting with officers, nine out of ten of them are in their living room or spare bedroom,’ he told reporters. ‘White-collar staff should return to the offices — they are called officers, so they should be in the office.
‘Otherwise, we would call them “third-bedroom people”.’
The Taxpayers’ Alliance lobby group, meanwhile, tells me: ‘Councils with these gaudy ghost offices should hang their heads in shame.
‘Rising council tax bills are hammering hard-working households, yet some local authorities have spent a small fortune on swanky offices only to leave them sitting empty.’
Yet resistance to returning to the workplace runs deep. Back in Slough, a council spokesperson this week said that ‘about 200 to 300’ people cross the office’s threshold each day and denied that recent ‘performance issues’ including problems with the council call centre are being caused by remote working.
‘Working for Slough Borough Council isn’t a nine-to-five thing,’ added the spokesperson. ‘We have a smart-working policy which has been in place for several years — prior to, during and since Covid… employees can request working from home informally or formally with their managers. The priority at all times is the service they provide. As a council we believe that work is something you do, not necessarily a place you are.’
Quite how effectively that work is being carried out is, however, open to question. Last July, Slough effectively declared itself bankrupt after discovering a £100million black hole in its budget, following years of what it admitted was poor financial management plus the grotesque mishandling of a number of commercial investments.
Its overall debt is now thought to be around £760million, meaning the authority is likely to be forced to sell around £600million of property to help clear its debts.
And, in a fitting symbol, among the buildings to be flogged off is Observatory House: the state-of-the-art HQ that taxpayers spent £40million creating and which has been left largely empty for more than two years.
At a recent meeting, the town’s Labour leader James Swindlehurst, who has presided over the financial crisis, said the property is ‘almost certain’ to be sold.
The big question, given how few council employees actually bother to turn up to the office each day, is whether anyone will notice.