Ceredigion County Council is set to recommend the permanent adoption of a work from home option for its staff – and has refused to reveal how much taxpayers’ cash it spends on keeping open its scarcely-used offices in Aberystwyth.
A report prepared for a meeting of the Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee today (Wednesday) urges councillors to recommend that the cabinet votes to continue the controversial hybrid working arrangement which has been in place since the pandemic.
As the Cambrian News revealed, it is feared the council is wasting millions of pounds as about 80 per cent of the 420-desk capacity across its offices at Canolfan Rheidol in Aberystwyth and Penmorfa in Aberaeron is unused because staff work from home.
The report to the committee states it will seek to ‘repurpose’ those offices and they could be used for healthcare, business space or even residential accommodation.
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Under recommendations, it reads: “To recommend to cabinet to adopt hybrid working as a permanent option for employees able to work as efficiently remotely as in the office.
“To develop a Hybrid Working Policy to replace the current Interim Hybrid Working Policy and bring back to Scrutiny following consultation.”
For three weeks the Cambrian News has been requesting information from the authority about the total cost of keeping its office in Canolfan Rheidol and in a response issued last week it refused to reveal the scale of expenditure.
Meanwhile, the Welsh Government responded within a week to questions asked by ex-Llanrhystud county council candidate David Inshaw, who has been investigating the level of ‘waste’ across the council’s estates.
The Welsh Government, which offers a similar ‘hybrid working’ regime as Ceredigion County Council, spent nearly £1.4 million just to keep its Canolfan Rheidol office building open in 2022, a series of Freedom of Information requests have revealed.
But the council would not be drawn on how much they have spent keeping their own office at the same site open for the last two years.
After being prompted twice, three weeks after the initial request, a county council spokesperson said: “Ceredigion County Council cannot comment on the process at present as a review of hybrid working arrangements will be discussed at the Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 19 July and by Cabinet on 5 September.”
The documents made available to the public on the council’s website prior to the meeting do not appear to provide the answer to this question.
In his exchanges with the council – who for months frustrated his attempts to get answers – Mr Inshaw took issue with Plaid Cymru council leader Cllr Bryan Davies, who said hybrid working had brought about ‘benefits including increased productivity’ – but then struggled to give a concrete piece of evidence that a service had boosted productivity after questioning.
It appears from the council report for next week’s meeting the justification is once again based on a staff survey, where employees judge their own performances.
The report also states: “A total of 870 responses were received resulting in a response rate of 75 per cent and all service areas were well represented. As the following results will show there is an overwhelming majority who have seen hybrid working as a positive experience and support the continuation of hybrid working as a permanent option.
“In their survey responses employees and their line managers identified that they are as or more productive working from home than they are in the workplace. This view is supported by the outcome of assessment from our external regulators (including Care Inspectorate Wales).”
It added: “If the proposal to permanently adopt hybrid working option for employees is approved this will allow the release of office space which has not been fully utilised during the period of the interim hybrid working trial.
“The previous 12 months has shown that the current hybrid working desk capacity in Canolfan Rheidol and Penmorfa is capable of accommodating demand in its current form, accepting however that more permanent arrangements will be put in place in both locations.
“It is proposed that officers undertake a review of all council office accommodation across its estate to identify potential for repurposing. The public engagement on future uses in council offices resulted in several suggestions of possible usage including using building as facilities for the community, hospital or health care setting, spaces for businesses and residential accommodation.”
Mr Inshaw’s enquiries have found that, across the authority’s Canolfan Rheidol office block and the Penmorfa county council headquarters in Aberaeron, there is an available capacity of 420 desks for working council staff – but only 112 are functional and currently in use.
Yet the council’s desk occupancy rates show only about 80 staff members work at the offices per day, leaving a possible 340 desk spaces unused, which equates to roughly 80 per cent on average per day.
The FoI states there is a total capacity for 320 desks in Canolfan Rheidol and a maximum of 100 in Penmorfa.
Parts of the £15m shared Canolfan Rheidol complex will be given over temporarily to Hywel Dda University Health Board for outpatient physiotherapy clinics, the council has announced, while it develops a longer-term plan for the space.
The complex built in 2009 saw many of the council’s departments brought under one roof after they were previously in separate offices across Aberystwyth.
We have also enquired about the costs of keeping the Penmorfa offices open.