Wirral Council faces scrutiny over £10m office spend

Questions have been raised about why details of an almost £10m spend by Wirral Council on its new office buildings have not been made public.

Last year, the local authority approved an additional £4m towards a fit out of its new Birkenhead offices on Alice Ker Square, bringing the total budget up to £9.2m to prepare the buildings for the council and other potential tenants to move in.

In July 2023, a council report said the increase in funds was needed due to inflationary pressures but little detail has since been released about why costs increased by 71%.

David Hughes, Wirral Council director of regeneration, said earlier this year there were “a whole range of issues which are related to the build out completion,” leading the council to clarify how a future report would outline the total spend to date following a request from councillors.

At a Wirral Council policy and resources committee meeting on 20 March,  councillors will get an update report on the new offices which were built using an up-front investment of £75m. The council plans to take up three and a half floors in building A, also referred to as Mallory, from 8 April, with all staff moved in by the end of the month.

According to a council report, the move will help the council reduce travel-related emissions due to good public transport links nearby, attract other employers into Birkenhead, increase footfall and spend in the town centre, and create a better working environment for its staff.

The other building will be leased out to bring in income and offset ongoing charges.

The March 2024 report said the council appointed a furniture and move contractor to carry out the work of moving IT hardware out of its old offices in the Cheshire Lines building, purchasing new office furniture, moving confidential documents, and reusing old furniture.

The contractors carrying out the fit out are not named in the report but an online portal that registers council contracts shows at least five contracts have been awarded by Wirral Council in relation to the new offices totalling over £7m.

In June 2023,  a £6.1m nine-month contract was awarded to Overbury PLC through the commissioning framework up until March 2024 for the office fit out. In December 2023, £493,000 was given to H Jenkinson and Company Ltd for the purchase and removal of furniture from Cheshire Lines to the new buildings.

Architectural firm Corstorphine + Wright were also given two contracts for design services and tenant feasibility studies in relation to the new offices in 2023 totalling £344,035. In September 2023, a contract of £37,800 was awarded to JLL North West for facilities and property management.

Councillors are also being asked to endorse plans to fit out the second office building B, also referred to as Irvine. It has not been made clear what option is being considered by councillors but the report said the local authority had considered “an alternative approach by giving the tenant a rent-free period as a contribution to the cost of the fit out in Building B.”

The report added, “For the council, this approach would pose much less risk in terms of potential liability to the tenant for alleged negligent design and/or construction. It would also eliminate the administrative costs of procuring and managing the fitting out contract.”

The local authority regularly keeps some information related to decisions private if it is considered sensitive information that would harm the council or others’ commercial interests. This is meant to be weighed against whether the information should be made public.

Cllr Pat Cleary, Green Party group leader, criticised the fact that figures like the £9.2m budget have not been included in the public report, adding, “The more information the council keeps exempt, the more questions are asked.

“That is in the public domain already and even the details that are in the exempt bit, even then there’s not a lot of detail. I can’t see why that is sensitive or why that is exempt. It doesn’t mention the £9.2m in the public report but that is in the public domain already. I am disappointed about that.

“Unfortunately this is something we have been pushing against. We have been saying this but it’s an ongoing concern about how much information is being kept private. Openness and transparency is something that the council is committed to and the £9.2m, well it’s quite a lot of money.”

Wirral Council declined to comment ahead of the meeting.

Image: Ed Barnes

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