Exclusive: Workspace buildings for small firms stay empty in stark sign of downturn

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THERE is no starker sign of the losing battle councils are waging to lease their vacant buildings than the decline in occupancy rates for premises designed to help start-up businesses.

The buildings, called workspace premises, are run by councils to provide a cheap home for small start-up businesses, but many are now proving impossible to fill because of the lack of companies being formed.

Other new firms are opting to slash costs wherever possible, often setting up shop at home.

As Richmondshire District Council counts the crippling cost of lost rent from its empty workspace buildings, Harrogate Council too has highlighted the issue as a priority in its new economic action plan.

The council operates buildings across Ripon, Nidderdale, Pateley Bridge and Knaresborough where occupancy rates in the 18th century Conyngham Hall have dropped from 100 per cent with a waiting list, to now between 60 and 70 per cent – much of which has occurred in the past few years.

Chris Chilton, who has occupied a Harrogate Council workspace building since 2003 with his family-run wrought ironsmith’s and blacksmith’s firm, said: “There are just not many firms starting up now and it is scary times.

“It is hard enough setting up a business at the best of times.

“For us this building has been a massive help and it is important that councils keep hold of them.”

Many local authorities are also now facing up to the way they occupy their own offices in a bid to save tens of millions of pounds currently being wasted.

With cash-strapped councils looking to make savings, now seeing their old inefficient buildings as no longer fit for purpose, experts say the region is poised on the brink of a revolution in the way they fill their assets.

Sheffield and York Councils have both announced plans to cut down on the buildings they occupy to save tens of millions of taxpayers’ money.

And the Yorkshire Post can exclusively reveal that Harrogate Council is looking at a multi-million-pound move out of the five main offices it currently occupies, including its main base in historic Crescent Gardens, funded by the sale of the buildings.

The council’s cabinet met to discuss the move this week, although details were not revealed because of the commercially sensitive nature of the information.

Council leader Don Mackenzie said: “Our members and officers recognise that we must continue to provide an excellent service to our residents on ever-tightening budgets.

“At the same time, we could provide a catalyst for more substantial investment in the centre of town.”

Last month, Sheffield Council revealed its plans to move most of its staff in to one building in a scheme to save millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

The authority said it would save at least £34m over 10 years by moving 2,600 staff into what it said was currently “redundant” space, with savings likely to be higher when other costs, such as energy, were into consideration.

Currently 73 per cent of the office space the council occupies is seen as below national best practise guidelines. It spends £13m every year on its office accommodation as part of the £70m gross expenditure on its property portfolio.

The deputy leader of Sheffield Council, Bryan Lodge, said: “In five years, the face of local authorities in Yorkshire will look very different.

“We will all need to continue getting the best service to people but we have to make huge savings.

“This may focus councils’ energy a bit more to start looking at things differently.

“This is a huge amount of money we are talking about.

CounLodge added: “We are certainly looking at redesigning the way we work and making more efficient use of the space that is there.

“It is having to look at all options open to us and make best use of what is there.”

joe.shute@ypn.co.uk