Hard-up Lancashire County Council spends £84,000 doing up cafe for staff

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Leaders of cash-strapped Lancashire County Council have spent more than £80,000 refurbishing a cafe.

Council chiefs say the investment at County Hall will reduce the cost of running the authority’s estate by £6m by 2017/18.

But traders have criticised the spending as “excessive”, and say staff should support local food businesses in the city centre.

The authority needs to save £176m by April 2018, and has brought its Preston-based workers into the County Hall complex from other buildings to help make savings.

Reflections, in County Hall, was revamped at a cost of £84,000 to accommodate the increased number of staff.

Neil Talbot, owner of Charlies Sarnies, in Fishergate Hill, Preston, said: “There were already three sandwich shops and another one has just opened – there was not enough trade for three.

“There has always been a canteen there but I have been told it was poor. I hope it is not subsidised.

“It has got a lot tougher – I could have done without it.

“When it’s raining, people will stay in, they won’t bother coming out.I had been hoping they would shut it.”

County Coun David Borrow, deputy leader of the county council, said: “There was Reflections there in the first place and it was looking shabby and it did need a refurb, which is what we have to do to make sure the conditions are kept up to date.

“The key thing is the Christ Church building did house just under 600 people before it was refurbished. I’s now going up to just under 1,200 people so staff have been brought from other buildings across the city centre to work in the County Hall complex.

“So we have a lot more staff working in this complex of buildings on Fishergate and therefore they would expect decent facilities.

“Reflections wasn’t big enough and couldn’t cope and therefore it has always been part of the refurbishment plan for the Christ Church building to redo the canteen at County Hall.”

Coun Borrow said there had been positive comments on the improvements.

Speaking about the cost, he said: “When you work out how much it costs to do everything, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got modern equipment when you’re dealing with food and food hygiene – it adds to the cost because you’ve got to make sure it’s up to date.”

He added: “The busier it is, the better the economics of it.”

A Lancashire County Council spokesman said: “We are making major changes to the way we’re using office space in Preston, in order to make significant savings.

“This includes vacating a number of buildings while investing in County Hall to increase its capacity and enable the council’s Preston-based workforce to work from a single office base.

“Reflections isn’t a luxurious facility by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been updated and expanded as part of the council’s commitment to providing adequate facilities for the thousands of people who work here.

“The cost of the refurbishment was £84,000 and it forms part of a transformation programme that will reduce the costs of running the council’s estate by £6m overall between now and 2017/18.”

But critics say the figure will “raise eyebrows”, and suggested staff should support eating establishment in the centre of Preston.

Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, said: “Lancashire County Council is under great pressure to implement cuts in public spending.

“An £84k spend for canteen facilities seems excessive in current economic conditions.

“Preston city centre has excellent eating establishments in close proximity to county hall and as such LCC should be supporting them.”

County Coun Albert Atkinson, deputy leader of the county council’s Conservative group, described the cash spent as “scandalous”, and said it could be the equivalent to at least two or three jobs.

He said: “If all the staff used it I suppose it would pay for itself, but I’ve never seen it full yet.

“If it’s for the staff, fine, if that’s what they want, but in the way it is when they keep saying we’ve got to save £300m, I just look at it in terms of jobs.”

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “When the council needs to find huge savings, this figure will of course raise eyebrows. Taxpayers will wonder how such an expensive canteen can fit within a money-saving transformation scheme.”

Les Parker, from the Unite union, described the £84,000 as “a lot of money in ordinary people’s circumstance”.

But he said: “In the refurbishing world that’s cheap in terms of any kind of catering facility.”

He added: “They have got more people in County Hall than previously so I think in effect they are trying to cover the staff canteen on a much bigger basis.

“If they have cut £6m in capital costs in other places then this is just peanuts.”