A NEW £17.8 million council HQ – to replace another which was burned down – should be scaled back because people could get used to working from home.

That is the call from South Oxfordshire District Council’s Conservative group.

The council plans to build a new headquarters in Crowmarsh Gifford, which earlier this year was projected to cost around £17.8m.

The council is currently sharing an office building with Vale of White Horse District Council at Milton Park, near Abingdon.

A man called Andrew Main set fire to its old offices on the same site at Crowmarsh near Wallingford in 2015.

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However in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the district council’s Conservative group has called on the planned new office to be downsized, as staff are proving they can work from home.

The Tories said a smaller office would cost less and be more environmentally friendly, as less people would be commuting in their cars.

The council’s Lib Dem and Green leaders have said the plans could be reviewed, and the council is currently surveying how staff feel about home working before making changes to the HQ or easing of home working.

Conservative group leader Jane Murphy said: “We were horrified to learn that SODC was planning to spend almost £18 million on the new council building. We argued then that the plans were too extravagant, and an abuse of taxpayers’ money.

“The council should now scale back these plans and create an HQ fit for the future.

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Jane Murphy

“We believe one of the lasting impacts of the Covid lockdown will be organisations finding new ways to work and do business. The last couple of months have shown that the work of the council can continue to be delivered with the majority of staff working remotely from home.

“It’s time the Lib Dems and Greens recognised the opportunity this offers: while home-working won’t suit everyone, this is the moment to pause, reset, and create a smaller, sustainable, less expensive building that is in line with the expectations of our residents.”

On June 5, SODC data showed that in parts of South Oxfordshire, air pollution has fallen by 60 per cent during the lockdown, likely due to the massive reduction in road traffic in the last few months.

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SODC’s Lib Dem leader Sue Cooper said the council could not yet come to a conclusion about changing plans for the new HQ due to the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, but that she was ‘keeping an open mind’ about suggestions.

Ms Cooper added that the council was regularly surveying members of staff to see how they were feeling about working from home.

She said: “The initial reaction to working from home is not going to be the same as how our staff feel two or three months on.

“We shall keep the new building under review. It has not started being built yet, so we will see how staff feel about working from home.”

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Contractors began the demolition of South Oxfordshire District Council's burnt-out offices in Crowmarsh Gifford in August 2018. Picture: SODC

Her cabinet colleague, Green Party councillor Robin Bennett, said the survey work would continue for another two months before its results, and the future of the HQ were reconsidered.

Mr Bennett said: “I think the Conservatives are highlighting something fairly fully evidenced: the coronavirus crisis has meant everyone has been forced into home working and had an experience of it.

“It is providing a live experiment in terms of how people get on with it.”

The Green councillor said SODC had already discussed whether a system of two days in the office and three days at home might be a means of returning to work after the lockdown eases.

He added: “There is also the consideration of how to keep that team spirit and co-working culture alive if people are not all in the office at once.”

However, Mr Bennett contested Ms Murphy’s statement that the new building was too extravagant.

He said her previous Conservative administration’s decision to allocated £9.4 million for the new offices was not enough and that a long, detailed process of drawing up the new office had led to the £17.8m price tag.