COUNCILLORS who yearn for a return to face-to-face council meetings could have had their wish granted far sooner if the council hadn’t decided to close and demolish the Civic Centre in Ebbw Vale.
At a meeting of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council on Thursday, July 20, councillors discussed a retrospective integrated impact assessment that looked at the pros and cons of closing the former council headquarters and moving to the library-based Community Hubs model of service delivery.
The assessment was written following criticism from Audit Wales in their “Springing Forward” report on the council, which was published earlier this year.
Audit Wales said Blaenau Gwent residents had not been consulted on the move from providing council services at the Civic Centre to hubs, and that decisions should be accompanied by impact assessments.
Staff left the Civic Centre in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and never returned as new working practices were adopted.
In March 2021 under the previous administration the council agreed to demolish the Civic Centre.
The council’s headquarters is now on the first floor of the General Offices (GO) in Ebbw Vale.
But there are issues at the building which mean that full council meetings are still held online.
Rooms are not big enough to take all councillors, staff and members of the public together at the same time.
Although councillors do attend hybrid meetings with some councillors online and others at a room in the GO – the clamour for the return of physical full council meetings has been getting louder.
It is expected that when the NHS vacate the hall at the GO this issue can be re-visited in a few months time.
Council leader, Labour’s Cllr Steve Thomas said: “I was against this as I wanted to delay the closure of the Civic Centre as I thought it could serve a purpose.
“It could have seen us through to a time when we could have planned better.”
At the time Cllr Thomas had been told that the building was: “past it’s sell by date.”
The evidence he had been shown was a maintenance log which noted the various problems with the Civic Centre.
Cllr Thomas “The advantage now is we would have had a council chamber.
“Due to legislation we have to have hybrid meetings, but we would have had a space large enough to take all councillors officers and members of the public.
“It’s a shame that it’s gone.”
Cllr Julie Holt said: “The Civic Centre was a dinosaur and I’m glad it’s gone; our community hubs have changed things for our residents beyond compare it’s an absolutely amazing service.”
Cllr Malcolm Day said that the council would have needed a “formidable amount of money” to reduce the Civic Centre’s carbon footprint and the “right decision at the right time” was taken.
Deputy leader of the Independent group, Cllr Wayne Hodgins said: “There’s always lessons to be learned and we can learn by our mistakes.
“It was unprecedented times and the switch to agile working was driven by the pandemic.”
Going back to the report, deputy council leader and environment portfolio holder Cllr Helen Cunningham said: “The big learning point is that we have to make sure that there is an evidence base available to all members and the public in terms of the decision that we take.”
Councillors accepted the retrospective impact assessment.