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Council has eyes on Clerical office

By This is Somerset  |  Posted: August 13, 2009

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THE spectre of Clevedon's largest office complex lying empty for years could be averted by an unlikely saviour.

The town was dealt a devastating blow with June's announcement that Clerical Medical was closing its Castlewood office.

Almost 600 jobs will be lost from the town in the move, which has also had a shattering effect on other Clevedon traders.

But the Mercury can exclusively reveal that North Somerset Council is entering negotiations to take over the lease of the Tickenham Road offices.

Council leader Nigel Ashton has confirmed he has instructed officials to 'make this happen'.

He said: "As soon as I heard the office was being closed I thought it would be perfect for the council.

"I drive past it every day on my way from Portishead to Weston and it is well located, close to the motorway and with good public transport links."

Cllr Ashton said he wanted to assure people the move wouldn't come at the expense of the council's headquarters at Weston Town Hall.

He said: "My office and the chief executive's office would remain in Weston.

"But we have a number of small outlying offices in Nailsea, Long Ashton and other parts of Weston and it would be beneficial to have these staff working under one roof."

He added it would also provide a real boost to Clevedon's economy by helping to bring jobs back into the town.

He said: "This isn't about creating new jobs but over time simply through natural turnover, positions will become available in Clevedon.

"It would also provide us with a flagship base in the north of the district.

"We could hold north and central area planning meetings here to save residents having to travel to Weston and it would help with the perception in the north of the district that North Somerset Council has a Weston bias."

The proposals have been welcomed by traders in Clevedon, who have seen business decline since Clerical Medical staff started their phased move to Bristol.

Lesley Butler, landlord of the Old Inn, said: "Our lunchtime trade has dropped off significantly since people at Clerical Medical began fearing they'd lose their jobs.

"We'd welcome it if the council took over the building and kept this part of Clevedon busy."

Many people feared the office, which can cater for about 900 employees, would be too big for any private sector firm seeking to relocate during the economic downturn.

Cllr Ashton said the proposals were still at an early stage but he thought it was financially possible for the council to lease the building.

He said the office would be too big for the council on its own but it was in discussions with other public sector partners about sharing some of the space.

And as the council is currently going through a review of its internal support services, with some jobs being privatised, its private sector partners might also locate there.

He said it was inefficient and expensive for the council to run the smaller satellite offices it currently has and the savings made from closing those would offset the rent on Castlewood.

The building is owned by a Clerical Medical pension fund and Cllr Ashton said the council should be an attractive and secure long-term tenant for any landlord.

In April 115 posts were cut by Clerical Medical, owned by the Lloyds Banking Group, when it merged its sales teams with Scottish Widows.

In June it announced the closure of the office, with a further 30 posts being cut and 540 transferred to Bristol, though not all staff have opted to make the phased move, which will be complete by November.

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