WEARSIDE’S economic recovery could be hit by Government plans to ship hundreds of civil service jobs out of town.
HM Revenue and Customs has unveiled plans to close Gilbridge House and Shackleton House in the centre of Sunderland and Weardale House next to Washington Galleries.
The proposal would see more than 300 staff from Sunderland and around 200 from Washington moved to Waterside House on Sunderland Enterprise Park or Waterview House, next to the wildfowl centre in Washington, with a handful forced to relocate to the former Child Benefit Centre in Longbenton.
Now civil service union the PCS has launched a campaign to persuade ministers to think again.
Northumberland and Durham branch president Mark Taylor said the union was conducting its own research among staff to assess the impact of the move.
“The PCS members in our offices have organised themselves with a short survey, asking things such as ‘how much do you spend?’ and ‘where do you spend it?’,” he said.
“We will be carrying that out over the next few weeks to assess what economic impact this will have on the city centre if it were to go through.”
As well as the economic impact, workers were concerned about the ability of the proposed alternative venues to cope with an influx of hundreds of extra staff and the added difficulty to getting to and from offices located so far out of the town centre.
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The plan to close Gilbridge and Shackleton Houses first emerged in 2007 but was kicked into touch after a campaign led by city MP Chris Mullin, who even raised the issue in the House of Commons.
Mr Mullin’s successor as MP for Sunderland city centre, Julie Elliott, has also pledged to fight the plan.
“This is quite clearly not good news for Sunderland in the current economic climate,” she said.
“The Government has not given any consideration to the economic and social impact of these proposals. I am writing to the Minister today in the hope that some common sense can be brought to the issue.”
Washington Galleries manager David McNee said the removal of 200 jobs so close to the centre was bound to have an impact, even if the numbers represented a comparatively low proportion of the centre’s daily footfall.
“Any contraction or closure of office accommodation on the periphery of our centre is going to have an impact,” he said.
“We have approximately 45,000 visitors a day, but the issue with these types of visitor is that they are regular and their spending will be building up week after week, month after month.
“Obviously there will be a consequence for our tenants and its very disappointing from that perspective.”
SAFC commercial director Gary Hutchinson is chairman of the North East Chamber of Commerce: “The local authority and business need to urge Government to have a rethink on the plans – we do not need a large empty office space in this position.”
Councillor Paul Watson, Leader of Sunderland City Council, said: A key aim of the city council, as set down in its Economic Masterplan, is to continue the on-going regeneration of all the city’s economic centres for employment, business, leisure and retail use.
Clearly an announcement such as this can make these ambitions more challenging. However, I and others are confident that we can continue with our long-term regeneration aims.
An HMRC spokeswoman said: “HMRC’s Spending Review settlement means that by 2015 HMRC will be operating with 56,000 full time equivalent posts - 10,000 fewer than in April 2011.
“The overall reduction in staffing levels will reduce need for accommodation, and in June 2011 HMRC published a schedule for the announcement of office closure proposals and decisions that will take the department right through to the end of the Spending Review period in 2015.
“We propose to close Gilbridge House and Shackleton House in Sunderland, and Weardale House in Washington during the year 2014/15. The majority of staff affected by the proposals will be within reasonable daily travel of another HMRC office.
“Office closures will not be detrimental to customer service, and we continue to provide face-to-face services for customers who need that level of service.”
•To sign a petition against the proposals, go to http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/28416