Library and services set for a new home

Sheffield Council cabinet member for finance, Coun Bryan Lodge
Sheffield Council cabinet member for finance, Coun Bryan Lodge
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A building which has stood half-empty for eight years after undergoing a £4.5 million revamp is set to be fully occupied under plans revealed by Sheffield Council.

Sorby House, formerly social security offices on Spital Hill, received a huge investment under the £52 million Burngreave New Deal for Communities programme - but has struggled to attract businesses to fill it.

Sorby House, on Spital Hill

Sorby House, on Spital Hill

Now Coun Bryan Lodge, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for finance, has announced the glass-fronted building could become home to Burngreave Library and other council services such as social workers and a youth offending team.

Concern has been raised about the extent of running costs at the building while it is poorly-occupied, which together with another former New Deal building, Vestry Hall, totalled £1.2 million over the last two years.

Coun Lodge said his plans - which will be subject to consultation - mean it will be ‘100 per cent occupied’.

Figures for the current running costs were revealed by opposition councillors.

The bill for Sorby House and Vestry Hall, of £650,000 in 2012/13 and £503,000 in 2011/12, is much higher than the £400,000 annual subsidy for Stocksbridge Leisure Centre, said Stocksbridge Liberal Democrat councillor Alison Brelsford.

She said: “Labour bosses claimed no money was available for services like Stocksbridge Leisure Centre.

“It’s staggering to think they could make that claim with a straight face, when they were secretly pouring hundreds of thousands of pounds a year into keeping open these empty buildings.”

The biggest costs for Sorby House and Vestry Hall were for business rates - £130,000 in 2011/12, and £150,000 in 2012/13 - and ‘management fees’ of £158,000 in 2011/12 and £279,000 in 2012/13.

The council has not given a reason why the management fees increased by such a large extent.

Coun Lodge said: “The decision to take the buildings under the council when the New Deal project ended in 2011 was made by Lib Dems when they were in power.

“We are trying to ensure that the buildings are sensibly used as part of our accommodation strategy which aims to save £30 million over 10 years by consolidating council departments in fewer buildings.”

Coun Lodge said his plans for Sorby House involve moving the library, which is currently across the road, into the building.

Other council services provided in the former Watermead School, Southey would also be shifted to Sorby House.

“We need to provide two new primary schools in the north of Sheffield to cope with rising pupil numbers and the old school buildings would be used to provide one of those - at a much lower cost than building a new school,” Coun Lodge said.

Sorby House was revamped to provide a low-cost base for community groups, subsidised by letting out other parts of the building to commercial tenants.

But businesses said they were put off by the area’s rundown reputation.

Plans part of strategy to save £30m over 10 years

Former Burngreave New Deal for Communities Buildings have been a costly millstone around councillors’ necks.

Running of the buildings, which also included Forum House at the bottom of Spital Hill, was taken back under the council’s control in 2011 after New Deal was wound up.

The buildings had been described as ‘white elephants’ by opposition councillors.

But rules stated Sorby House could not be sold or the council may have been liable to repay the Government the full cost of the £4.5 million refurbishment - when the value of the building was only around £1.2 million.

Forum House is undergoing £95,000 of repairs paid for by the council - but only because a private organisation has signed a lease to take on the building - and rent will more than cover the costs of the work while also saving the council business rates.

Action to reduce the burden from the New Deal buildings was a target of Sheffield Council’s accommodation strategy.

The project has also seen departments moved into the old Manpower building at Moorfoot, which the council owns, and refurbishment of the Town Hall, to reduce the cost of renting premises elsewhere.