‘Not enough room at the inn’ council to rethink £18m new HQ  

New Shire Hall at Alconbury

New Shire Hall at Alconbury - Credit: Stephen Moir/Twitter

Officials admit that a multi-function room at the £18m New Shire Hall, Alconbury, is not big enough for full meetings of Cambridgeshire County Council.  

Concerns include “limited space and the absence of a separate viewing area for the public,” councillors heard.  

“This means that the public are seated in close proximity to members.” 

And that simply won’t work.  

Trials show that visitors and/or the press will be able to see councillors’ papers and laptops. 

Recent meeting at Shire Hall of a county council committee

Recent meeting at Shire Hall of a county council committee - Credit: Lucy Nethsingha/Twitter

"It may be uncomfortable for members to have people very close to and behind them, especially where matters may be contentious,” says director of resources Tom Kelly.  

"The close proximity means that there is no viable means to provide physical separation to protect members without some form of unsightly and obtrusive physical barrier.” 

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At Shire Hall, Cambridge, the public area was on the first-floor balcony. 

This provided “physical separation for all but the most determined persons (e.g., those attempting to bring abseiling equipment into the building)”.  

But he says that at the New Shire Hall “the council is not able to ensure the physical security of members”.  

It is not a problem at committees where there is “sufficient physical separation and distance to provide psychological and some degree of physical safety for members and officers”. 

Mr Kelly says trials carried out at New Shire Hall also show councillors will be in “very close proximity to each other” because of fire and safety accessibility. 

"Over a number of hours of a typical meeting this may not be conducive to member comfort,” he says. 

“A member seeking to leave the room from a mid-row position would require other members to vacate their seats to clear a path.” 

New Shire Hall was built to allow for 20 members of the public, a reduction from the 26 at the old Shire Hall.  

Mr Kelly says: “There are limitations of the location and numbers of those with limited mobility attending meetings.”  

This affects both councillors and the public. 

“Achieving a legal requirement may not achieve the targets or goals of the council for accessibility and public engagement with its meetings,” says Mr Kelly.  

“There is a requirement for persons of limited mobility to be located close to the exit doors at the eastern end of the multi-function room (MFR) for evacuation purposes.” 

This would mean those councillors with limited mobility having to sit at the rear of the room and close to the doors “irrespective of political affiliation or location of political colleagues.  

“Space limitations mean that the MFR in the full council configuration can only accommodate a very small number of mobility impaired members.” 

And because the room is on the first floor, “this also imposes limitations on the number of members of the public with physical impairments who can attend meetings”. 

Eco angle at New Shire Hall showing the charging points 

Eco angle at New Shire Hall showing the charging points - Credit: Lara Davenport-Ray/Twitter

Mr Kelly says that changes will require “commissioning of specialist architectural and construction consultancy”. 

Tony Cooper, assistant director property, will be asked to prepare a report for the September meeting of the strategy and resources committee.  

New Shire Hall opened last year but because of Covid-19 and social distancing, all council meetings have been held in public venues across the county. 

Trial run by CCC shows members in close proximity to the public at New Shire Hall

Trial run by CCC shows members in close proximity to the public at New Shire Hall - Credit: CCC

Close proximity concern New Shire Hall

Photo shows how those in the public seating will be close to councillors and have a view of their desks. - Credit: CCC

Close up at Shire Hall

Photo demonstrates that members will be in 'very close proximity to each other due to the requirements for appropriately sized access routes to the exits for fire and accessibility compliance' - Credit: CCC

Up close and personal at New Shire Hall

Photo demonstrates that members will be in 'very close proximity to each other due to the requirements for appropriately sized access routes to the exits for fire and accessibility compliance' - Credit: CCC

The design brief was to provide a MFR to accommodate 90 seated people.  

As the design evolved, the room size was increased from 90sq m to 170 sq m. 

Moveable dividing walls were included to allow the MFR to be split into two or three separate meeting rooms to increase its flexibility as a meeting space. 

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha said they had an “absolute responsibility” to make room for the public.  

 She said: “This is particularly important if we are discussing changes to services which affect people with disabilities."  

Cambridgeshire County Council leaders

Cambridgeshire County Council leaders Pictured from left: Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, county council leader and Cllr Elisa Meschini, deputy council leader. - Credit: Harry Rutter

"And even for those who can get into the room, sadly – in this day and age - we have to be mindful of their personal safety.” 

Deputy leader Elisa Meschini said: “We can’t start off in a new headquarters by saying there is no room for more than a handful of people with physical disabilities to attend our major democratic meeting."