The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that it will keep using its regional transition sites for longer than previously expected in a move interpreted by the civil service's biggest union as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic.
DWP labelled around 40 offices as transition sites for back-office staff as part of a long-term office closure programme announced in 2017 , with the sites intended to operate as a stop-gap ahead of the opening of new regional centres.
The PCS union said that an internal announcement made by DWP last week indicated that with one exception the transition sites would now remain in use until at least the end of March 2022, a three-month extension on the previous timeframe.
PCS said it was “clear” that the increased demand for DWP’s services resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic had forced the department to “rethink its estates strategy”.
But it said that at a time when thousands of new staff were being recruited in response to the pandemic's impact, the department should take a longer-term view of its office plans and the additional accommodation that would be required.
“PCS is very disappointed that DWP have only extended the certainty for members in transition sites to March 2022,” the union said.
“While the announcement does not say that the transition sites will close in March 2022, it does not rule this possibility out.”
The union has previously said it believed the department needed a lead time of around 12 months to fix an office closure date and vacate the building, meaning announcements about the closure of any transition site in March 2022 would need to be made by March 2021.
PCS said it had been told that the one transition site that had not seen its “not before” closure date extended was Bishop Aukland. It also noted that DWP’s announcement did not cover offices in Birmingham due to close for staff to relocate to a new hub in the city or those in Wales that will shut for staff to move into the new Treforest hub.
The union has previously said it believed the department needed a lead time of 12 months to fix an office closure date and vacate the building.
DWP’s long-term estates rationalisation programme was launched in 2017 and proposed the closure of around 130 sites as part of a target to save £180m over 10 years by making better use of office space.
While most locations earmarked for closure were job centres, around 27 housed back-office staff. At the time DWP indicated that it expected back-office work to be relocated to five large sites.
CSW sought a response from DWP on the internal announcement to staff about the new timeframe for moving staff from transition sites.
A spokesperson said: “We continue to review both the new and ongoing demand for our services, along with our requirements for office space, to make sure we have an estate that helps us provide more flexible, effective and efficient services for customers that makes the best use of taxpayers’ money.”