The agency responsible for the roll-out of Scotland’s new benefits system has admitted it still does not know where in the Dundee it will be permanently situated.
Chief executive of Social Security Scotland (SSS) David Wallace said there was a “restrictive” commercial property market in Dundee, where the majority of the agency’s staff will be based.
As many as 250 people are currently employed by the agency in Dundee, with plans for 750 to work in total for the government by the time the benefits system has completely rolled-out.
The SSS currently rents space in Dundee House – home also to Dundee City Council, who recently sold the building to insurance giant Canada Life in a £23.8m deal that will see it lease back the offices for the next 40 years.
Despite already handing out some benefits to Scottish recipients, Mr Wallace told the public audit and post-legislative scrutiny committee they were still to secure final office space in Dundee.
As part of the cultural shift to Scotland’s benefit system, Mr Wallace said, the agency wants an accessibly property able to house 750 employees in Dundee city centre.
“In terms of staffing, Dundee is now our most significant centre of operations, with more people based in Dundee than in Glasgow, which has essentially been built up from a zero base for the Scottish government in terms of Dundee,” he said.
“We had a small footprint of Scottish Government civil servants, but have essentially had to build that from a standing start and we are phenomenally proud to have been able to do that in Dundee.
“The work with the local authority in that area has allowed us to do that at quite rapid pace as well.
“Members have been to see the operation in Dundee and we are very keen to ensure it maintains that transparency throughout.”
“We are working on a more permanent solution in Dundee, those discussions are at a fairly advanced stage and are commercially restrictive, so I would not like to put any more than that out in the public domain. But we are working closely with Dundee City Council and the Scottish Government’s property colleagues to ensure we have a more permanent site in Dundee. ”
“The way we work will not just be the way we deliver benefits – as –as important as that is –but how we will too and the culture behind how we do that will be important.
“It is important that, for culture reasons, staff are all in the same building.
“The Dundee property market is relatively restrictive of the scale of commercial buildings in the city, but (staying in a single building) would be our preference.
“We also have a preference on having a building which feels connected to communities as well. We are going to be a new public service, we don’t want a building where they lock people away from the clients they are to work with. So again, we are very keen those buildings are accessible, they feel a part of the community and part of the city.”
Dundee-based Labour MSP Jenny Marra, who chaired the committee meeting, said her interpretation of available commercial buildings differed from the SSS’s, saying there were “plenty” of available business properties in Dundee.
She Marra said: “I was very surprised when the Chief Executive of the new Benefits Agency said that the commercial property market in Dundee was quite restrictive at the moment.
“Everyone in Dundee knows that there is lots of empty office accommodation in the City and some that desperately needs a face-lift and occupants.
“He also didn’t know when their 18 month lease with Dundee City Council was due to end.
“It would be good to see the new headquarters established in its own accommodation soon, ready to welcome its 750 Dundee based staff.”
All five floors of the city centre Earl Grey building, built on the controversial site six plot across from the rail station and V&A museum, is still available for let according to commercial property agent Ryden.