Saturday 11 February 2023

Brent Civic Centre - a modern rival to Watkin's Folly?



Brent Cabinet last week approved a major reconfiguration of part of Brent Civic Centre under the low key title 'Improving Customer Experience at Brent Civic Centre'.   In fact these are major works costing £2m to the 'state of the art'  building which is just 10 years old.  The Cabinet report recognised problems that have been there since the building opened.  At the planning stage Brent Green Party were the only local political party that opposed the grandiose project as expensive (c£100m) and a vanity project when councils were facing funding cuts. By 2011 Labour had reviewed their support and decided to go ahead, Liberal Democrats wanted the library reduced in size as other libraries were being closed and Tories wrote to the local press, 'We don't need a new sparkling civic centre at the detriment of people's jobs and front-line services'. LINK

The initial aim was to centralise the many Brent Council buildings in Wembley. There was even a proposal from the then Brent CEO to rename the borough the London Borough of Wembley. Soon it became apparent that not everyone in the boroughwas prepared to go to Wembley for services and 'hubs' were set up in other areas. The complaint that the Council is 'Wembley-centric' is still common.

Well we got a 'sparkling civic centre' that one critic described as a building fit to house the parliament of a small European state , with an imposing atrium and staircase (not actually used as a staircase) occupying a huge amount of space. The steps were handy for wedding photographs, post-election photo ops and demonstrations. It was a huge area of empty space with office space for concil workers on one side and large and small IKEA style meeting rooms for councillors on the other.

Strathcona closure demonstration

As with any new building there were teething problems but some of those were a product of the sesign itself. The building was cold in winter and hot in summer despite the green credentials, acoustics were so bad in meeting rooms that microphones had to be used even for fairly small rooms, and people had wave their arms in the air to operate the movement activated lighting.  One of the worse issues early on was the telephony system which failed to the extent that staff hads to operate mobile phones on not very good lines. When you rang you could hear other staff bellowing down their phones in the background in an effort to be heard.

Cuts in funding led to a reduction in staff with some floors emptied and attempts were made to let them out to commercial organisations to raise funds.  The Melting Pot restaurant featuring in the public relations video closed.

Wembley Matters early on drew attention to the inflation of library visitor figures because staff chose to walk in and out of the Centre via the library entrance which was convenient to Olympic Way and the station.

That entrance, next to Sainsbury's will now be the new main entrance for residents, rather than the one opposite the Arena which opens on to the atrium and its staircase.

Extract from the report:

New entrance: With the improved layout, residents will enter the building through a new main entrance on Exhibition Way by Sainsbury’s. This follows feedback from residents that the current entrance is overwhelming, unwelcoming, intimidating and very cold in the winter months. Instead, residents will now enter into a dedicated space where they can immediately be triaged and directed to the service that they need. Customers will now have a clear journey through the building.

Temperature: The new layout will resolve current issues with the temperature of the atrium. The atrium’s temperature is similar to outside which means that, during the winter, conditions are extremely uncomfortable for customers and staff. A Health and Safety concern has been raised for staff who spend hours meeting customers in this space. It also creates an unwelcoming and hostile environment for residents visiting the building. The improved layout will see residents enter through a new ground floor entrance, into a vestibule, that will help to maintain heat in the building. This layout will help to ensure that the Civic Centre provides a warm space for residents, which is increasingly critical given the current economic and energy crisis.

Welcome Desk: Currently, residents seeking support and business visitors to the Civic Centre queue together at the Welcome Desk. This contributes to delays and confusion for both customers and visitors. Potential businesses looking to hire floors in the Civic Centre have expressed concerns about the current setup as visitors, including those arriving for interviews, meetings and conferences, are often delayed at the Welcome Desk. The new layout will mean that the smaller Welcome Desk is dedicated to business visitors. This will ensure that the Civic Centre represents a more appealing location for businesses and/or organisations wanting to rent office space. This pressure on the Welcome Desk to triage visitors will only increase with the restacking of the building. Without these changes, there is a risk that the forecasted additional income of almost £750,000 per annum, generated by renting out further floors, could be jeopardised.  (Not quite 'poor doors' but resident and business separation.)

The changes will cost £1.96m which will be borowed over the course of 10 years at £242k per annum with a potential National Lottery Heritage Fund for enhancement of the library. Rather ominously the report notes that the scheme will be partly funded through savings to be identified 'primarily' in Customer Services; Libraries, Arts and Heritage, and Revenue and Development. I am not sure the Lottery will buy that.

Customer Services Area 'Concept' (Willmott Dixon Interiors)

There can be no doubt that the atrium  space is rather overwhelming for visitors to the centre, especially if you are a homeless family with small children dragging your suitcases to find help. The contrast to the surroundings serves to intimidate and make you feel small and insignicant.

I am struggling to work out what is going to happen to the atrium. The presentation below gives few clues.

Overall the proposals raise questions about the original 'grand design' and its suitability, rather similar to those that the GLA experienced at the 'glass testicle' (now abandoned) - a building where architects neglected effective function. LINK

Watkin's Folly was the ill-fated attempt to build a tower at Wembley Park to rival the Eiffel Tower. If history deems Brent Civic Centre a 'folly', I wonder who it will be named after?


Anonymous said...

That atrium has always been a huge waste of space particularly when Brent lacks space for housing.

Wonder if all the tower blocks built around it and the new £17.8m steps are casting huge shadows and creating wind tunnels making it colder???

And how can they get a Heritage Lottery grant for the library??? They should be funding our other libraries.

Anonymous said...

What a complete waste of Council Tax payers' money. Butt's Foley is the obvious name for the Civic, he always wanted a legacy item in Brent, that is besides being laughed at and despised in equal parts. He couldn't even get the Towerblock title as that went to the extremely rightwing Tatler who should have tried for the Tory PPC in Watford, she'd at least have stood a chance of that one.

Anonymous said...

At the time of the conception of the Civic Centre , a number of senior officers were castigated for airing their views of the resource-sink the new Centre would be on public funds including also giving way to Quintain relinquishing the requirement of a new school in the midst of the then proposed development. One of those officers (at least), who had access to political decision-making, was called into the office of the then Chief Executive Officer and told to desist from making a case for a school on Quintain site as Quintain' s contribution to the new Civic Centre was important to that functionary and the political leadership....the rest is history as is the increasing densification of the Quintain development.

Anonymous said...

Governed by hubris

Anonymous said...

Those who criticise Wembley getting all the development in Brent should provide huge vacant and delapidated sites in Kilburn or wherever. There aren't any. Wembley Park will be finished soon and nothing will be done there for another lifetime.

Philip Grant said...

I consider myself fairly good at reading plans, but I don't find these Willmott Dixon drawings easy to follow. And what I can follow, I'm not very happy with.

We're library and other "front of house" staff whose working areas will be affected by these "grand designs" consulted about these proposals? We're users of Wembley Library, especially disabled users, consulted about moving the main part of the library up to the mezzanine floor?

And what are the plans for the current main entrance and atrium, which are not included here?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Housing pods...micro homes may be?