Bureaucrats stay in the pink

Click to follow
THE TAXI drivers callit the 'pink thing'. You can't miss it: cliffs of brick and red granite, topped with a silver spire off Dan Dare's rocket, dominate the eastern edge of Leeds's shabby inner city. It is Quarry House, the new home for bureaucrats of the Departments of Health and of Social Security.

The DSS commissioned it in 1989, when, as a spokeswoman says, 'public spending was not so tight'. The building is the result of a government drive to move departments out of London to help recruitment and cut costs. It cost pounds 55m and will officially open in the next few months. Over 2,000 staff have already moved in.

The civil servants needed some enticement to go to Leeds. Quarry House has it. Penetrate the ring of security and you find, behind the brutalist fantasy of the Marsh Lane entrance, the Forum leisure centre. There's a swimming pool, a sports hall, squash courts, and a fitness room 'fully equipped with the latest Polaris cardio-vascular, static-resistant and free-weight equipment', where civil servants can work out while watching MTV.

None of this is cheap - staff and Leeds health workers must pay pounds 215 a year to use all the facilities - but it certainly beats Whitehall. Overlooking the swimming pool is the Woodpecker pub, where beer is pounds 1 a pint. At lunchtime on Thursday, a couple were playing billiards, while three workers watched the lifeguards patrol the pool. There was only one swimmer. It seemed a long way from London's overcrowded Bart's Hospital, where last week children were being cared for in the corridors.

TheIndependent on Sunday was not allowed to photograph the Woodpecker, or look any further into the building. So we missed the central courtyards. They are said to be spectacular. There are ponds, fully grown trees, and a hill made of local slate by the artist Susan Tebby. Her design reflects the original topography of the site. A specially commissioned carpet, which looks like a stream, connects the courtyards.

Paintings and prints adorn the internal walls and there are bronzes still to be delivered. Over pounds 500,000 has been spent on decorating the building, under a government scheme requiring that 1 per cent of the cost of new buildings is spent on art. Sadly, the people of Leeds do not benefit: the only thing they may see is Jenny Moncur's mural on the front of the building.

One Leeds resident who is not impressed is Duncan Walker, a heart surgeon at the Killingbeck Hospital. He managed to get into the building, and was disgusted at what he saw. 'I could not believe it. We cannot get money to fund any sort of rehabilitation for the 900 open-heart patients we operate on every year. A multi-gym like the one in Quarry House is exactly what we need, but we haven't a hope of getting one.'

Mr Walker devotes much time to raising money for the hospital, and Quarry House's art particularly annoys him. 'We have art at Killingbeck,' he said, 'but we do it by offering wall-space for local students' work.'

The number of staff at Quarry House - 1,200 of them from the NHS - amazes him. 'I cannot get staff for physio, and all this money is being spent on administrators. It is a national scandal.'

Although Leeds people will not be able to use the building, local health workers can, and a school and a mental institution have used the pool. But Paul Dainton, regional officer for Unison, the public sector workers' union, says that few of his members could afford the fees. 'We're pleased these jobs are coming to Leeds,' he said yesterday, 'but we're upset that these facilities are being provided for senior executives when benefits and health services in the area are suffering cuts.'

A spokeswoman for the DSS denied last week that money had been wasted on Quarry House, saying: 'Fit, healthy staff are far more efficient.' The department says that the leisure centre will be 'largely self-financing'.

Meanwhile the relocation of civil servants continues. The Ministry of Defence announced this month that its personnel department was going to Glasgow, while part of the Department of Education has moved to York. The Inland Revenue's headquarters is going to Nottingham, and Aberdeen will soon welcome the oil and gas division of the Department of Trade and Industry. Since 1979, it is said, 4,000 civil service jobs have moved to Scotland. Lower staff costs, better recruitment and communications are said to justify the initial costs.

(Photograph omitted)