COUNCIL offices will remain closed to the public until April at the earliest although the decision divided the political parties, with the Conservatives pushing for a return to in-person services.

People have been complaining to councillors of all parties and none about the impact of Brighton and Hove City Council departments either working from home or in offices without public access.

Green and Labour councillors have asked for a report to set out a plan for how council services can be restored as they are currently working in “emergency mode and recovery mode”.

Conservative councillor Mary Mears raised the issue in a motion at the policy and resources committee last night last week, with particular concerns about housing and repairs.

She said that 284 empty properties were waiting for reletting and that there was a backlog of 8,800 repairs to be carried out.

Cllr Mears said: “Along with many other members, our inboxes have been inundated with concerns from residents who have not been able to access council services.

“I appreciate staff are working from home but that service should be seamless. Residents shouldn’t know if a person is sitting at a desk in Hove Town Hall or at home.

“Phones should be answered, emails should be dealt with and the service should continue.”

She said that she had tried various numbers and found that she could not leave a message because voicemail inboxes were full while some officials did not appear to be answering emails.

Cllr Mears also said that there was no information for people arriving at council offices explaining how to get in touch.

Green councillor Hannah Clare said that this was not the case and left the meeting to take photographs of the posters on the doors of Hove Town Hall.

The Argus: Hannah Clare's picture of Information posters at Hove Town Hall Hannah Clare's picture of Information posters at Hove Town Hall

Councillor Steve Bell, the Conservative leader, said that certain officials should be available in person to support people, citing problems with parking permits when they were paid for but not sent out.

He said: “The idea behind this is a lot of our residents are unable to access computers, mobile phones or have access to a phone.

“This is about being able to walk into Hove Town Hall with a problem and that problem be resolved.”

As well as noting concerns about the drop in service in housing and parking during the pandemic, Green and Labour councillors noted the challenges to all sectors across Brighton and Hove because of the pandemic.

The two parties added clauses to the motion saying that councillors “recognise that the emergence of new variants shows that the council must continue to work both in emergency mode and recovery mode and this means that there may regrettably continue to be delays to services”.

Councillors were also asked to recognise “the extreme cuts to the council’s budget over the last 12 years” which had left the council “struggling and councils across the country have gone bankrupt because of the government’s failure to fund them properly”.

Cllr Clare, the deputy leader of the council, said that the council’s customer experience was not perfect before the pandemic and she was aware of many of the problems residents faced.

The council carried out annual surveys and customer feedback was “not as good” as members would like in certain areas – and these were the areas where residents were raising concerns now.

Cllr Clare said that the problem was the lack of staff to provide services in person, online and on the phone.

She said: “This should, of course, be a concern, but I don’t think we can pretend this is all pandemic-related and I don’t think we can pretend this is all to do with people working from home.

“It is a combination of extreme pressures for our staff which many members of the public would have had with their jobs as well.

“Every year, money gets taken out of our budget, and there are hundreds less council staff than there used to be, and that means services aren’t going to be delivered in a perfect way. We have to recognise that.”

Labour councillor Amanda Evans said that she had also been “inundated” with emails.

She said: “I’ve had residents on the phone practically in tears feeling like they’re bashing their head against a brick wall trying to get their parking sorted and still getting fines even though the money is being taken out of their account months ago.

“There’s been computer glitches, problems with getting calls answered, all kinds of problems.

“Yes, we have to sort the services somehow because there is no reason why people working from home can’t answer the phone at home as quickly as they could if they were at their desk at Hove Town Hall.”

Cllr Evans said that the council had to consider new coronavirus variants that may be more contagious or more aggressive than the current omicron sweeping through the population.