RESIDENTS wanting to contact Hampshire County Council (HCC) will soon be required to use a call centre. The green light has been given for a new £5 million corporate contact centre which the council says is designed to improve customer service and simplify access. But, while HCC believes it will be more efficient and cost effective, council tax campaigners have branded it an "expensive frippery", saying that it is "too much money to spend in today's economic climate". Nonetheless, with more than two million calls going through the system each year, HCC says it is confident the savings will more than compensate for the outlay. According to a report by HCC's director of property, business and regulatory services, Andrew Smith, the savings will be in the region of £1 million a year. The aim, Mr Smith has said, is to "develop a professional customer service centre operation with well trained staff delivering quality services to Hampshire's residents." The centre, which will handle telephone calls, e-mails and possibly letters, is expected to provide information and handle service requests, with a high percentage of calls (target 80 per cent) to be resolved within the centre itself without having to be transferred to individual departments. Staff will operate extended hours, from 8 am to 8 pm weekdays, with some weekend opening, and some will provide a round-the- clock service for emergencies. While the new system will result in a staff reduction from 200 to an estimated 75, plus a manager, HCC has said that the because of natural wastage and redeployment no actual job losses are expected. The idea, according to Mr Smith, is to staff the centre with a mix of internal staff and some external staff with specialist contact centre skills. The introduction of a new call centre forms part of the county council's e-government and efficiency programmes and aims to address the modernisation agenda, put forward by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which expected all local authorities to have contact centres by December 2005. Hampshire was among the last to toe the line, preferring, according to Mr Smith, to assess "what works" in other centres in order to be "genuinely responsive". Residents have been assured that the new call centre will be in Hampshire, and Mr Smith is currently looking at county council-owned property where leases are coming up for renewal. Four options are under review, including sites in Winchester, Basingstoke and Andover. The authority says the contact centre is expected to be up and running within the next 15 months. But Isitfair council tax campaigner Christine Melsom told The Herald she believed £5 million was a lot of money to be spending without public consultation and in the light of another threatened above-inflation hike in council tax. She said her biggest fear was not only that customers would find it more difficult to get through to a call centre but that, if the intention of HCC is to use an 0870 number, they could be picking up the cost by paying over the odds for phone calls. But Mr Smith said the authority would not be using premium-rate lines. "While the strategy for numbers has yet to be determined, it will certainly not cost more to contact HCC than it does at the moment, and calls might even cost less," he said.