Interviews

19.08.16

The secret to the success of one public estate

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 16

Central government has faced strong criticism of its many estate schemes in recent years, but one in particular seems to steer clear of the backlash. Bruce Mann, executive director of the Government Property Unit (GPU), reveals the secret to One Public Estate’s success – just before its phase 4 kicks off.

The vast public sector estate has been consistently in the central government spotlight in recent years, especially since the 2015 general election: across local government, the NHS, blue light services, rail and Whitehall’s own properties, maximising land disposal and efficiency has been a shared centrepiece ambition. 

The GPU, established as part of the Cabinet Office in 2010, has central oversight over all public land and property, working collaboratively with the Civil Service and local leaders to create an “effective and efficient” government estate. 

One of its cornerstone policies is the flagship One Public Estate programme, which brings public bodies together in a locality to pool assets and data in order to develop new – and often radical – approaches to land management. 

Bruce Mann, executive director of the GPU, sang the praises of the programme, one of the few government ambitions around estate that hasn’t suffered drawbacks or slowdowns in recent times (think the DCLG’s land disposals programme or the Right to Contest scheme). So much so, he said, that last year’s Spending Review saw the former chancellor, George Osborne, inject enough money into it to fund two application phases this year rather than one, as had been the case since its 2013 debut. 

“There’s a great deal of potential opportunity, and that means we can start to move it on to a rolling basis, so councils don’t have to wait for a once-a-year application,” Mann explained. “What we’re telling councils is, to a degree: if you have a good idea, come to us and we’ll just put it on the next phase. We’re open for ideas any time, frankly.” 

iStock 000001907002Medium edit

The value of data 

Mann, who stepped down as the finance director at the Cabinet Office last year to focus solely on the property agenda, spoke to PSE shortly before the next set of One Public Estate announcements was due out as part of the programme’s phase 4 – and just a couple of months before phase 5 kicked off in September/October. These phases mark new application strands that offer local authorities the opportunity to finance more integrated and customer-focused services through co-location and land disposals. 

As well as funding, the scheme offers technical support from analysts and data experts, including recording and mapping assets. This, Mann argued, is essential to the success of the scheme at local level: “Absolutely everything depends on decent data, decent maps; there are some public bodies which don’t have complete data on everything that they own, so in some cases, we’ve had to invest a bit of time and effort upfront in just gathering an accurate record of properties that people have.” 

Close collaboration 

Even more important than data, however, is collaboration. “The clue is in the title,” said Mann, “it’s all about collaboration, and if you don’t have that collaboration round the table, if you don’t have people who get on well together, then you’re not going to make very good progress.” 

After getting all local leaders together – not just councils, but often the health service, the education sector, LEPs and blue light services – central government presents examples of schemes that have worked elsewhere that could apply to that same locality. Some of the most popular solutions include sharing underutilised office blocks, co-locating the depots and servicing facilities of blue light services, bringing council benefit services with DWP job centres under the same roof or, in many cases, selling older buildings altogether. 

So far, since launching three years ago, 32 local authorities have developed initiatives expected to deliver £129m in property sales, 20,000 new jobs and 9,000 new homes, according to the LGA. What was originally a 12-area pilot has grown into a project where, in the latest phase alone, over 100 councils were involved, working across 24 partnerships. 

“What we’ve learnt is: there’s an immense amount of appetite and potential, and that’s really fabulous,” Mann argued. “To put it in simple, practical terms, we’ve received more applications than we can fund. On one level, of course, that’s not great, because we can’t do everything; but on another level there is just real appetite. 

“It’s a great idea and local authorities and their local partners are absolutely up for this. When we started out on this journey, we didn’t know there was a significant amount of stuff out there, but now we’ve been reassured there’s quite a lot that can be done.” 

 372 housing, aerial.   c. Dominic Lipinski, PA Wire

Fitting in with existing plans 

A key to the programme’s success has been ensuring all planned schemes are respectful of pre-existing local plans, growth strategies and regeneration goals. “Central government can’t do things to local government on this: we have to go with the grain of the local authority, or what the LEP or the devolved combined authority is planning to do locally,” Mann said. 

“If you have decent data, collaboration and a fit with the local pans, then really, you can make a lot of progress very quickly – and we’ve seen some really good parts of the country, like Cornwall, just to pick one example, making enormous progress in a very short time.” 

Cornwall Council was one of the highest earners in last year’s phase 3 strand, where it was allocated £470,000 to support estate transformation work under its devolution deal. The council, which has already successfully moved staff out of expensive leased offices into publicly-owned buildings, is now working closely with health and the police to bring emergency services together in a number of towns. 

A one-off saving? 

Despite the programme’s enormous benefit in terms of co-location and regeneration, much of its focus – and of central government’s focus in general when it comes to estate – is about releasing land and property. During this Parliament, for example, departments must release enough land to build 160,000 homes, which Mann guarantees can be done. 

But land release schemes have faced harsher criticism in the past for their apparent short-term nature: many argue that they are a good way to make quick money, but are ultimately an unsustainable, one-off saving. 

“It depends on the disposal,” Mann said. “There are some disposals, say from central government, where it makes sense for the local authority to take the asset and generate a revenue stream. We have plenty of examples of that nature, office blocks in particular. In other cases, nobody wants the asset.” 

And often, it’s neither: what local data mapping tends to reveal is that, in medium-sized county towns, the public sector owns anything between 50% and 70% of the high street – usually with offices or public contact centres of some kind. If these can be rationalised into a smaller set of offices, councils can dispose of land and property for commercial use, which then helps the region grow into a town centre – generating more footfall and economic development. 

“In three or four places around the country, a major thrust has been about rationalisation sharing and then disposal of an office block which is no longer needed, and that in many cases is quite tatty. The best thing to do is knock it down and put in a Sainsbury’s, or a Marks & Spencer, or whatever, which starts to get some economic regeneration into the city centre. There are a lot of authorities that are going down that road,” Mann explained. 

“It’s all case-by-case: you have to fit it to whatever the local needs are, obviously. But I’d say looking at disposals only on the basis of straight cash is a bit narrow. If there’s growth and economic potential there, for the benefit of regenerating town and city centres, then that’s really important.”

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