The importance of continued leadership in estate reform

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 16

Despite the political uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, Dr Alison Knight, head of places strategy at Cheshire West and Chester Council, explains why it is vitally important to keep leaders focused on plans for public sector estate reform.

Strong leadership, political buy-in and good programme management are three of the vital building blocks that shouldn’t be underestimated in solving the public sector estates challenges that arise through multi-agency working, PSE has been told. 

The head of places strategy at Cheshire West and Chester Council, Dr Alison Knight, made the point when discussing the progress in her local area to deliver a new public services hub for Ellesmere Port. 

Estate mapping 

The work, which has been four years in the making after the development of the council-led West Cheshire Partner Estate Group, was originally designed to consolidate and develop Cheshire West’s local public estate in a co-ordinated way. 

“Back in 2012, we started mapping the public estate that we had across the whole of Cheshire West on to an EPIMS (Electronic Property Information Mapping Service) system, led by Government Property Unit (GPU),” she said. “And we started to identify any opportunities for co-operation and co-location and where we thought we’d be able to work together in the future. 

“That is when we started thinking about Ellesmere Port being a potential future public service hub. This was mainly because Ellesmere Port is an area in need of regeneration, but it also has a lot of public sector ownership across the town, particularly near the town centre.” 

Dr Knight added that after the mapping process the Coronation Road area of Ellesmere Port was identified as the ideal place for redevelopment, and a suitable location for local public services such as health, police, fire, ambulance, Jobcentre Plus and council services. 

Integration and co-location opportunities 

The 8.5-acre site currently houses a number of public service providers in individual premises, with many of the buildings in poor condition, “we then started seeing a way that we could actually bring things together more in one area,” said Dr Knight. 

The project partners were also successful in receiving money from the One Public Estate pilot to initially do a feasibility study, which identified that co-location was “a good way forward”. 

“We then moved on to an outline business case which focused a lot more on how we could integrate services,” she said, adding that the reason for this was because, under a previous Altogether Better community budge pilot, local partners had already been doing a lot of work around service redesign through initiatives like integrated early support teams and integrated health. 

Through the co-location of services, it has been estimated that the Ellesmere Port project could release around 15 acres of town centre land and 42 acres on the edge of town. It could also trigger the development of 1,880 new homes and safeguard or create 2,000 jobs.

“We’ve now done the full business case and are moving towards the design phase,” said Dr Knight. “However, as with any big project where you have a number of public sector partners, other options have been looked at. We’re just working through that as we move to the design process. 

“The biggest savings are going to be in some of the service redesigns, especially reducing some of the duplication, but also delivering a better service for local people in one place. The wider benefits are the economic regeneration of the town, getting rid of some of the defunct buildings and building new houses. 

“We’ve been out to a full public consultation on this, around better services, and the general public are happy with this approach as they think it will improve the town centre, improve how they use public services and open up more housing opportunities.”

 Ellesmere Port Civic Hall

Early discussions and constant communication 

Discussing some of the challenges faced by the project, Dr Knight added that it is important to start discussions with multi-agency partners early, keeping the communications going, and ensuring senior people are involved at all times. 

Mapping out what the different approvals are for getting people on board is also important, she added, as the different governance arrangements within the bodies can be quite complex. Her advice: “Do not underestimate the idea of getting someone in to programme manage with partners on this.” 

Another issue to contend with in this multi-agency working is the fact that partners are subject to a constantly changing political landscape, added Dr Knight: “We’ve changed administration, we also have PCCs and changes in the fire authority. It is constant change. It doesn’t mean people change the priorities, but it is vital to make sure people are briefed and understand that they can see the options. 

“It was agreed that the local authority would take the overall lead on this project. It is about bringing people together, having the meetings, keeping people up-to-date, keeping councillors and members on board.” 

Dr Knight said that having a public services board, where all the chief executives from the organisations sit, has been a key feature to ensure the continued buy-in from senior leadership. 

She explained that one of the useful things for Cheshire West, which has helped reinvigorate the scheme, is the continued relationship the authority has had with GPU and its LGA representative who works with them through One Public Estate. 

“They have kept that message with Whitehall,” said Dr Knight. “The CEO of the Civil Service, John Manzoni, came to see us at Ellesmere Port, understood the scheme and challenges, and committed to look at how to make it easier. That has kept it high on the agenda.” 

Talking to PSE shortly after the Brexit vote, Dr Knight added that while there will be “different priorities” for partners to focus on, the redevelopment and re-use of public sector estate isn’t going to go away, especially as it is set into the governments targets around housing, education budgets and making the best use of resources and delivering improved services. 

“At times like this, it is the cliché of the burning platform where you have to look at new ways of doing things,” she said. “But it makes sense to do this [co-location]. Surely you would rather keep more money on the frontline rather than paying out increased utility costs on buildings. I think that people get that, and why you would want to do that.”

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