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Central meets local in One Public Estate

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 17

The LGA’s One Public Estate (OPE) programme director, Brian Reynolds, tells PSE’s Luana Salles about the scheme’s unique partnership between Whitehall and local government just as its sixth round of funding kicks off.

When we spoke to Bruce Mann, former executive director of the Cabinet Office’s Government Property Unit, late last year before he retired from the role, he explained that the secret behind the success of the OPE programme was simple: rich data mapping, close collaboration and respect towards pre-existing local plans. 

The scheme – a shared initiative between the Cabinet Office and the LGA designed to make government estate more efficient – was arguably at its peak back then, with former chancellor George Osborne injecting enough cash into it the previous year to fund two application phases in 2016 rather than just one. 

It’s no surprise, then, that OPE remains firmly on track, with the Cabinet Office launching its sixth phase on 1 August. Although this was originally expected around Easter, the date had to be pushed back when Theresa May called a snap general election. In the current timetable, councils are expected to apply for funding in the autumn, with money distributed to successful applicants by winter. Effectively, the sixth strand is expected to run from late next year to 2019. 

And if current chancellor Philip Hammond is anything like his predecessor, we might also see a fattened purse for the scheme in his upcoming Budget – enough to fund a programme extension to ensure its continued success. 

A tight partnership 

Speaking to PSE shortly before the sixth phase was launched, Brian Reynolds, OPE programme director at the LGA, revealed the next application strand is expected to bring the scheme’s coverage to 90% of councils, up from the current 72%. While this is not quite the 95% promised by Whitehall, it will include the majority of local government’s top 100 landowners – who are arguably more relevant to the programme’s overall success than smaller authorities who don’t own much land. All in all, it’s still a smashing success, especially when you consider the scheme started with just 12 areas when it was launched back in 2013. 

The partnership between central and local government has also come a long way since then. While many joined-up projects seem to be fraught with difficulties, the OPE has been a shining example of how to work together effectively. 

“I would take my hat off to central government for funding a programme over a number of years and in partnership. That isn’t normally how they would work. I would say that’s very unique,” said Reynolds. “I’ve always thought that actually, the partnership aspect and the influence that the Cabinet Office can bear on other Whitehall departments in relation to their land and property was equally as important as the money that we give out. 

“But we’re also not without our challenges. I think there’s more that we need to do, particularly in getting transactions done between local authorities and the NHS family. That’s proving unnecessarily difficult, and we are working how to do it. I’m not trying to pretend it’s all perfect, but I would say that trying to run a programme for a number of years and being persistent is quite a unique feature.” 

Merging health and care 

The relationship between councils and the health sector stands in sharp contrast to the partnership between central and local government so far – but this could all change under the ongoing sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs), which will require billions’ worth of property disposals and consolidation. 

“I do think there needs to be a culture change amongst the health family about negotiating with local authorities,” added the LGA official. “They find it easier to go out to auction, and whilst on one level I understand that, on another level government has more than one objective from land sales. There’s the 26,000 homes target [for the Department of Health], but there’s also getting homes for nurses. 

“And let’s be honest, the private sector isn’t that keen on developing affordable housing, is it? It’ll do it because it’s required, but you’re much more likely to get local authorities developing a high proportion of affordable housing and key worker housing, and my view is that that’s the real prize from this land release over the next decade. There’s more work for us to do to get us to that position.” 

One example of a health and care land merge, which Reynolds listed as one of his favourite success stories from the scheme so far, is the Leeds OPE Partnership led by the city council, which uses a community hub model to bring together a range of local services. 

“They took a very pragmatic view on this. Councils up and down the country have been working at health and social care integration for a number of years, but it often starts off top-down with a big policy thing, and then two years later there’s loads of paper and not much has happened,” he explained. 

“Leeds realised that could be the outcome, so they started bottom-up as well, and took the view that they would co-locate all of the local authority staff and NHS staff in 11 hubs around [the city] – and force them to work together. As a result, they’ve had success when others have struggled to get there.”

Co-location and other blurred lines 

Another important form of co-location is between local government and the DWP. In Nottingham, for example, the DWP moved out of its city centre building in exchange for a capital receipt and moved into the city council’s offices by the train station. As well as saving half a million pounds a year, it’s resulted in a “much-improved environment for staff, in a much better location, and freed up a city centre building for a more productive use in the private sector”. 

Reynolds, who called on the DWP to be more open to schemes of this type, said there have been around 48 co-locations between local government and the department so far, with at least another hundred needed by 2020. “If you want to try and achieve more integrated services, then co-location has to be the way forward,” he stated. 

As the very structure of local government changes under devolution, so too will the nature of the deals OPE strikes. The programme director said they are happy to accept applications from city regions and devolved bodies, for example, especially as this type of bid makes more sense in some cases. 

“One of our objectives is to get better integrated services, particularly in health and social care for obvious reasons, because that’s a big crossover between central and local government,” Reynolds explained. “That really only works if you do it across wider borders than individual local authorities. From our point of view, that’s the kind of thing that does work and makes a lot more sense than individual authority applications – although we do support individual applications if we think they’re sufficiently ambitious.” 

This year, as well as the scheme’s £9m funding being made available to councils with ambitious property ideas – Reynolds estimates around 20 partnerships will benefit – the OPE has also teamed up with the DCLG to launch the complementary £45m Land Release Fund, which aims to help local authorities free up unused or surplus land for housing. From this month, councils can now bid for a slice of funding aimed at land remediation and small-scale infrastructure projects.



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