By Mike Parsons

15 Oct 2019

Whitehall property chief Mike Parsons tells Civil Service World about the challenges and opportunities of managing the government’s property portfolio 

When you think of the government estate, it is all too easy to only think of offices. However, scratch the surface and you find an incredibly diverse landscape, encompassing schools, laboratories, defence, hospitals – and so much more.

The publication of the Government Estate Strategy in 2018 heralded a new era in the way we manage and steward the estate. Realising savings for the taxpayer is still a priority, but the new strategy focuses on the use of property as a key platform and enabler for the delivery of public services.

Such an estate presents both challenges and opportunities. The resources necessary for its effective day-to-day stewardship should not be underestimated – but that is only one part of it. A more strategic approach to our property can drive transformation in the delivery of public services and support a more diverse and representative civil service.


Property reform has accelerated dramatically across government in recent years. In HM Courts & Tribunals Service, property has been a major component of the reform programme. This £1bn investment in transforming the justice system is introducing modern technology including the use of video and the introduction of online services to reduce the reliance on physical hearings. These reforms have allowed HMCTS to improve efficiency. The service has closed and disposed of underused and poor conditioned court buildings, raising more than £120m to invest in improving the justice system.

The Government Property Agency is delivering a series of programmes that together will revolutionise not just where government works but the way it works too. This includes the consolidation, rationalisation and reconfiguration of the office estate through multi-departmental government hubs across the country and the consolidation of expensive London offices through the Whitehall campus programme.

However, the property function is responsible for more than just bricks and mortar and the Office of Government Property in the Cabinet Office provides leadership from the centre of government on cross-cutting transformation programmes and professional capability and capacity building, setting standards and providing expert advice.

The Places for Growth programme is a strategic relocation programme – moving government roles and activities from London and the south east to the regions and nations of the UK – driving regional growth, tapping into skilled labour markets and creating a civil service that better reflects the communities it serves.

Through the One Public Estate programme, we are supporting public sector partners to drive innovation through collaboration, release land for housing and create savings for the taxpayer. For example, the scheme is supporting voluntary and public sector service providers in Stevenage to transform health and wellbeing provision for the community. The regeneration of Stevenage town centre will bring together a range of currently isolated sites, allowing service providers to address these challenges more effectively. Over the next 10 years, this project is expected to deliver £8m in capital receipts and £400,000 running cost savings, to release land for 800 homes, and create 250 jobs. This is just one example of how One Public Estate is supporting partners to deliver more together. 

As a function, we have set out the common activities that should be undertaken to strive for better outcomes across government. Building on this, we will soon be publishing the draft government property standard for public consultation, ensuring a consistent approach to property across departments. We are also developing the wider government property profession, with a focus on capability to ensure our staff have the skills that we need to look after our estate effectively – and an offer that attracts and retains the right people.

Working with departments to get a true cross-departmental perspective, we have produced a Functional Plan for the year, outlining the activities that the function will be undertaking to promote and implement the Government Estate Strategy.

The property function now has a solid foundation on which to deliver the government’s commitments in relation to property. That work is ongoing and we are working hard to ensure we have the skills and tools to deliver it.

Estate of the nation

The Government Estate Strategy sets out several reforms to drive efficiency across the buildings owned and used by government.

The improvement drive is grouped across three areas – growth and opportunity, supporting “a brilliant civil service”, and delivering value.

Under the growth and opportunity heading, three different actions are proposed: changing government buildings to offer more joined up services that make use of new technologies; unlocking land for housing through streamlining the number of government buildings and releasing the surplus land for housebuilding and development; and rebalancing the economy to ensure that government offices help support regional growth, including the creation of subject clusters across the UK.

To support the government’s aims to create “a brilliant civil service”, the plan has three strands – creating great places to work that allow officials to work smarter and more flexibly, aided by new technology. This also includes enhancing government’s presence in Whitehall in the heart of London through making government’s campus in the capital more welcoming, more secure and more accessible for the benefit of all civil servants.

The final aim of the plan is delivering value through a more commercial approach to the management of government property, exploiting financial and strategic tools to deliver property projects that can drive efficiencies, and using improved data on the entire property portfolio of the public sector to drive increased sustainability across both land and buildings

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