Rarely do government offices themselves make front page news – usually it’s the work that goes on behind the brass nameplate that dominates the headlines.
But these are not usual times. Barely a week can pass these days without some exhortation from a government minister on the state of the estate – and specifically the return of civil servants to their desks following the coronavirus pandemic.
Ministers are keen, it seems, to have more officials back in offices, exemplified by Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden urging civil servants to “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.
But this is not the only issue that puts government buildings in the spotlight. They also play a totemic part in the government’s levelling up agenda, with the aim to move 22,000 civil servants out of London and to the regions by the end of the current decade. The plan builds on longstanding aims to rationalise the government estate, but its position as a major barometer of success for what prime minister Boris Johnson has called his government’s mission has given it added impetus.
All this is quite a different picture from the one that Steven Boyd surveyed when he became the chief executive of the Government Property Agency in June 2019. In pre-pandemic times – or what he describes as the “old normal” – the aim of moving officials out of London was already established. But it hadn’t taken on the totemic importance that it now bears.
The GPA was formed in 2018 to bring together the management of what it calls the civil service general purpose estate in order to unlock efficiencies of scale and provide modern facilities. Reflecting on why he was attracted to becoming its boss, Boyd tells CSW it is an organisation built for change, even before the exact scale of that change became clear.
“I inherited a degree of old normal, but one of the key reasons for the GPA being established is to try and move away from the old normal, and to help departments to do that,” he says.
“Departments have been moving towards more modern ways of working for quite some time. One of the things that we want to do is to be seen as an innovator to help move some of that along.”
While the sudden shift to largely remote working forced change, the question now is how to keep that innovation as the new normal.
Although he says he is “not going to get into” the ministerial pronouncements on getting people back to their desks, “what I can say is that we are seeing more and more people come back into the office”.
And he adds: “That’s a positive thing for us. When people come in and use the facilities, we’re really pleased because that’s what we’re here to do.”
Many of the buildings that the GPA manages – which is around 30% of the government estate, including most of the famous Whitehall department headquarters – were put into what Boyd calls “minimum essential maintenance” during the coronavirus lockdowns.
“I wouldn’t describe that as closed,” he says. “It was the minimum security and maintenance that could be done to keep those buildings safe and secure, and ensure statutory requirements to check boilers and make sure the water is safe [are met].”
There were many buildings that also remained open for use by those who needed to come into their desks, he says. “There’s been a huge number of civil servants at their posts throughout the pandemic. There were lots of people from the Department for Work and Pensions, lots of people from HM Revenue and Customs doing their job in the office, supported by others that might have been working at home.”
Throughout the various stages of the pandemic, the GPA has provided guidance to tenants in the buildings it manages, and other departments, about how to manage the different levels of social distancing and safety that have been required, and now for the higher level of people returning.
“You don’t end up with the same solutions everywhere, because each department is their own employer, and they will make their own decisions about risk,” he says.
The third version of the cross-government guidance provides information under three headings – comfort and safety, service and security, and ways of working – with a five-category checklist of “considerations for ensuring your department is ready for the return to the office”.
The guidance has not just been Covid guidance, he says, but has also been information about the flexible and smart working developments that have come with 16 months of lockdown, social distancing and working from home.
“We’ve approached it from the point of view of: we’re on a journey here towards increased hybrid working, and here’s some general principles that apply to smarter working that support that.”
The GPA’s strategy for 2020-2030 highlights the changes under way both in government and the wider economy. It predicts there will be “a different balance between work and home, and an objective to reduce the commute between home and the workplace” and “an increased focus on productivity rather than presenteeism”.
Indeed, flexible working forms a key part of the government’s hubs agenda, which aims to create smart, modern, sustainable and digitally-connected workplaces that focus on supporting productivity and wellbeing. Many hubs, which were first planned under a programme by HMRC to reduce the size of its estate by consolidating into regional centres [see box], now host multiple departments to help improve collaboration around government.
The first phase is well under way, with ten of HMRC’s 14 planned regional centres now in operation. This has allowed government departments to move out of what the GPA calls “poor quality and expensive-to-operate buildings”. A second phase is now beginning – with one GPA-operated hub opened and two more announced. This phase is intended to bring the total number of hubs to 30 by March 2025, and then a proposed third iteration to reach 50 by the end of the decade, which will have created the space for those 22,000 officials to have moved out of London.
Boyd says the agency has “a pretty clear plan” for where all these hubs will be in the next five years, with buildings already confirmed in Peterborough and second sites in Birmingham and Croydon. There is greater flexibility around locations beyond 2025, he says, “but what we do know is that our direction of travel is to make good use of the large existing buildings that we’ve got, which are good quality and in the right place, and to deliver some more.”
Hubs are not the only places civil servants will be moving to. For example, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has set up a second headquarters in Wolverhampton, while an economic campus in Darlington will be occupied by departments including the Treasury, the Department for International Trade, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Education.
These moves come about when the individual departments work with the Cabinet Office’s Places for Growth team to work out where civil servants can be located to best achieve the department’s goals, Boyd says. The GPA then gets involved “looking at what the options are to deliver that, both in the short term, and in the longer term [as] new buildings or refurbished buildings can take several years to deliver”.
The Treasury announced in March it would be opening an office in Darlington, and, although it has not yet found a permanent building, it has already begun to recruit staff – something Boyd says departments are often keen to do before their eventual permanent homes are ready. So the GPA works to find both temporary and permanent facilities to make these moves happen.
“There are a number of existing government buildings in Darlington, and we’ve done some work to move people around within one of those buildings to make room for the early movers,” he says. “That allows departments like the Treasury to start building their critical mass, and in the meantime, we’re in the market looking for what’s the best solution for a permanent building in that area.”
Permanent options might include making use of an existing government building, taking a building into the government’s portfolio and refurbishing it, or building an entirely new site.
Boyd says that the baseline requirements for office facilities across government departments is the same, and the GPA is the keeper of the government’s workplace design guide. “That’s the starting point for all of our solutions,” he says, and he hopes that whatever GPA building you enter, they will all be “recognisable as government buildings”.
He adds: “In addition to that, I’d like to think that you’d say: ‘This is a really good quality, modern space that will allow people to work in a really effective way, and they’ll probably be happy and productive here.’ If that’s the view people take, then we’ve done a good job.”
Once buildings are ready for staff, Boyd says that the GPA “spends a lot of time and effort on supporting people who are moving or being recruited” to the new offices.
“There’s a whole process of information supplied in advance of coming into the building,” he says of new offices. “What to expect, how it will all work, what to do if you need help, where to go for support, what happens if you find a fault.”
The GPA-run buildings have “a mixture of different facilities”, he says, “and our role here is to support people in realising that we expect them to move around the workplace, depending on the activity they have in hand”.
People won’t often be allocated desks, but rather “team zones” where your team mostly sits. But, highlighting the example of the Birmingham hub that has just been opened at the city’s 23 Stephenson Street, he adds that “if you want to go down and do your work on the lower ground floor, where there’s a cafe and breakout space, that’s also good.
“We know that people who work for the departments we support are grownups, and I’m sure they can make their own decisions about what environment is best for them to carry out an activity. Our function is to make that as easy for them to access as possible, so that they get the best value from that building. We’re really focused on those people, because they’re our customers. That’s why we exist, otherwise we’d just have big empty boxes.”
The Birmingham hub is also a good example of the role buildings play in fostering collaboration, with more than a dozen government bodies occupying it. As a result, the GPA is working on making people feel “part of the community” around the office. Digital platforms are being set up in the building to share local news and events, and to allow people to set up running clubs or other initiatives across departmental boundaries, which can be accessed whether people are working in the office or at home.
Spreading departmental footprints around the country will help with levelling up, Boyd says, as well as encouraging a “diversity of thought” in how policy is developed.
And yet, despite these efforts, government will still need to have a large footprint in central London, where the GPA is at the forefront of plans to consolidate buildings. Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew has announced that work is under way on a revised government estate strategy that will focus on moving departments and agencies out of buildings with high operating and maintenance costs.
Boyd says the GPA’s work in consolidating in central London had already seen the closure of 29 central London offices since 2017, and the development of hubs outside what he calls Transport for London Zone 1 – in Stratford, Canary Wharf and Croydon.
“Our programme there is about making sure that we support the people who do need to be in London, and to make sure that the headquarters of departments have the support they need for those proper headquarter activities,” he says.
“When we close an office, then people are either relocated to some other office in London – very often that is in outer London, rather than very expensive central London. But also quite a lot of the time it’s roles, or people themselves, being relocated to somewhere else in the UK.
“So the hubs programme and the wider London plan are flip sides of the same thing. But it’s not just about closures, it’s about making sure that those core buildings that we’re going to keep are of the right standard with the right technology to allow those buildings to be used in the right way.”
This does, of course, pose particular difficulties in central London where there are many unique and nationally significant buildings still being used as departmental headquarters.
“They are more challenging to keep maintained and keep in good order,” Boyd admits. “But those buildings are iconic, so we make sure we support them properly.”
The stewardship of many century-old buildings demonstrates that, in Boyd’s words, property is a “very long game”.
Although he’s not been a fixture in government property as long as some of those famous Whitehall facades, Boyd certainly has a lot of experience, having been estates director at HMRC when the hubs programme was initially launched, before taking on the role at the GPA.
Looking back, he says that there is “definitely a line of sight from the start to where we are now”, and the GPA is now in a “constant process” of planning government property policy. Although the agency is heading towards what he calls a “business as usual portfolio”, such is the lead time in the sector it is already on his mind that some newer government buildings will come to the end of their leases “in the next 15 years or so, and there comes a point when you start needing to plan for that”.
Given the never-ending nature of the challenge, when can he reflect on a job well done?
“I get satisfaction from our team doing a really great job. Not everybody is happy all the time, of course, but it’s nice when people say, ‘this is a great facility.’
“That balances out the days when the water goes off or the power doesn’t work and something has to be done, but that’s just the nature of working in property.”
Perhaps most importantly, at a time of significant change in government working patterns and locations, he highlights the GPA’s innovation as a key part of his satisfaction, given the somewhat change-resistant reputation of the civil service.
“We all get a buzz from doing a good job, and the thing I find particularly satisfying is doing things in a different, and more innovative way, that hopefully people will appreciate,” he says“Maybe people reading this article, if they get down to the bottom, will think ‘well, he hasn’t got to me yet’. Well, hopefully we will get to you, and we’ll get to you as soon as we can.”