Artist's impression of the new government hub in Leeds
The agency which will lead government’s efforts to move civil servants out of London was formally launched yesterday, as it was confirmed that a relocation plan would be published within weeks.
The formal launch of the Government Property Agency, which has existed in shadow form since January 2017 and is intended to ensure all of government treats property as a strategic asset, will bring commercial expertise to the management of the government’s office portfolio, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said.
The launch comes as the government is preparing a new Government Estate Strategy, which the Cabinet Office has said would focus on “further improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the government’s estate, including hubs and a redistribution of public servants”.
This would represent an expansion of the current development of 13 cross-departmental office hubs, which is being led by HM Revenue and Customs. Such a move would also fulfil a Conservative manifesto pledge to shift more government functions and arm’s-length bodies out to the regions. “We will start moving significant numbers of UK government civil servants and other public servants out of London and the south-east to cities around the UK,” it stated.
According to the government’s State of the Estate in 2016-17 report, which was published on Wednesday and coincided with the launch of the GPA, the strategy “will represent a step-change in government’s property ambitions to deliver the best possible public services, release land for housing and boost growth across the UK”.
It will set out what the document called “the ambitious steps to be taken across the civil service to ensure that the estate delivers objectives that go far beyond efficiencies and capital receipts” when it is published in “spring 2018”.
The Government Property Agency has been created to help deliver the "New Property Model" envisaged for departments, shrinking the number of buildings from 800 to 200 in the process, and sits under the Government Property Unit.
It was originally intended to go live at the end of last year. But in November, HM Revenue & Customs perm sec Jon Thompson revealed that the Treasury had not yet signed off the fledgling organisation’s business plan. HMRC is in the vanguard of the hubs programme, and will move staff from 170 current offices into 13 regional hubs, which are now set to transfer to the GPA.
Speaking at the Government Property 2018 conference in February, GPA chair Liz Peace said its focus was bringing “vanilla assets” – facilities that could be used by anybody – into one organisation, bringing efficiencies of scale, professionalisation, and freeing departments to focus on their core activities.
“Departments of state are meant to worry about what departments of state do, not about whether they need a rent review – or indeed whether there is water leaking through the roof,” she said.
Chief executive Ian Playford added that further steps for the GPA would involve looking at property-related services that extended beyond the needs of individual departments and “breaking down the barriers and boundaries of ownership”. He said storage and warehousing were particular areas of interest.
“There’s a great opportunity in terms of how we procure warehouses, and what we’re doing with goods in warehouses,” he said. “There’s a great deal of storage that, in the modern day, could be digitised.”
The 2016-17 State of the State report revealed that the total size of the central government estate has reduced by over 100,000 square metres from 2015-16, and that costs had also fallen by 1.4% in real terms year-on-year, although they increased in cash terms from £2.55bn to £2.57bn.
Dowden said the property efficiency drive had also released £620m in capital receipts in 2016-17, to be reinvested into supporting local and national services
“We are making ever more efficient use of our estate and our space per person ratio in offices is down to 9.9 sq.m, which means we are outperforming much of the private sector,” he said.
“The work does not stop there however – the modern, innovative workspaces delivered by the government hubs programme will help drive this efficiency even further. It is our ambition to achieve 6sq.m in these locations,” he added.