The delivery body expected to oversee the rollout of the government’s hubs programme and its wider estate rationalisation is now targeting a formal launch in April, bosses have told a property conference.
Set up in shadow form in early 2017, the Government Property Agency was created to help deliver the "New Property Model" envisaged for departments, shrinking the number of buildings from 800 to 200 in the process. It sits under the Government Property Unit.
The GPA was originally supposed 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, which Thompson said his agency would manage itself if the GPA was unable to.
Speaking at the Government Property 2018 conference yesterday, Shadow Government Property Agency chair Liz Peace and chief executive Ian Playford said they were hopeful that the delivery body would formally launch in the coming weeks.
“With a fair wind, and keeping our fingers crossed, we hope to be able to form the agency formally on April 1,” Peace told the event, held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
“Those of you who are public sector will know there are always processes to be gone through, and those processes are grinding mightily slowly, but we are very confident that we’ll get there.”
Announced in principle – but not in name – in the 2015 Budget, the GPA is envisaged as taking over a sizeable chunk of the government estate to improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which it is managed, bringing together both the hubs programme and parts of the government estate that are already in use.
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.
Playford told the event that the GPA would be “going over the line” with the Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy this year. He said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was earmarked to become part of its portfolio in 2019, with the Ministry of Justice and the Department for International Development following in 2020.
Playford said 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 Cabinet Office has said a revised government estates strategy will be published in the Spring of 2018 detailing proposals for a “redistribution of public servants” around the country.
In its Single Departmental Plan the department said that an “ambitious” revision to the cross-government property plan would focus on “further improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the government’s estate, including hubs and a redistribution of public servants”.
Also at the conference, Mike Parsons, director general of government property at the Cabinet Office, said the Whitehall’s property function had acknowledged skills shortages and that a “more aligned” pay and reward structure across departments – and a dedicated recruitment hub – were among strategies to remedy the situation.
The Cabinet Office is currently recruiting for the vacant post of Government Chief Property Officer, while the GPU is also advertising for a number of senior roles, including chief data officer, chief operating officer, and three deputy directors.
“It’s well documented that all sectors in the property industry are reporting skills shortages, and the government property leaders are also reporting difficulty in many areas,” Parsons said.
He said work currently being undertaken by colleagues included the development of “clear career pathways across the property function” and a "secondment and interchange” programme to share talent with other sectors.
Parsons added that the property function was planning to create 250 apprenticeships and 100 Graduate Fast Track opportunities by 2023, and now had 100 staff who had either apprentices or who had completed an apprenticeship.