Government Property Agency expansion boosts headcount

Annual report flags savings of £506m but says Covid prompted pause to smarter working programme
Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

14 Jul 2021

The arm’s-length body tasked with transforming the central government estate has more than doubled its property holdings over the past 12 months and increased its headcount by more than one-third.

According to the Government Property Agency’s latest annual report, the body is now responsible for managing 200 properties, an increase of 102 on the figures for 2019-2020. The total floorspace making up its estate is now 707,769 sqm, a 114% increase on the previous year.

The GPA said both figures exceeded targets for growth it was set for the past year and meant that just under one-quarter of central government’s office estate has been transferred into its control since it became an arm’s-length body in 2018.

The GPA’s increasing real-estate empire was also accompanied by a 37% growth in headcount during 2020-21, with staff numbers rising from 178 to 244 over the period.

In his foreword to the annual report, GPA chief executive officer Steven Boyd said he was proud of the speed and effectiveness of the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic – including saving the government an anticipated £79m in relation to storage costs for personal protective equipment.

However, Boyd acknowledged that the pandemic had also left client departments with “uncertainty” over their future needs for office space.

“Responding to this, we have reset our planning assumptions for attendance, reworked our Workplace Design Guide, and taken the opportunity to survey the views of 26,000 civil servants on the experience of working almost entirely at home,” he said.

“This latter research piece with Leesman will stand us in good stead for the future, and positions us very well within the civil service as thought leaders in hybrid working.”

Leesman is a consultancy that specialises in the understanding the effectiveness of workplaces.

The GPA annual report acknowledged that its smarter working programme – described as a “key enabler” for its hubs programme, where staff from multiple departments are often relocated to new buildings – had been paused for almost a year because of the pandemic.

However it said that the smarter-working programme had now been “rebaselined” and would focus on 12 departments in the coming year. Before the pandemic, the report said the GPA had been working with 42 departments and arm’s-length bodies to help them understand what flexible working patterns and different approaches to office space would mean for them.

The report said the GPA’s 2020 Spending Review settlement would allow for up to 14 further hubs, doubling their number from the first phase, to be announced in the current year, and for work to continue on lease agreements for four more hubs – including the HM Treasury campus at Darlington.

The annual report said the GPA’s aim of taking a “whole estate” approach to central government property holdings meant it now had detailed portfolio plans in place for 17 UK cities – including Birmingham, Aberdeen and Swansea. It said the plans would feed into a wider “whole estate approach” that would allow departments to focus more on their core outputs.

It added the plans were “embedded firmly” in the Places for Growth programme, which is targeting the relocation of 22,000 civil service jobs away from the capital by the end of the decade.

Savings boost of £356m

The report said the GPA had now generated £506m in savings – or “cashable benefits” – for government since it was set up in shadow form in 2017, based on modelling covering net present value over 20 years. The figure represents a £356m increase on savings identified in last year’s report.

The latest report said that in addition to the £79m in savings for the Department of Health and Social Care referred to by chief exec Boyd, the agency had also been able to save around £4m a year for the NHS track and trace programme compared with alternative options.

It said the savings had come because it had identified and secured a large warehouse in Leamington Spa to provide space for the UK’s “Covid-19 testing very high-throughput laboratory” at the same time as finding space on the government’s existing estate for track and trace operations.

Eyes on warehouse programme

The report said the GPA was beginning to work with client agencies and departments on a “warehouse programme” that would allow it to improve the management of existing government warehouses and potentially release some of them.

It said the agency had created a database of 800 storage sites and had undertaken preliminary survey work aimed at calculating potential spare capacity.

“A number of potential opportunities have been identified that would provide significant financial and service benefits,” the report said.

“Over the next financial year, we plan to develop a strategic asset management plan and programme business case to set out how these opportunities can be seized with clients on a warehouse programme.”

Whitehall plans

The GPA said work was under way to develop and refine plans for the refurbishment of three Whitehall buildings in the current financially year.

It said funding had been secured for upgrade work on 55 Whitehall, 36 Whitehall and 3-8 Whitehall Place – all of which were occupied by the Department for International Trade before its move to the Old Admiralty Building.

The GPA said development work on the outline business cases for a further six building refurbishments was also under way as part of its Whitehall campus programme, which aims to deliver a “smaller, better quality and more efficient central London estate” of “no more than 20 core buildings”.

It said the programme, which is a sister project to the hubs programme, would enable the shift of roles out of the capital under Places for Growth and contribute to the government’s net-zero ambitions by delivering more sustainable buildings.

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