Northern Ireland Civil Service blasted after auditors discover 6,000 empty desks

NI Audit Office says government is not delivering value for money on its ageing and inefficient office estate

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By Tamsin Rutter

04 Dec 2017

Northern Ireland’s auditors have blasted its civil service for wasting taxpayers’ money after it emerged that 18% of its desks are unused – at a cost of £17.3m a year.

A report found that 6,382 of the 35,000 workstations in the devolved government’s estate were vacant, and the Northern Ireland Audit Office complained of a lack of data by which to assess progress on achieving value for money on office space. 

The NIAO called on departments to “attach a higher priority” to gathering data on the capacity and suitability of their buildings and to better measure their performance on property management.


The auditors said it was difficult to benchmark the performance of departments on asset management, because there was little evidence that they were setting and reporting against challenging targets.

They also called for the creation of a “central surplus asset register”, where buildings that are no longer or only partially in use would be listed, to ensure greater transparency and encourage the sale of such buildings.

The Northern Ireland’s central government has 276 offices, around half of which are owned by public sector bodies and half of which are rented. Total running costs are around £96m a year.

Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland’s comptroller and auditor general, said the current configuration of office buildings used by government departments was not delivering value for money.

“The existing office estate consists, to a significant extent, of highly inefficient, cellular and ageing accommodation,” he added.

The Northern Ireland government has managed to generate £17.7m in savings across the office estate since Donnelly last reported on property asset management in 2012. The number of buildings in its estate reduced by 10% - from 308 to 276 – between 2012 and 2015.

But the number of empty desks increased over the same period, by 15%. 

Donnelly welcomed the savings but said progress had been slow and complained that just two of the 10 key recommendations he made in 2012 have been implemented in full.

“Many opportunities still exist to release further, significant savings,” he said, adding that the Department of Finance’s plan to centralise the management of office estate will address some longstanding problems.

Donnelly continued: “It is important that the required upfront funding is now invested to facilitate the procurement or refurbishment of existing buildings to accommodate higher numbers and densities of staff in modern, space efficient and fit for purpose premises.”

No official financial savings target has been set in relation to the office estate.

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