Local authorities in England alone hold about £60bn of assets which are not used for schools or housing.
In an age of austerity it is not surprising that about £10.5bn worth of buildings and land has already been disposed of by councils since 2010.
But more than half of the local authorities in England are involved in initiatives aimed at doing more than just selling assets.
Since 2013, 42 partnerships comprising 176 councils have been developed with other public sector partners, such as the NHS, emergency services, and central government departments under the One Public Estate programme. The goal is to not only achieve savings and generate income, but to improve services, build homes, create jobs, and boost local economies.
One way of doing this could be to share office space and buildings which in turn can release other assets which can either be leased, sold off, or redeveloped. Partners could also work together to regenerate a site or area of land they all have stakes in.
The programme, a joint initiative between the Local Government Association and the Cabinet Office, provides grant funding to areas to help achieve these aims. The money is often used to carry out feasibility studies and gain access to expertise and advice which enable projects to get under way.
Grant sizes vary. The Bedford and Central Bedfordshire partnership has been the biggest beneficiary of the programme to date, obtaining £500,000 last December for a variety of projects including integrating the area’s health and care services.
One of the main achievements to come out of the programme so far has been the transformation of an old community centre owned by Central Bedfordshire Council into a new primary care facility which also hosts social care teams.
Overseeing such projects is a strategic partners board made up of the most senior officials on the councils, health, police, and fire services. It is chaired by Bedford BC’s elected mayor Dave Hodgson (Lib Dem).
The main challenges with any of these cross-cutting programmes in getting that buy-in
Adrian Piper, Bedford’s head of property services, says having officers and politicians at such a high-level involved in the programme has been “the key to its success”.
He told LGC: “While all of the organisations have shared aims and objectives they do have varying priorities so that means the board has to regularly engage and reprioritise the projects in the programme and make sure they are properly resourced and have some drive behind them.
“The main challenges with any of these cross-cutting programmes is getting that buy-in and making sure there is a shared focus among the partners. I believe we’re achieving that.”
However, it is not all plain sailing for the One Public Estate programme.
LGC reported last year that the projected savings from a public sector property collaboration in the West Midlands were almost halved from £111m to £58m between 2015 and 2025. That was due to the fact Herefordshire Council left the programme while schools’ savings had to be removed from estimations as they go to individual school budgets rather than any of the project’s partners.
There are other challenges.
Mark Barrow, partner at Arcadis and programme director for the West Midlands Combined Authority One Public Estate programme, says cuts to budgets and services have resulted in a reduced capacity among partners to spare the time to think jointly and strategically about assets. Slow progress in bringing IT services up to speed to allow workforces to work more flexibly had also hindered the progress on releasing assets, said Mr Barrow, a former chief executive of Newcastle-under-Lyme BC.
However, he thinks the £150,000 grant funding the West Midlands received has helped to overcome some of those challenges. In general he believes the One Public Estate programme, combined with budget cuts, has acted as a “catalyst for public sector reform”.
William Nunn (Con), chair of the LGA’s improvement and innovation board, agrees. He says public sector bodies have been “very protectionist” in the past but budget cuts have “focused peoples’ minds on how we might do things differently”.
By 2020 the programme is expected to deliver £56m savings, £138m capital receipts, 36,000 jobs and 16,500 homes.
Cllr Nunn, who is also leader of Breckland DC, says it is important places “learn from failures as well as successes”.
With £18m One Public Estate funding available in 2017-18, councils are being encouraged to prepare bids in time for applications opening next April.
Case study: Regeneration in Plymouth
Plymouth City Council, Network Rail, Great Western Railway and the University of Plymouth have formed a One Public Estate Partnership. Plymouth Railway Station is to be transformed and regenerated to include new shops and offices, and a new public space (pictured). The work is intended to make the entrance to the city more appealing to visitors travelling by train. The £420,000 One Public Estate grant has enabled feasibility work to be carried out on the project while also exploring further opportunities for redevelopment of other assets owned by the partnership. It is anticipated that the project will reduce running costs by almost £1.4m and could generate £2m in capital receipts through the sale of assets. About 700 jobs are expected to be created while the project is also expected to attract up to £48m worth of inward investment to the city over the next decade. The partnership has entered into a memorandum of understanding to carry out the work on the station.
Case study: Service reform in Bedfordshire
Using a £500,000 grant – the biggest in the country – the partnership of councils, health bodies, and emergency services across Bedford and Central Bedfordshire is seeking to transform services. Integrating health and care services is among the top priorities. One of the main successes to date has seen a council-owned community centre in Biggleswade refurbished and turned into a doctor’s surgery which also serves as a base for social care teams. A housing association has also moved into a customer drop-in centre in Bedford. Doing that has provided the borough council with a rental income, reduced running costs, improved customer service, and enabled the housing association to sell off an old building. There are 19 separate plans for better of use of the region’s public assets in total with the aim of delivering more than 1,000 homes, 750 jobs, about £7m reduced running costs and £7m receipts over five years.