Solving the land puzzle
If organisations share buildings the leftover sites can be pieced together for development, says Alan Stokes
The idea is simple: many public sector organisations have buildings which are used inefficiently. By working collaboratively and sharing buildings, it is possible to release redundant buildings for sale, reduce overall running costs, provide a better service to the public and make sites available for development.
This is exactly what the Worcestershire Partnership - which includes the area’s county and district councils, Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service, West Mercia Police Authority, and the NHS - is doing through its capital and asset pathfinder initiative. It has been running the initiative with the Communities and Local Government department to demonstrate that public sector organisations can better use their land and buildings to improve services and generate savings.
It is one of 11 such initiatives - councils, police forces and fire services in Cambridgeshire, Durham, Hackney, Hampshire, Hull, Leeds, Leicestershire, Solihull, Swindon and Wigan are all conducting similar exercises.
In June, the Worcestershire Partnership launched its long-term strategy in response to the work it has done through the pathfinder initiative. We’ve been able to show how organisations can work together to make land available. The next step is to identify organisations which own underused adjacent buildings so they can be marketed together and sold off.
Inside Housing is calling for more land to be made available for development though its Get on our Land campaign. The work Worcestershire Partnership is doing is a perfect example of how public sector organisations, together with private sector property owners, are able to assemble sites.
For example, we’re in the middle of piecing together a site in the heart of Bromsgrove that it is hoped will be large enough to develop an extra care sheltered housing scheme. We have also identified a possible joint land sale in Redditch that is suitable for building a significant amount of housing.
The scale of potential savings generated by undergoing such exercises is eye-watering. Following the pathfinder work, Worcestershire Council has set itself the goal of reducing its non-schools estate by 25 per cent over the next five years. This will free up around 1 million square feet of accommodation. By targeting its worst performing buildings it expects a 25 per cent reduction in running costs and energy consumption. If this is achieved it could mean savings of between £3 million and £4 million per year.
To identify where these kinds of opportunities exist, the Worcestershire Partnership developed a shared asset map. This showed the amount of land we collectively owned and just how much we could reduce the number of buildings. From an asset management point of view, the plan to work together became irresistible.
Our ideas for asset rationalisation challenged some of our preconceptions about service delivery. The next step was to develop business cases for services to justify our proposals. The focus is on public sector organisations sharing information about their estate and their future organisational needs and then seeking shared solutions.
Subsequent wider consultation with communities has influenced the final scope of proposals, but we’ve been left with a plan that allows us to demonstrate how better use and management of buildings can deliver significant savings without damaging front line services. In fact, co-locating services gives us an opportunity to modernise our approach. We’ll now be able to offer services on a cross-organisation basis.
We’ll work with housing providers to enable them to collate their services with their public sector partners.
An example of the kind of projects we are currently planning is joint police and fire stations in Bromsgrove and Redditch. We’re also reviewing depots and workshops across councils, police, fire and health departments with a view to rationalising staff numbers, locations and vehicle maintenance.
There are examples from earlier projects where co-locating services in this way has created opportunities to further increase revenue savings by sharing support services again without any negative impact on services. For example, when the primary care trust co-located offices with the county council in December 2007, the savings that arose exceeded savings we’d otherwise have been able to achieve five times over.
Every place is different and what works well in one area may not be appropriate for another - so the work we’re doing in Worcestershire is not a blueprint. But what I think it has demonstrated how important leadership is in these kinds of initiatives. When there are many public sector organisations, the need for larger partners, the county council for example, to commit resources without dominating smaller stakeholders, such as district councils, can be a delicate issue.
Worcestershire Council has provided leadership and technical support to the Worcestershire Partnership to develop ideas and opportunities for asset rationalisation, but responsibility for delivery is shared.
It’s to the credit of the organisations involved that they have had the courage to approach their property assets in such a logical way, thus making space for new and improved services and, of course, housing development.
Doing things differently is always scary but unless the public sector is willing to consider a radical rethink, budget reductions will simply translate into service cuts.
Alan Stokes, is strategic asset management unit manager at Worcestershire Council
Inside Housing is campaigning for more public land to be made available for housing development, for more see our Get On Our Land page
Clearing the way: how to free up sites for development
These are the most important lessons public sector organisations in Worcestershire learned through the capital and asset pathfinder initiative.
Identify partners and establish trust
- Build on existing relationships
- Be inclusive and respect different priorities/agendas
- Aim for a stable network of contacts
- Build a team
Gather information and share it
- Gather basic information about assets - location, size, tenure, usage, capacity and occupancy
- Don’t wait for a perfect data set - use what you can get
- Map information and share it
- Use the map as the basis for a workshop to review needs and opportunities
- Focus on the customer - existing service arrangements are often the product of evolution rather than design
- Which are the worst performing buildings and how can you get rid of them?
Adopt a ‘business case’ approach
- Proposals must make financial sense
- Expect transactions across organisations to be on a commercial basis
- No exploitation of partners
Identify potential projects, prioritise and allocate
- Look for quick wins - release capital, save revenue
- Keep change programmes short for early projects - credibility needs to be established
- Allocate management of the delivery of projects to an appropriate partner
- Phase 1 - service co-location and asset rationalisation
- Phase 2 - align and share support services
- Phase 3 - look for service alignment opportunities
- Talk for too long and people lose interest
- Don’t wait for all parties to get on board - work with the willing
- Prepare to be flexible - things will change