George Osbornes’ property sharing drive puts new onus on council ICT

As one of the public sector’s largest costs, it’s of little surprise that the size and state of the public property estate was given a particular focus in the Autumn Statement and Spending Review.

The chancellor has tasked central government departments with releasing £4.5bn of surplus land and property assets by 2020 in an attempt to deliver savings, and the Department for Work and Pensions has its own target of a 20 per cent reduction in its footprint.

Local government property portfolios also came under the spotlight, and the Chancellor provided an incentive for the sector to pick up the challenge.

According to the statement, local authorities currently hold property assets worth a quarter of a trillion pounds and under new rules, they will now have the power to spend 100% of the receipts from any of those assets when sold.

This presents a major opportunity to release value from properties that are no longer required or are unfit for purpose, but it’s one that can only be realised if local government also harnesses the potential of the “big data” assets it is sitting on.

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Those tasked with managing the property estates across local government have access to huge volumes of useful information – from lease terms and tenancy agreements to maintenance schedules and information regarding energy consumption and workspace utilisation.

When viewed as a whole, this information has the power to enable much more strategic decision-making in terms of making the best use of assets, choosing which properties to dispose of and improving the ‘customer experience’ of citizens using public buildings.

The challenge is that this data is often spread across multiple departments, disparate databases and is sometimes held outside of the organisation by outsourced suppliers.

That’s where analysing big data comes in. Building intelligence software can suck all of these data points into one system and present it in a bespoke format, allowing estate teams to view and interpret the data as a whole. The opportunities of this are significant.

To take workspace utilisation as an example, the trend for remote and flexible working, which has increased dramatically in the private sector as employers look to improve productivity, is a relatively new trend in the public sector.

As such, it provides an opportune time for estate managers to work closely with HR teams to forecast the future requirements of the workforce and understand how space can be reconfigured to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

When you consider that an average desk in London costs £5,500 per year, changing an office to reflect the way people now work, for example through the introduction of hot desks for flexible workers, could deliver significant space and financial savings.

Lifecycle management is another area whereby public sector organisations can use intelligence on buildings to improve efficiencies.

By collating data in one location estate managers can compare the efficiency and age of a property with information such as energy usage and repair and maintenance schedules, which subsequently facilitates more informed decisions regarding the replacement of infrastructure.

Of course there are challenges for the public sector to overcome. The sector is known for its cautious culture and despite the great strides made under the digital by default agenda, there is more that could be done and a further drive to innovate in the digital space will give the sector the impetus it needs to deliver savings.

Lessons can be taken from the private sector. There is a lot of common ground between large multi-site businesses and local authorities.

Both control big portfolios, occupied by different stakeholder types and of varying age and condition. The UK retailers and financial institutions we have worked with to implement building intelligence solutions have seen savings of up to 12% and there is no reason that similar savings can’t be made here.

Many government departments, both central and local, also operate as silos.

A lack of communication between departments often means that data is often not shared effectively and therefore its value is unrealised.

However the culture is changing. Back office shared services are growing in popularity and there’s no reason why estate teams can’t get in on the act.

The next logical step is for public organisations of different types – blue light, health, local government – to pool their property resources and share buildings, a move which would help deliver cost savings by establishing which properties are best placed to be leased or sold.

Of course, this can only be achieved through sharing and analysing the big data that holds the insights.

Graham Perry is business unit director of iSite, the technology division of property services group Styles&Wood

Colin Marrs

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