Central government is at last beginning to make more of its assets, but it is local government, sitting on the lion’s share of the £370bn public estate, that must now harness its resources


‘A little less conversation, a little more action, please.”

Although I am pretty sure that Elvis Presley had something else on his mind with these lyrics, his impassioned cri de coeur is just as relevant to the way in which we as a nation tend to go about changing the way things are done.

Over the past weeks there has been an intense focus on our national infrastructure and how we manage it. We’ve had complaints about the progress of the National Infrastructure Plan, followed swiftly by announcements from Danny Alexander in the aftermath of the Comprehensive Spending Review, providing further detail on the projects that are moving ahead. This was indeed some welcome clarity.

Around £7bn worth of land and assets are surplus to requirements. One London borough has no less than 106 buildings that are empty with no plans for further use

There are also some green shoots starting to emerge in terms of central government getting its own assets in order. Defence is leading the way with over 4,000 sites being released over the next few years, alongside £9bn of New Generation Estates contracts. NHS Property Services is also pushing ahead to ensure that we have a fit for purpose 21st century estate, addressing reports that over £2bn worth of floor space is currently underused across the NHS.

Another great American, Benjamin Franklin, makes the point: “Well done is better than well said.” We need to see more doing, and that should spur us to find our new model.

To be fair to the government, though, the real savings, the real prize to be had, is in local government, as it is local government that looks after more than two-thirds of the £370bn public estate. Some of this, like the NHS, is not just being underused, it’s not being used at all. Around £7bn worth of land and assets is surplus to requirements. One London borough has no fewer than 106 buildings that are empty with no plans for further use. Not only are these assets not being “sweated”, and therefore not delivering value to the taxpayer, but they also cost a great deal to maintain; this is not a case of out of sight out of mind. At a time of acute housing shortage and the crisis in school places, set against a backdrop of severe economic constraints, this clearly makes no sense - the balance sheet just doesn’t add up.

At the recent Local Government Association conference, chair Merrick Cockell warned that councils cannot carry on like this. And indeed, the budget cuts across the board are proving the age-old adage that necessity is the mother of invention. As a result we are seeing some really great innovations start to emerge - bringing with them fantastic examples of joined-up working.

There is a way of making the balance sheet work for you - balancing taxpayer assets with taxpayer needs

One scheme being run by South Staffordshire district council, Staffordshire council and Wolverhampton council is a case in point. Three very different councils have worked closely together in both the local and national interest to develop a brownfield site which has attracted world-class manufacturers and even procured a new motorway link. This achievement is a prime example of the public sector successfully harnessing its resources to bring in new jobs (30% of them for the local unemployed) and investing up-front to lever in almost 10 times as much in private funding.

Head south-west to a scheme I am familiar with in Plymouth where the public and the private sector are working together to develop an innovative eco-village on previously surplus land. These self-build homes will bring green living to a new level and become a beacon for green development.

As well as delivering much needed new housing, including affordable housing, Bickleigh Down Eco Village will also create vital employment opportunities and up to 33 jobs for people in the assembly of the zero-carbon homes, and restore the adjoining woodland for the benefit of the local community. There is also the potential for longer-term employment as Bickleigh Down establishes itself as the centre of excellence for this type of development, able to support similar developments elsewhere in the region and the South-west more generally.

Other councils - Enfield, for example - are using their surplus land to build new schools, addressing the boom in primary pupil numbers.

What these examples prove is that there is a way of making the balance sheet work for you - balancing taxpayer assets with taxpayer needs. It can be done, but these examples need to become the rule, not the exception. That applies to both central as well as local government, and those of us in the private sector need to play our part as well, helping facilitate this new approach. But now is the time to act, not talk. Whether you are a fan of Elvis or Benjamin Franklin, we must now all respond to this call to action.

Tim Byles is chief executive of Cornerstone Property Assets - www.cornerstoneassets.co.uk. For more information on the Transformation Trust visit www.transformationtrust.org.uk