Strategic asset management can be so much more than a buy or sell decision, says Richard McCarthy, it is a chance for innovation

Richard McCarthy

To my knowledge, The Clash never wrote a song about strategic asset management. This is hardly a surprise. However, for many in the property industry and its clients, strategic asset management boils down to that one question: sell an asset or stick with it? This misses the point and the opportunity to achieve so much more. So, let’s see what else we might consider.

We need to see our assets not just as an opportunity to save costs but as a chance to increase activity, improve service provision and generate additional value. Strategic asset management can be part of policy development and innovation, as well as par of the current mantras of efficiency and austerity. This requires new thinking, new priorities and collaborative behaviours between and across relevant sectors and public bodies.

So, what needs to change?

  • Assets reflect decisions taken in the past. Many can still be used as intended and others can be used for that purpose with the benefit of further investment. However, many no longer meet their original purpose and require a radical approach.
  • As the operational value of assets diminish, it is important to analyse what is needed to maximise efficiency and impact. For example, long-established and expensive-to-operate police stations are blocking policy and service development. Analysis may show that “community policing hubs” in supermarkets and post offices represents a more effective approach to policing than old Victorian police stations can ever hope to achieve.
  • Clearly setting out public sector asset management requirements - the future service needs of the service provider and customer - can result in policy-based solutions that a narrow review of asset use and costs could never hope to achieve.
  • New approaches, particularly within the public sector, can encourage internal and external collaboration. Creating programmes that promote service innovation can lead to new collaborative approaches that go beyond an agreement to share buildings and reception staff; for example, approaches based on co-location and co-design.

However, it is much easier to share good ideas than to work together on asset disposal or rationalisation programmes where the prime focus is delivering efficiencies, driven by a desperation to drive down costs.

  • Even assets that appear well used should be examined to find further possible value. I have little doubt that the public sector is sitting on many more assets than it realises that could be released for alternative use and I suspect that the NHS Prop Co will provide a perfect example to demonstrate the opportunity to develop policy as well as disposal based asset strategies that deliver optimum value.
  • Before the co-ordinated release of unwanted and underutilised assets, an analysis is needed of how the assets can help deliver new solutions that facilitate or are aligned with other priority areas such as housing, and economic and transport infrastructure. This does not mean having to give up all free cash receipts. However, it is a plea to balance immediate receipts against the benefits of creating economic and social value through cash and equity investment in wider public benefits and programmes.
  • So, public sector assets can be a valuable catalyst for new development schemes. In other cases, introducing commercial activities can result in long-term revenue streams and enable ownership to be retained for future use or disposal when values may be higher. The critical issue is that developing strategies for underused and vacant assets should start with an analysis of the ways in which these assets can be used to address priority policy and service areas rather than simply be put in a pool for future disposal.

So, in short, assets can be better utilised, new approaches and solutions can be identified and value can be generated and applied to new programmes of development and economic activity. And at a time of austerity, when economic growth remains constrained and there are fears of a triple-dip recession, there has never been a more important time to get on and make it happen. It is a leadership challenge that merits urgency and commitment from the top and a recognition of its value by policymakers and commentators.

I am excited by the prospects and intellectual challenge. Are you?

Richard McCarthy is executive director at Capita Symonds and former director general of neighbourhoods at the communities department