The construction industry is like a chick in its nest waiting for someone to deliver juicy new-build projects when it should be looking at the nitty-gritty of running an estate
A client who wants to talk to our industry about a capital programme or the status of a framework renewal will struggle to get a word in edgeways, but the silence is deafening when the same audience is invited to talk about the wider estate. The estate is seen as the client’s problem and is dull and intangible and full of difficult long-term problems that really need sorting out by someone in the client body.
There has been no shortage of critical review of the efficiency of the public sector estate. The Lyons report, for example, Towards Better Management of Public Sector Assets, or the Office of Government Commerce report, The State of the Estate, and the National Audit Office report, Getting the Most from Public Sector Office Accommodation.
The messages from each of these reports is similar - estates are not always fit for purpose and a few isolated examples of good practice reveal that they could be smaller, more efficient and considerably more cost effective, particularly in relation to running costs. This was reinforced by a recent survey by the Local Government Chronicle which revealed that 69% of local authority respondents thought that their estates were not suited to modern service delivery and were costly to run. In addition, 52% believed that their estate did not or could not meet sustainability targets.
It is imperative that action is taken to maximise the full value of estates, reduce their costs and put them on the right road to meeting climate change requirements. But so far, concerted action has been woefully inadequate. Why? Essentially we are all part of an industry that is only really excited when there is a sexy project to be delivered. Who really has the interest for long-term strategic issues such as space utilisation and carbon reduction or the grunt and grind at the other end of the spectrum for cleaning regime reviews and waste disposal contracts? The focus needs to move from project outputs to real business benefits, from which only the truly necessary projects can then proceed.
Research undertaken for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) by the Open University in 2007 found that although projects were generally being delivered more effectively than in the past, the strategic benefits were not at the heart of the process and so not being realised. But if we do not realise these benefits, we cannot know if a built solution was ever really needed.
The HEFCE is taking the initiative and has appointed Provelio and the University of Wolverhampton to create a national higher education guidance document. It will describe the processes for a benefits-led delivery that responds to universities’ corporate plans and the government’s agenda for cost reductions. These strategic documents demand improvements in costs and revenue, efficiencies and tackling climate change. The guidance document will be the road map to ensure that these demands are satisfied.
Systems that deliver complex change programmes that directly link to strategic goals within estates, that are not just capital builds, are long overdue. The industry sits with its beak open waiting to be fed capital works, but clients need us to help them find solutions that achieve their strategic goals. These systems must be rigorous to ensure that no stone, big or small, is left unturned when seeking improvements.
The owners of estates can no longer afford gross inefficiency. Unless action is taken, the gap between the operational requirements of estates and their actual performance will widen. We don’t need to wait for the Comprehensive Spending Review to get the message, as all corporate plans will require savings and efficiencies. As my granddad used to say: “I don’t need to stick my head out of the window to know that it’s raining.” Constructing new buildings will only form a fraction of the solutions required. The estate dog must take control of the project tail.
Paul Wilson is a director of estates consultancy Provelio