I’m calling it – a new era of public/private sector collaboration will deliver promised rewards this time
For keen built environment historians, or indeed sector veterans, there’s an ever-present sense that the clear benefits from smart and transformative industry reviews and initiatives perennially fail to fully materialise and drive promised change. Whether through inaction, indifference or changing government priorities – those ideas that open the door to profound change and advancement - generally with universal industry approval, have a short shelf life and further crystalise the perception of a sector that cannot modernise.
Given this history, and with mild trepidation, today I’m going to call time on this cycle of frustration and missed opportunity. And the reason for this prediction is simply that the individuals that are driving the government’s property programme are as impatient for change as we are.
The Government Property Strategy discussion I recently chaired was a revelation. Not because everyone agreed that things need to change, and that greater public private collaboration would be crucial to this success – mostly conference attendees are all on the same page right? It was actually who was saying these remarks - Mark Chivers, Director General for Government Property at the Cabinet Office, Steven Boyd MBE, Chief Executive of the Government Property Agency and Mike Green, Chief Executive of Defence Infrastructure Organisation.
There was absolute unity of voice and real honesty in the debate about the challenges the public sector faces around estate optimisation, and how it cannot solve these issues alone. The Government Property Strategy, authored in August 2022, sets out the ambition to transform places and services; create a smaller, better and greener public estate; and to improve professional excellence and insight, across an estate encompassing 136,844 built assets and valued at £157.6bn. Add in local authority portfolios and that value rises to £half-a-trillion.
It’s an eight-year strategy, which means 5% of the programme has already disappeared – a fact not lost on the esteemed panel. But that timeframe also enables opportunity – annualization of budgets and spending review periods do not sit well with long term capital plans – an eight-year landing zone provides the space and time to facilitate change and innovation through effective partner collaboration. As far as one can future gaze – a commitment to realise a further £2 billion of property savings from the public estate seems unlikely to be immediately jettisoned with any potential change in political leadership that may be coming in 2024/25.
The Strategy outlines clear leadership for sector asset classes – for example schools, hospitals, defence – so they are managed strategically and there’s avoidance of reinvention every time. In a show of how far things are transforming - customer experience is now a core property objective – customers of course being the civil servants, nurses, teachers, soldiers using our public assets. Recently HMRC’s new office in Birmingham secured a Leesman ‘plus score’ for Purposeful Presence - a workspace experience measure that ranks it in the top 2% worldwide.
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This is an unapologetic demonstration that world class public facilities that support our communities can be efficiently procured, delivered and maintained in a cohesive and smart manner, underpinned by data insights and a step change in thinking. These leaders recognise that long term partners deliver better and there’s a frank acknowledgement that the idea someone is going to come along and take all the risk is largely gone.
The phrase skin in the game was a consistent factor in the discussion – the responsibility the public sector adopts as a client has changed and enabling innovation helps suppliers be better and compete at the highest levels. Helping suppliers succeed is indeed the collaborative partnership where everyone wins.
There’s also an equal responsibility from the construction industry to step up and demonstrate that it has the skills, expertise and innovative mindset to help drive this radical programme of property reform. The success of new procurement methodologies, for instance Alliancing, is certainly within our gift, but collectively we can be bolder and more creative in showcasing the impact of technology, collaborations and shared learnings, upskilling supply chains and demanding more from ourselves.
So for these reasons, I’m marking this as a new dawn in our relationship with our sector’s largest client. The Construction Playbook, The Gold Standard and The Government Property Strategy provide the template and framework for a changed relationship. These are indeed radical times for our industry, so that’s why I’m prepared to call it – this time it will be different!
A version of this article was featured in Building. View it here.