05The key elements that enabled partners to maximise their assets
Four key elements emerge from the interviews as being crucial for local authorities looking to put public assets to more productive use.
- Economic growth strategy focused on core growth areas
- Good data on all local public sector assets
- Relationships across places and between organisations
- Commercial culture underpinned by leadership buy-in and support
1. Economic growth strategy focused on core growth areas
Almost all partners interviewed talked about their approach to asset management within the context of a clear strategy for supporting local economic growth, in most cases focused on the city centre and core urban areas. This in turn means that partners have been able to identify the potential value and contribution of land and property assets within the broader economic context of the city, rather than on a site by site basis.
In some places, the focus is on boosting jobs and supporting the performance of the city centre – tackling the impact of recession and weak property markets, for instance. In others, the approach is shaped by the need for more housing and office development in the city centre.
This city-wide approach is present across most of the case studies presented in the previous section. In Slough, for example, the goal for city partners is to improve the attractiveness of the city centre in order to fully capitalise on the opportunities that Crossrail will provide. In this context, the asset management and investment strategy is aligned with economic and regeneration goals, to revitalise the city centre and improve its attractiveness to potential new companies and residents.
2. Good data on all local public sector assets
Partners who have been able to be most strategic with public sector assets have at their disposal, and regularly use, high quality data and information about their own public sector assets. This is spite of the relative lack of comprehensive data and information on public sector assets held at national level, or by other public sector bodies. Even where local authorities have good information about their own operational estate and investment portfolios, the challenge is aligning this with data from other public sector bodies as well as across city-regions with other local authorities.
Where it has been possible (even if only at local level), mapping this data has enabled partners to think and act more strategically about the opportunities that public sector assets present in their area. The benefits for those places where more data is available has been to enable partners to look across the wider public estate to think about it in a coordinated, strategic and city-wide approach, rather than a site by site basis. With better data, partners have been able to make more informed decisions about whether to sell, invest in, or acquire an asset that fits with wider priorities and objectives.
This is the case in many localities, including amongst those that have taken part in Government programmes that support improved data collection and mapping, but not exclusively. In Bournemouth, for example, extensive mapping of council-owned public sector assets was undertaken when the authority became a unitary authority in 1996. This has allowed the city to think and act strategically, looking across multiple sites to package for development, rather than managing sites and acting on a site by site basis.
3. Relationships across places and between organisations
In addition to data, good relationships across different teams and organisations, as well as with different public sector organisations, are a crucial factor in the ability of partners to align asset strategies. While data is important, the relationships and partnerships that enable this information to be used in a way that optimises how assets are used – in a strategic cross-border and cross-public sector way rather than a site by site basis – are vital. In Birmingham, for example, a significant cross public sector mapping exercise was undertaken a few years ago but partners report that the full value of the mapping was not realised because the necessary relationships, partnerships and strategic thinking across the council were not sufficiently developed at the time to make the most of it.
Specifically, a majority of partners interviewed state that closer working between asset management teams and regeneration, or economic development teams, has been a key ingredient in their ability to be more strategic. Interestingly, reductions in staff numbers due to budget cuts also seem to have been a catalyst for the creation of broader speciality teams that bring property, planning and regeneration functions together with economic development. In Leeds, for example, a newly formed asset management team has been created to deliver strategy that cuts across operational asset management, property investment and regeneration. Meanwhile, in Sunderland, the asset management team used to focus primarily on operational asset management, but in the past five years, this has expanded to also include regeneration and strategic decision-making.
Box 5: The role of Government programmes as a catalyst
In many cases, Government programs have been a catalyst for collecting better data and undertaking mapping for the range of locally owned public sector property assets in an area, as well as for building more collaborative relationships between public bodies.
In Leeds, for example, partners report that they have been able to build stronger relationships and collaborate with other public sector bodies in the locality, in part through the role of the One Public Estate programme. They say that the programme has helped them to:
- Establish more formalised conversations between public bodies (as opposed to occasional ad-hoc discussions);
- Think more strategically across the whole public sector estate and take coordinated decisions;
- Gain a better understanding of public assets across the city through several mapping exercises.
2010 – Capital Asset Pathfinders. The Capital and Asset Pathfinders was a Government programme aimed at helping local authorities to make better use of their assets and improve service delivery. The programme was first launched in April 2010 in 11 chosen local authorities, followed by two other waves of local authorities in 2011 and 2012. The programme encourages the use of new approaches to asset management – such as streamlining local authorities’ asset portfolio, reducing property costs, or developing co-location of services – with a strong focus on understanding customer demand. Working on customer insight allows to link practices and needs to asset rationalisation, for instance by encouraging the co-location of services where a set of customers tend to go.23
2013 – One Public Estate. The One Public Estate (OPE) programme was created in 2013 and delivered in partnership by the Government Property Unit and the Local Government Association. Building on the Capital and Assets Pathfinder programme, OPE focuses more specifically on fostering collaborative work between councils and other public sector partners. The programme offers financial as well as technical support with the aim of helping local authorities to develop asset rationalisation strategies, generate capital receipts and decrease running costs.24 A key element of the OPE programme is the identification and mapping of all publicly-owned assets within a participating area, usually including assets owned by the NHS and blue light services.
4. Commercial culture underpinned by leadership buy-in and support
A recurring theme from the interviews is the growing need for local government to be more commercially minded in how it creates value from public sector assets. Traditionally, the public sector is risk-averse, incentivised to do so by the system in which it operates. But within these constraints, some localities have succeeded in being more proactive, with a more commercial and risk-taking culture in place supported and enabled by the political leadership.
In Eastleigh (highlighted above as having taken a proactive approach to investment in order to generate revenue streams) partners report that they have a market-oriented asset management and decision making process. This has been made possible because of the very stable political environment, with councillors supportive and understanding that this type of strategy bears more risk than a more traditional public sector approach. Meanwhile, in Sunderland, partners report that the acquisition of strategic sites in the city centre as part of a more strategic asset management and investment approach – adapted to the financial and declining property market of the time – would not have taken off without strong support from the council’s executives and the political leadership in place.