Whitehall stalling on public property sharing

8 Aug 11
Local government ministers' attempts to help councils rationalise their assets and join up services continue to be hampered by other Whitehall agencies, Public Finance has learnt.

By Lucy Phillips | 8 August 2011

Local government ministers’ attempts to help councils rationalise their assets and join up services continue to be hampered by other Whitehall agencies, Public Finance has learnt.

Baroness Hanham

Speaking to PF after publishing the first public property map last week, communities minister Baroness Hanham said the 11 councils that had taken part in ‘pathfinder’ projects had encountered problems with other public bodies as they attempted to find savings from sharing property and other assets. 

Led by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, the Department for Communities and Local Government is encouraging councils to save billions and avoid cuts to frontline service by selling off property and making more efficient use of their buildings. Last week’s ‘demo map', showing facilities owned by 87 councils, revealed a multitude of pubs, restaurants, golf courses and stadiums under public ownership. 

Hanham, who chaired the group of Capital and Assets Pathfinders, said: ‘One of the things that came up all the time was that local authorities probably knew where they had assets but they weren’t always able to get co-operation from other public bodies.

‘We started trying to see how we could help get over the barriers of that so that you could get in with the National Health Service, in with the Department for Work and Pensions. Then they could in fact rationalise their assets and make it not only easier to make better use of property, but for the public to have much better services because it’s bringing them all under one roof.’

Such barriers were ‘gradually being overcome’, but there was still some way to go, she added.

She welcomed examples where local government had come together with police forces, social services and the Inland Revenue to provide services in one place.

Commentators indicated similar frustrations. Liam Scott-Smith, head of external affairs at the New Local Government Network, said: ‘This map of council-owned assets is useful, but the next step needs to be to take a more panoramic look at assets held across the public sector, including in Whitehall, as this is where the biggest savings can be realised.’

Peter Fleming, chair of the Local Government Group's Improvement Board, said: ‘Local authorities are saving millions of pounds through smarter use of their assets. This includes gathering different council services together under the one roof to reduce building management costs and sharing space with other councils, public bodies and the voluntary sector.

‘The key issue remains that if the public sector is to find really big savings then Whitehall has to look at its own assets. Government agencies and the NHS must stop working in isolation and start sharing office space with each other and local authorities.’

Hanham’s comments are also reminiscent of concerns that pooled budgeting is being held back by lack of co-operation from government agencies in employment and health.

Hanham, who is the lead minister for Community Budgets, said: ‘With Community Budgets these problems are all gradually being worked through because there’s a great will in government now to see proper co-operation. It’s across the piece.’

However, the minister could not cite any specific work that was going on in other Whitehall departments towards joined-up asset management or budgeting. She said it was ‘widely accepted’ that huge savings could be made.

Under current laws, revenue generated from the sale of council assets cannot go into running frontline services or paying wages. Hanham did not rule out relaxing the rules in the future as council budgets get squeezed.

She also denied that telling councils to publish their assets online contradicted the government’s localism agenda. ‘We have not directed anyone to do anything. We have said there is room here for public bodies to look at what they own to see they are making best use of them and make sure they are providing the best services for local people. And then if there are redundant buildings and they are not needed then by all means sell them... There’s been no compulsion about it by anyone for anyone.’

Scott-Smith added: ‘Ultimately it should be up to councils to decide whether they need to own the land that they do. Ministers should trust councillors to make up their own mind on this.’


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