Lord Porter is Chairman of the Local Government Association.
In recent years, Conservative councils have pioneered collaboration with other local authorities and partners across the public sector to secure efficiencies through new ways of working. A common theme of such work is that it often results in improved service outcomes for users whilst simultaneously reducing costs.
Such initiatives at a local or sub-regional level have been complemented by an exciting project: the One Public Estate (OPE) programme which is delivered by the Cabinet Office Government Property Unit and the Local Government Association.
The core purpose of OPE is to support cross-public-sector working to deliver property-led projects that create local economic growth, integrate public services, and drive efficiency savings. At its heart, it’s about local and central government working with other public bodies to transform local public services whilst delivering better value for money.
OPE, which was launched in 2013 in 12 pilot areas, now includes 319 councils in England (over 90 per cent) across 76 partnerships. By any measure, this is a nationally significant initiative.
To date, early OPE projects have directly raised £70 million in capital receipts, cut running costs by £20 million, created 5,700 new jobs, and released land for over 1,300 new homes.
As a result of OPE partnerships in my own authority, South Holland District Council, and similar work at Breckland District Council (with whom we share a management team and a number of services), I have been able to witness the success of OPE first hand.
For example, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recently moved one of its local offices into Elizabeth House, Breckland Council’s headquarters. As part of this process, the reception area at Elizabeth House was renovated to make it more accessible for users of both services (with the council and DWP sharing the costs of this).
The immediate benefit to Breckland of the co-location is that it now receives rental income from DWP of £30,000 per annum, representing a welcome contribution towards the annual running costs of its headquarters, whilst DWP themselves are now paying less rent than at their previous location. The benefit to local residents is the convenience that comes with being able to access council and DWP services in one location.
South Holland is now undertaking a very similar project with DWP which will see it relocating its local office to our headquarters from the end of March. A significant capital investment has allowed for a refurbishment that will make the reception area more accessible for users of both services, whilst the council will also receive rental income from DWP. As was the case in Breckland, alongside the financial aspects it is hoped that there will be wider benefits for the local community arising from service co-location and integration.
As the Prime Minister has made clear, getting more homes built and helping people to get on the property ladder is a key priority of this Government.
OPE can play in crucial role in supporting this ambition by unlocking public sector land for housing. For example, with the Ministry of Defence’s Better Defence Estate Strategy envisaging a 33 per cent reduction in the size of its built estate by 2040, OPE is supporting joint work with councils across the country to release surplus land for new homes.
By 2020 it is predicted that OPE partnerships will have unlocked land for 25,000 new homes whilst also raising £615 million in capital receipts and cutting running costs by £158 million.
All of these localised projects are supported by the Government Property Unit (based in the Cabinet Office) and the Local Government Association. This support ranges from providing access to central government decision makers, providing advice on project management – and acting, when required, as a broker between partners to unlock barriers to delivery.
OPE is a great example of cooperation between local and central government which simultaneously reduces costs and secures better outcomes for people. I am proud of the role that Conservative councils have played in making it a success and of the ambitious plans that so many are currently taking forward.