UK government to sell state property as Ress-Mogg reiterates plan to move officials out of London

By on 02/09/2022 | Updated on 02/09/2022
A street sign displaying the word Whitehall, the name for the centre of the UK government.
Photo Steph Gray/Flickr

The UK government has published a new strategy intended to save money by selling off government property, using modern building materials and energy sources, and reducing its spending on leases.

The Government Property Strategy, released on 31 August, could capture more than £2bn (US$2.3bn) in savings, according to Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister of government efficiency.

UK state property comprises “hundreds of thousands of assets, from prisons and courts to schools and museums, hospitals and health surgeries, job centres, military bases [and] administrative offices”, with annual running costs of £21.7bn (US$25.1bn).

Offices would be sold or vacated over the next three years as the government pressed ahead with its programme to move more civil service jobs out of London, and to rationlise existing buildings into government hubs.

Sales of these assets are expected to save £1.5bn (US$1.7bn) over the next three years, and a further £500m (US$576.8m) saved by exiting leases.

“The public estate has the potential to be at the vanguard of improving society, through helping to make our streets safer, supporting the NHS and educating children and adults,” said Rees-Mogg.

In the strategy document, he added: “If we get this right, this strategy can inspire genuine transformational change and deliver a better, more effective government.”

While 7,000 roles have already moved from London, the new strategy reiterated the aim of the Places for Growth programme to move 22,000 more civil service jobs, and 50% of UK-based senior civil service roles, out of the capital by 2030. Most of the 7,000 transferred jobs (1,389) have moved to Yorkshire and the Humber. More than 500 roles from the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Health and Social Care have been moved to Leeds. Together, the Department for Education and the Home Office make up around 250 transferred roles currently based in Sheffield.

“This will also help us deliver the Places for Growth programme, which will allow greater savings and mean the government is closer to the communities it serves,” Rees-Mogg said.

Building back smaller, greener

Part of the aim of managing its property portfolio better will be to bolster delivery of the government’s emissions-cutting 25-Year Environment Plan, as well as its Greening Government Commitments.

According to the government’s strategy announcement, carbon emissions from its estate have already dropped 57% since 2009, and water consumption as well as waste products from state departments have been cut by 14% and 51% respectively. The government also said it had shrunk the number of offices in central London from 63 in April 2018 to 36.

The strategy is one of several fronts on which the government is seeking to make the civil service more efficient. Last month, Rees-Mogg said that the Cabinet Office would lose a quarter of its headcount over the next three years, paving the way for “significant reform as well as savings” ahead of what he called “the coming storm of inflation”.

Read more: Cabinet Office to shed 25% of staff as part of ‘war on Whitehall waste’

His announcement followed earlier news of the government’s plan to return civil service headcount to 2016 levels by cutting 91,000 roles from the workforce. These cuts dovetail with questions about the government’s current real estate footprint and whether its buildings are being put to best use.

In response to the latest strategy announcement, Dave Penamn, general secretary of the FDA union, tweeted: “Finally he [Rees-Mogg] wakes up to the fact that greater flexible working provides better value for the taxpayer. The only question is why it took so long.”

However, Rees-Mogg also claimed that the office sales would be a result of civil servants working from home. The minister has waged a campaign to get more officials back into their offices following the switch to remote working during the pandemic, but he told the Sunday Telegraph: “We have seen over the last year that expensive office space in central London has been underutilised. Why should the taxpayer be made to fork out for half-empty buildings?”

Last month, Rees-Mogg also launch a review of ‘flexitime’ arrangements that allow civil servants to work irregular hours of their choosing, with many opting to work from home full-time. He criticised what he called a “culture of wastefulness” perpetuated by officials’ aversion to office work, adding that working in the same spaces as colleagues would mean “more job satisfaction for civil servants”.

Read more: Jacob Rees-Mogg to probe ‘culture of wastefulness’ in Whitehall

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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