Back in 2010 we had to take some immediate and tough decisions to take cost out of government. As part of my ministerial brief I started to look at the public estate of buildings and land valued at more than £330 billion, which covers more than 1.5 per cent of the total land in England.
Government owns historic buildings along Whitehall, decommissioned airfields and motorway lay-bys among many assets. Some of them are used every day but others are half-empty or vacant, so we got to work on sorting it all out.
Put simply, since 2010 we have:
Raised £1.3 billion for taxpayers by selling off over 800 buildings and sites.
Shrunk our office estate by 17 per cent.
Vacated two million square metres.
Cut 185 office holdings in central London down to just 97.
Combined a number of government departments under the same roof: the Treasury, part of the Cabinet Office and the DCMS in Horse Guard’s Road, and soon the Home Office with the DCLG in Marsham Street. This not only cuts down space but it makes it easier for departments to work together.
And there’s more: by 2015 the Civil Service will be smaller by a quarter than it was in 2010, so by next year every department should be allocating just ten square metres per person. As part of our transparency agenda anyone will be able to see if departments really are managing this and spending taxpayers’ money wisely. Under Labour, expensive vanity leases ensured that government squandered taxpayers’ money with no scrutiny, but those days are over.
We will never sell off national assets like Downing Street or the British Museum, but we do need to make tough choices about other property in order to balance the books. Admiralty Arch, a beautiful landmark off Trafalgar Square, is a good case; the tatty warren of half-empty offices cost taxpayers almost a million pounds a year to run even without much-needed modernisation, so we decided to sell a lease on the building for £60 million. Developers will now restore it to its former glory and give the public greater access than before.
Getting government out of property promotes growth too. We have already released land with capacity for 62,000 much-needed homes, and recent estimates suggest that by getting out of leases in central London we will generate £3 billion of economic activity.
It’s not right for Government to hold onto assets it does not need, so the new Right to Contest initiative allows anyone to challenge government where there might be underused or vacant property in the public portfolio.
I am pleased with the progress we have made, but always expect to be challenged to do more.