Before I took early retirement in 2011 I was seconded to the Cabinet Office to lead a project in Bristol with the aim of rationalising the office accommodation of Central Government. It was an interesting challenge, and Bristol (along with London) were the pilots for the strategy which has now been rolled out successfully across the rest of England.

It was a challenge for a number of good, and not so good, reasons:

  • departments were independant, had their own budgets and did not always want to collaborate;
  • there was no mechanism for sharing the savings between departments or compensating those departments who might end up paying more ‘for the greater good’;
  • each depeartment had its own culture and way of working;
  • there was a tension between holding good but expensive leasehold and not so good but cheaper to run freehold properties.

But rationalisation of the estate was the right thing to do because:

  • there were about 60 Central Government office buildings in Bristol;
  • total space was over 250,000 sq m;
  • cost was nearly £70m pa; and
  • over 25% was unoccupied or under-occupied.

The proposal was:

  • to reduce the number of office buildings to less than 20; thus
  • saving £20 – 30m per annum by 2014/15 and a total of over £200m by 2020/21.

There were other less tangible benefits, not least of which was improved collaboration and working realationships, as well as the opportunity to introduce more modern ways of working.

It seems to me that the same reasons why it was the right thing to do for Central Govenmnent make it the right thing for charities to consider.

The challenges will be similar, but I wonder whether the voluntary sector can afford not to try and make rationalistion of office and other space work for them. At a time when there is increased competition between charities, vying for the limited funding for contracts it would seem that collaboration is needed more than ever. And as one charity looses a contract and the service and staff get moved somewhere else leaving empty space, does it not make sense for the charities and the people using the service to at least consider keeping the service being delivered from the same premises thus avoiding wasted expenditure for the charities and maintaining continuity for the, often, vulnerable users of the service?

Whilst a blog in the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network reports good charities spend more on admin but it is not money wasted there is also another blog which reports from the Charity Finance Group that a lot of money in the voluntary sector is misspent . The unecessary cost of underutilised property, whether it is measured and accounted for or not, would fall under the second category of admin costs – misspent.

One of the 12 Quality Areas of PQASSO is entitled Managing Resources and the first thing the standard includes in resources is property (land, buildings, rooms or venues owned, leased or hired). Property is a quality issue.

What is the experience of your charity? Have you empty space that could be made available to others? Please let me know if you would like any support in this area.