Three quarters of the government estate is taken up by just five departments – DWP, MoJ, BIS, HMRC and DfT.
Government departments are big, not just in spending power but also the physical space they occupy. In 2014, according to the most recent State of the Estate, the core government departments took up 8.2 million square metres, with five departments – the DWP, MoJ, BIS, HMRC and DfT – taking up three quarters of this space. This is because they operate specialised buildings around the country, such as Jobcentres and courts. The rest of the government estate is taken up by smaller departments and those departments without big delivery units, such as the Treasury. These numbers only take into account domestic, civil estate and excludes all military buildings and land outside the UK – an important point for the MoD (which owns 0.9% of the entire country’s land mass) and FCO.
For those bits of estate that are included, the government uses three separate terms:
- Mandated estate includes central government-owned property and some specialist property like courts, but excludes property such as galleries, power stations, ports and military establishments.
- Benchmarked estate is a subset of the mandated estate, and is only the office space which government takes up.
- Non-benchmarked estate is the front-line estate such as courts, job centres, research facilities and other laboratories.
This means that trimming down the government estate is not as easy as it sounds, and not all departments are equal in how their estate is made up. MoJ, for instance, has very little in the way of office space for civil servants, but a very large amount for its public-facing arm (courts occupy approximately 1.1m square metres).This means that there are difficult decisions to make, not just about how much to cut but in the logistics and political feasibility – both with the public and individual departments – of reducing the estate.
The government estate costs a lot to run - approximately £2.8bn a year.
Government buildings currently cost around £2.8 billion a year to run, which is 1.5% of all government spending. Unsurprisingly, the most expensive departments are also those that take up the most space: DWP is the most expensive, at a running cost of £704 million in 2013/14. Some, such as BIS, are slightly cheaper to run than their size would indicate, but these are exceptions to the rule. According to the State of the Estate 2014, benchmarked property cost just under £1.3 billion and non-benchmarked property £1.5bn in 2013/14.
Some civil servants might be starting to feel the squeeze more than others – particularly in the Cabinet Office.
Along with how much space the departments take up and the related costs, the State of the Estate also contains data for how much space each civil servant has. Using a measure of the number of workstations to staff member (FTE, or full time equivalent), civil servants in DCLG have considerably more space than those in the Cabinet Office, whose civil servants have the least space. While the average amount of workstations is unsurprisingly one per FTE, 10 departments have less than that, but not significantly so only those departments at the bottom of the list might feel the squeeze.
In line with the government’s strategy, both total costs and size of the estate have been reduced since 2011 – but with big differences between departments.
Reducing the size and cost of the government estate has been a key target for government in its drive towards efficiency savings. In 2014, the Government Property Unit (GPU), part of the Cabinet Office, published a new strategy to further rationalise the government estate – the benchmarked buildings which make up the office space and non-benchmarked buildings that make up the public-facing bits of government. The scale of changes since 2011 differs hugely between departments. BIS has seen an insignificant increase in its non-benchmarked estate, but a 40% increase in its benchmarked estate – it went from the seventh to third largest department.
Other departments have seen a greatly disproportionate change with the Cabinet Office, for example, seeing a reduction in its benchmarked estate but a 183% increase in its non-benchmarked estate. A lot of this increase comes from some machinery of government changes (Government Procurement Service and Residual Estate moving from HMT) and also, perhaps ironically, ‘Financial and Estate Management’. Meanwhile some, such as the Treasury, have had a large reduction in both. In general, however, the majority of departments have seen a reduction in their office space (the benchmarked estate), while changes in public-facing services (non-benchmarked estate) have been less uniform.
Across all the core government departments, there has been an 18% reduction in the running costs of the government estate, amounting to some £634m. The MoJ has had the biggest reduction, accounting for 43% of that amount, significantly higher than the average reduction of £37 million. Just three departments – DECC, Defra and DfT – have experienced an increase in the cost of their estate, with the DfT receiving the biggest increase at £29.4 million.
In all but four departments, the space offered to civil servants, measured by the number of workstations per FTE, has been reduced, with those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reducing the space by 25%. Just DCMS, DECC, DCLG and DWP have increased their space, with a 12% increase for DWP. However, while this measure is indicative, it may also reflect other changes in the workforce, such as changes in the number of employees.
Overall, the government has made progress on its target of reducing the size and cost of the government estate. But the departments have dealt with it differently, with wide variation across the changes in their benchmarked and non-benchmarked estate. As the cost of running the estate makes up a sizeable portion of total government expenditure, it is worth keeping an eye on where the reductions are falling – and how departments will be affected.