A parliamentary committee has highlighted failures in the UK Government’s programme to develop a database of its properties.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said the Cabinet Office needs to get the inSite system up and running as soon as possible, following the removal of the contractor leading the project earlier this year.
The PAC has highlighted this as one of the key issues in its new Managing Central Government Property report, which takes a broadly critical view of the Government’s record in the field.
It says one of the prime failings has been that the Cabinet Office does not have the data or an IT system to manage the estate, with the existing ePIMS system being unable to accommodate the additional data – on properties such as hospitals and schools – that it began to collect in 2020
It announced the development of a new property database in 2018, saying it needed a bespoke system, which has been named inSite and was originally scheduled for launch in 2021. But contractor Landmark Solutions did not complete the project, citing staffing problems and even after being granted an extension, with the department paying out £880,000 of the £1.3 million contract - £300,000 of which has been repaid.
The Cabinet Office terminated the contract in July of this year, retaining the software licences and the web pages for information, but has not yet appointed a new contractor and could not tell the PAC when the new system will be operational or how much it would cost.
This has prompted the PAC to recommend that the Cabinet Office should analyse why the inSite programme has failed to meet its goals and set out what it has done since to ensure the mistakes are not repeated in future procurements.
It also highlights the need to get a new database running as soon as possible, drawing on appropriate expertise in the procurement and with the option of using off-the-shelf software – even though it was earlier claimed this would not be capable of receiving data from 160 bodies across government.
The report also expresses scepticism that the Government Hubs programme, under which civil servants are relocated from small offices into modern hubs across the UK, still represents good value for money when the falling demand for office space could reduce office rents in the long term.
Limited data is available on future office usage and its cost, and it is unclear how many hubs are on long term fixed leases. The creates a risk of government being locked into meeting unnecessary costs that could be passed on to departments in the future.
In response, the PAC calls on the Cabinet Office to set in detail the benefits and costs and update it annually on the programme.
Lack of leads, clarity and ambition
Other criticisms are that the land and science property portfolios do not have clear leads, it is unclear how government will meet its target for property disposals, and that the plan to reduce the operating costs of the estate is not sufficiently ambitious.
Deputy chair of the PAC Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP said: “The plague of ageing, inadequate data systems strikes again, this time at the heart of Government’s £158 billion property estate. The whole plan for a network of government office hubs across the UK appears to be in some disarray, with radical shifts in office space use and rental values, but the Cabinet Office simply hasn’t got enough grip on the facts on the ground to adapt.”
He added: “A stalled £1 million IT upgrade is hampering savings reform across a £158 billion property portfolio that costs the taxpayer about £22 billion a year to maintain, though we couldn’t get a precise figure for managing this property because the cost of leases and facilities management were included in that figure.
“We recommend that these items are separated out so that we can see what the true management cost is but on the face of it, 13% of the property value looks to be high. We see again the imperative for Government to get ahead of rapidly changing market and economic conditions and invest to save.”