Interview: Bruce Mann from the Cabinet Office
Mon 2nd December 2013, 2:48 pm
Sitematch speaks to Bruce Mann, finance director at the Cabinet Office, to discuss the Strategic Land and Property Review and the Right to Contest.
Can you tell something about your role and responsibilities?
I am the finance director for Cabinet Office and executive director of the Government Property Unit. I am also the senior responsible officer for the Strategic Land and Property Review. This means I am directly accountable to the head of the civil service and to ministers for the success of the project.
Can you provide a bit of background on the Strategic Land and Property Review?
Independent estimates tell us that the public sector owns around 40 per cent of developable land and 27 per cent of brownfield land suitable for housing. Work is underway to make available land with the capacity for 100,000 homes by 2015. But we must go further. Our aim is for the review to identify at least £5 billion of land to be sold between 2015 and 2020. This will contribute to economic growth by freeing up land for productive economic use.
A Right to Contest regarding the release of surplus land has been put in place. Can you provide some details?
Ministers announced in the 2013 spending round that the government would introduce a Right to Contest, which will launch shortly. We should be able to determine the straightforward cases within six weeks from then. The right will allow any individual or organisation to challenge government departments and their arms length bodies to sell potentially surplus or redundant sites which could be put to better economic use. So if you have your eye on sites that you don’t think government needs to hold on to, this is the right for you!
Who will get this right and under which conditions can it be enforced?
Anybody will be able to use the right by completing a form on www.gov.uk. It will apply where a central government department owns either the freehold or long leasehold. There will be an expectation that departments should release land into the market unless the site is vital for operations, or if the economic case to sell does not stack up.
In your opinion, how will the right impact the government’s disposal programme?
The right will throw open to public scrutiny decisions that have previously been made behind closed doors. I think that will have an impact well beyond the actual cases considered. Being accountable and open to challenge in this way should mean that government makes more rigorous decisions across its estate.
What potential obstacles are there for those who wish to use the Right to Contest?
We know that, in the past, people have found it difficult to find out who owns a site. That is why we now publish data on government owned land and property quarterly on www.data.gov.uk . We will be making this more accessible in the coming weeks, to support the Right to Contest.
Those who want to use the right may think that we are asking them to make a full-blown commercial proposition. We are not: we are seeking the challenge. Whilst it may sound daunting, many local people and organisations will know the sites that can and should be sold. It’s worth noting too that we’re not just talking about sites which are unused, but also where they are in use but where operations could be moved. For example, if an office building is on a prime site a Right to Contest could make the case to relocate operations to a cheaper alternative site.
What barriers did the government have to overcome to propose the Right to Contest?
Probably the biggest challenge for us has been developing a single source of information on what land government owns. This is contained on the cross-government database, e-PIMS, which we have been building up over the last few years. (Data from e-PIMS can be found and searched on www.data.gov.uk). It is a massive challenge to keep this accurate and up to date, but it’s absolutely critical to making sure that we manage land in a transparent and accountable way.
Has the measure received a lot of support or objections from other government departments?
I’ve been really impressed by the way colleagues around government have worked with us to design this new right. I believe there is a strong commitment across government to show that we are genuinely committed to selling sites which we don’t need and to the public testing our conviction to do so.