Stuart Woolgar, CEO of Global Guardians, discusses the implications and opportunities of the shrinking public sector estate
The public-sector estate is shrinking as both the Government Property Unit (GPU), in tandem with municipal and other authorities, seeks to utilise property assets more efficiently and effectively.
The way we work as a nation is changing, especially in offices. We can now work remotely or from home or do flexible hours that better suit our employers or personal lifestyles; offices are changing with hot desking more common as cloud-based technologies and smarter cities enable a different style of working, even in the public sector.
The government’s aim is to deliver this smarter way of working throughout its establishment and the GPU has introduced its Hubs Programme with a target to reduce the government estate from around 800 buildings to 200 by 2023 through the creation of regional ‘hubs’ and co-ordinated offices. This programme is expected to save approximately £2.4 billion over 10 years and the ‘One Public Estate’ strategy aims to bring together all the public bodies within a region to look at how their assets can be better utilised to meet this efficiency and cost-saving objective.
In addition to this, the Government Property Agency was set up in September to manage the government’s portfolio of buildings with a far more commercial focus. As assets are vacated and the portfolio contracts, it will leave a growing number of properties sitting empty until they are re-let, sold or redeveloped.
The vacant property problem
However, empty buildings can be a magnet for trouble: anti-social behaviour, metal theft, vandalism, squatting, graffiti, fly-tipping… the list is long.
Even though the squatting laws were changed in England in 2012 to cover residential buildings, commercial buildings are different and are still a target. In 2010, the government estimated there were 20,000 squatters at any one time. Since then, other estimates have it anywhere between 20-50,000, with the largest numbers in London and the south-east.
The lack of definitive information on squatter numbers has made assessing the impact of criminalisation difficult but there is now some anecdotal information which suggests that squatting in commercial premises has increased as a direct result of the introduction of Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Fly-tipping is the latest menace on the rise. Current figures show there were 1,002,000 cases of fly-tipping handled by councils in England between April 2016 and March 2017, equivalent to 114 every hour, 66,000 (7%) more than the previous year. It cost taxpayers £58 million to clear up and was the fourth year in a row that incidents increased1; since these figures don’t include private removal of illegally dumped waste the total is probably considerably higher.
Even if they are no longer active as a working centre, vacant buildings are still a drain on financial resources: insurance, rates and security must be paid for. The option of secure fencing, shutters and boarding around a site merely attracts disfiguring graffiti and doesn’t keep out anti-social behaviour, nor determined thieves after, e.g., copper piping and wiring, fireplaces, or anything with a scrap value. Vacant premises also deteriorate rapidly, and this can cover everything from vermin infestation to leaking roofs, blocked guttering and frost damage.
Overriding all of this is the cost of business rates and insurance which still must be paid. These items can vary considerably depending on if there are people in situ in the property caretaking it, or if it is completely uninhabited. Security guards and dogs can’t be there 24 hrs a day, the budget for that is simply impractical; if a team of guards is rostered 24/7, costs can run into tens of thousands of pounds per month.
The local community, therefore, hates empty buildings and see them as a blight on their neighbourhood as they often stand vacant for years with negative PR implications for the owners.
Everyone is aware the UK is suffering a housing shortage, especially in the social sector and for first-time buyers trying to get on the housing ladder in some expensive parts of the UK, notably the south and south-east. The country’s economy is also somewhat in limbo as the implications of Brexit gradually unravel across both industry and our access to global markets, and inflation is creeping upwards once more. How all this will impact on the property sector is currently unknown to commentators expounding a variety of differing views. In the meantime, there are many people struggling to find affordable homes.
The Guardian solution
A solution to all the problems associated with vacant buildings is to put guardians in the property through an ethical and responsible company that can turn the void into an income generator, as opposed to a drain, for as long as it takes. The company takes responsibility for the property maintenance and responsible people living on site provide security and deter all the anti-social behaviour and reassure the local community. They also impact positively on the insurance costs and rates. In addition, sometimes the buildings and/or site can be put to further commercial use – everything from a film set, through advertising hoardings to providing off road parking.
Global Guardians are industry leaders, London’s largest property guardian company and one of the biggest in the country. We work with government departments, municipal authorities and the NHS, as well as the social housing and private property sectors and have campaigned widely to raise standards in the industry. We are currently working on behalf of the sector with the GLA and professional industry bodies, such as the BSIA, to tighten up the regulations and ensure better standards for guardians.
The sometimes negative or misunderstood view of property guardians is now changing. They are not irresponsible students, potential squatters or illegal immigrants. They are carefully vetted working professionals who care about the properties they live in and keep secure for our clients (owners of vacant buildings). In return, they pay a licence fee to live in the building which is much lower than the equivalent market rate for a rented apartment or house.
The social benefits of using property guardians reflect positively on the building owners/managers as property guardianship provides much needed affordable accommodation for working professionals looking to save on living costs, especially in expensive city locations like London. Property guardianship can enable some key workers to live near their inner-city workplaces, such as schools and hospitals, and is a real contribution to the provision of social/affordable housing.
Due to the semi-permanent nature of the accommodation, property guardians should necessarily only be single people or couples without children, but for this section of the workforce, guardianship can enable them to save for a house or flat deposit or provide them with more disposable income to finance living costs, hobbies, entertainment and social activities, travel or to run a car. It is win/win for everyone involved in the process and an ideal solution for consideration by property asset managers.
Please note: this is a commercial profile
Global Guardians Management Ltd
Tel: +44 (0)7841 913954
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