Chris Smith, head of Kajima Community, writes
Technology has already revolutionised many aspects of the public realm, notably in education, with some universities offering courses entirely based online, many institutions recording their lectures so that students do not miss out, and many schools providing learners with tablets to aid the learning experience.
The adoption of tech in the public sphere more widely has not been as substantial, often with basic administrative tasks still eating away at valuable employee hours. However, whilst change can often be difficult, there is one area in particular, using tech to help generate greater benefits from a more efficient use of public property assets, which could help release much more money to reinvest in services.
The UK’s recent history of budget cuts and austerity means local authorities in particular have seen growing demand for their services at a time of increasingly limited resources. Many companies have dealt with similar pressures by adopting technology to diversify revenue, reduce costs and improve efficiencies. The good news for local authorities and other public sector estates is that they can now also use tech to adopt a similar approach, not to cut jobs but to generate revenue through more strategic use of their property assets.
Rationalisation of the public estate in recent years has already yielded promising results. The One Public Estate programme put in place by the UK Government reorganises assets in a number of ways, such as selling and repurposing land, in order to reduce costs and increase revenue. By the end of May 2019, One Public Estate had saved the taxpayer £24m in running costs, created 5,745 new jobs, and released land for the development of 3,336 new homes.
Whilst this is a very good start, technology can be used to help expand this initiative even further and more efficiently. A good illustration of this, of which we have significant experience, is the use of online lettings software to help boost revenue from under-utilised public assets.
At Kajima Community, we have developed one such piece of software, BookingsPlus, which enables organisations like schools and colleges to rent out their various facilities, such as halls, playing fields and specialist rooms, for use by the community. A key benefit of this software is that it is accessible via any device, including laptops, tablets and mobiles. This streamlines the booking process, reducing extensive admin time usually wasted in lettings management.
This is important to many public sector estates because the potential for releasing revenue to reinvest in services could be substantial. Indeed, at Kajima Community we have found schools which opt to open their facilities for community use can generate average annual revenues of £70,000. In some cases, this figure rises significantly to as much as £470,000 per year. This fresh revenue can then be invested in new equipment, school resources or facility maintenance.
Although the adoption of lettings management is currently limited to mostly educational facilities, there is significant potential for this to be carried out in other public sectors, such as healthcare.
Notably, over the past five years there has been mounting pressure on NHS budgets, yet valuable property assets are being left greatly underutilised. The introduction of a bookings platform can offer NHS Trusts a way of using their existing assets to drive efficiencies and create a fit for purpose estate through enabling users to hire underutilised clinical and non-clinical space. This in turn can generate vital funds that can be reinvested to support improvements in frontline patient care and the wider health economy. For example, Kajima Community has been working closely with the NHS Property Services to deliver a system across its £3bn asset portfolio and has conducted a 12-month test period, which has generated more than 65,000 bookings across 350 NHS bodies accounting for 350,000 hours of vital services.
The variety of assets the public estate could provide is vast. From town halls to parks, libraries and community centres, estate assets could be utilised and turned into extra revenue for local authorities who are feeling the pressures of the current economic climate, helping to safeguard services and protect jobs.
The potential of this approach is considerable. A public estate, with significant high-quality assets, which are used more effectively through a lettings management system driving efficiency, freeing up space, boosting revenue and maximising returns, would be a far improved state asset and would lead to significant benefits for society as a whole.