There is an old saying in politics: “that to be successful in your aims, you need to get ahead of the narrative“.

The Government’s announcement this week that it is to enter the sphere of directly commissioning the building of 13,000 new homes on public sector land illustrates that the narrative is increasingly moving towards what we can do to transform public sector land in order to encourage economic growth and bring forward more ‘shovel ready projects’.

Independent estimates previously suggested the startling reality that the public sector holds around 40% of all developable sites in the UK – and around 27% of the brownfield land suitable for housing.

Coupled with the Government’s increasing initiatives to encourage the selling of disused or inefficient Central and Local Government land and property, the statistics illustrate that there are potentially significant opportunities opening up for professionals interested in acquiring excess public sector land to develop.

And as we digest the Government’s early New Year announcement about direct commissioning, it is also useful for us all to dive a little deeper to look at additional opportunities arising from previous Government initiatives aimed at better utilisation of the Public Estate.

The introduction of the ‘One Public Estate Programme’, for example, coupled with the ‘Right to Contest’, highlights that the focus on under-used public sector land is a narrative that the Government continues to strengthen.

The One Public Estate Programme

Originally launched in May 2013, with twelve participating councils, The One Public Estate Programme’ now has over 33 participating councils and is a scheme aimed at bringing together the management of public land and property, in particular areas regardless of the public bodies owning the land and property in question.

The scheme can lead to land and buildings being sold, shared, repurposed or used for income generation. One of the aims of the programme is to allow surplus land to be used as a source of revenue by Local Authorities.

The 2015 Centre for Cities report “Delivering change: making the most of public assets” noted however that mapping the public estate has been a particular challenge because the information held locally is often poor.

Significantly the Government announced the extension of the programme in its 2015 Spending Review stating that:

The Spending Review extends One Public Estate with £31 million funding to support local authorities to work with other local public sector property owners and design more efficient asset management strategies.

Right to Contest

The Government also introduced a ‘Right to Contest’ in January 2014.

The Right to Contest can be exercised by anyone (including businesses, Local Authorities or members of the public) who wish to challenge the Government about a public owned site. They can do so as long as they believe that:

  • the land is owned by a central government department or one of their arms’ length bodies;
  • the site is potentially surplus or redundant;
  • the site could be put to better economic use (e.g. for housing or to help businesses develop or expand.) and:
  • there are no plans to bring it back into use.

Where a Department agrees to sell, the case is closed and the site is placed on the open market. If the department sets out its reasons to keep a site, the Government will consider both sides and Ministers will then reach a decision on the best course of action.

The Government states that it expects to determine most simple cases within 6 weeks and if it takes longer on more complexes cases they will keep interested parties updated on progress.

The relevant department may indicate that it does not wish to sell if “the site is vital for operational purposes” or “other considerations outweigh the potential better economic use”.

Significantly, the Government recently strengthened its support for the Right to Contest indicating in its 2015 Spending Review that:

The government will also strengthen the existing legislation around Right to Contest to allow local communities to challenge the use of land and property that is in use by local authorities, not just property that is empty or under-used, where these assets could be made surplus and put to better use.

How to find out who owns the land or property

If you are unsure about who owns land or property you are interested in, you may be able to find out by:

You can request a Right to Contest form to be sent to you by emailing: righttocontest@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk.