“Too many buildings, often located in the wrong places, unsuitable for delivering today’s customer focussed services and modern [integrated] working practices... wasting scarce financial and environmental resources.” Tom Steele & Cllr Scott Farmer, HFS conference November 2010
It was standing room only: the audience drawn by the truth of the statement and something that just a few years ago would have been entirely novel - a Health Board and Local Authority Councillor sharing a platform on Strategic Asset Management.We had a chat with Tom to find out more about the key lessons he has from the past year’s work and how the triangle of service planning, asset planning, and local authority development planning is starting to working in their region; looking to revitalise communities with a settlement based approach, rather than a silo-service mentality.
NHS Forth Valley have been leading the way in developing an interagency property and asset management strategy in partnership with three Local Authorities, Police, Fire & Rescue, Ambulance and further education bodies in their region. The drivers from the top are clear, SOA’s, PAMS’s and the introduction of hubCo’s all point to the need for a co-ordinated view across the public sector of what we have and what is needed. But what has been the positive driver for this hard work, and it has been hard both to overcome process and attitudinal barriers and to keep up momentum, is a clear view of the benefits.
Tom refers to a previous project in Ayrshire where co-location dramatically increased the accessibility of services to users, making their lives easier and therefore the service more effective : “you came to see the doctor, did you do anything else while you were in here? ....Yes, I reported a leaky gutter, paid a bill or I reported something to the police. So for me it’s the customer’s multi transaction that is the carrot, that’s the prize to get.”
As well as bringing services together they need to be in the right place. Mapping facilities into the particular needs of local communities is a shifting target with demographic change and new communities springing up is no small task. Further, the starting basis is disparate, if you mark all the public buildings in a community “it looks like someone’s thrown a whole load of darts, and where they landed built something... it’s a huge task to try and unpick that, but I think we’ve got an opportunity to at least to sensibly rationalise it”. Using tools like GIS to plot assets and demographic information from across the public sector (police, health, social work etc) there’s the opportunity for really targeted services built around local centres.
As A+DS we do a lot of work with Planning Authorities and local communities on ‘place visioning’; considering the future of a settlement, the type of place that might be created to support the people to live sustainably and how the development planning system might embed principles to guide delivery. We also work with public sector commissioners and we’re learning that it’s often easier to gather a momentum around targeting a planned investment than building from a planning base in what can seem a more abstract exercise. For example, the ‘learning town’ idea of looking at how a proposed schools investment programme might be targeted across a whole settlement, building on existing learning opportunities (library, landscape, leisure centre etc) and considering the transport infrastructure that links these to stimulate a whole community vision and plan.
Historically public sector investment as run on the tails of planning, being reactive to the formation of new settlements and decanted communities; health investment in particular has suffered in having to bid commercially for land on which to place new facilities, often contributing to the opening quote. There appears now to be a tipping point, particularly as private sector development is no longer driving the system, where public investment and infrastructure in necessary services might inform where new housing is consented and the form of new settlements such that necessary services can be provided at their core.
In Forth Valley, that tipping point is certainly being reached. Early work on joint asset planning was aimed at easy wins such as setting up shared protocols around land release so that each partner organisation notified the others of any intended land release for first refusal. The relationships built over this early work led to greater integration with the health board’s early thoughts on future land surpluses informing thinking in the local development plan, and the CHP embracing the opportunity to influence how and where settlements might grow and change. Thinking and planning 10 or 20 years out can be challenging, but the benefits of engagement and the potential to ensure that space is reserved in developing communities as a base for services are well worth it.
The work in Forth Valley started with high level buy-in, a presentation to the CE’s and Chief Officers of the local public bodies to obtain support for the work needed by senior officials in each organisation – key players from each organisation have been working with Tom. But to move forward it needed to have a political perspective. The NHS Board non executive councillor member from each local authority champions the work, giving the process momentum and political acceptability sound check. Thus far the work has been involved in describing a way of working between the organisations; no decisions have been made in terms of changes to local facilities. The next step will be to form a Steering Group in each locality that will be involved in considering, with local communities, how services and assets may change on a settlement by settlement basis. Certainly getting a project off the ground and seeing the benefits of physical change will help reinvigorate what has felt, at times, tricky and slow work.
Keeping this process of change going requires pragmacy and a good dose of soft skills. The first thing to do is to recognise there’s no ideal time to start, that service planning may not yet be fully formed and each party will be at a different stage in terms of the information they hold on their assets. But if you don’t start you’ll never know what you don’t know. As yet, they can’t quite quantify the financial benefits, but they potentially number in their millions each year.
However, it’s not this that keeps the project on track it’s the close working relationships and trust that’s being built up between key people who, now they’ve started working together find other reasons to connect and make things better for the local community. Face to face meetings, collaboration and engagement is how we get things done.
A call from A+DS
Remaining in existing disparate facilities which tend to be, in Forth Valley at least, central in towns but not local to community need is not seen as sustainable. Therefore, many community services are likely to move away from being provided solely in the high street. It will be largely in the hands of planning authorities whether these moved services become ‘edge of town’ – with all the consequences realised when shopping facilities did this - or if space is preserved in local centres to bring communities together at their heart forming not just service hubs but places where people want to be and which contribute to community life. The opportunities of decant, freeing often attractive but neglected buildings for redevelopment, can be seen as an opportunity for regeneration and intensification. However, local authorities will have a careful balance to strike such that the civic heart of towns are not hollowed out, and the liveliness and commerce that exists from a concentration of public sector activity is not wholly lost and what is moved is replaced by something positive. The collective and collaborative vision that’s developing around Forth Valley bodes well in this respect.