While Rome burned, Emperor Nero fiddled, or so the legend goes. We are seeing the modern equivalent from our government, it seems.
As households and businesses struggle to grasp how they will pay their bills across the coming winter, and waves of strikes hit the nation, our leaders take holidays and embark on foreign trips, prevaricate and postpone or busy themselves rearranging deck chairs.
Next week we will learn the identity of our new prime minister and their new cabinet, and may well hear of plans for an emergency Budget. We can only hope that decisive action will flow from the Conservative Party’s eventual choice of leader. Having watched most of the ‘leadership’ debates, I have started to wonder if the two final candidates might have been secretly trying to lose with various ill-considered policy pledges – rather than win and face an in-tray overflowing with mounting crises.
While Boris Johnson has stepped firmly back from taking action, Jacob Rees-Mogg has rode boldly forward on his hobby horse. The minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency has this week magnified his fondness for inflexible working into government policy. He has said taxpayers should not “fork out” for offices left “half empty” by homeworking, as he launched a new Government Property Strategy.
No doubt some rationalisation of the government estate would be wise, but it’s easy to doubt the motivation of a minister who toured offices in April and left caustic calling cards on empty desks saying: “Sorry you were out when I visited.”
One wonders if the minister famed for his historical views believes 100% occupancy is normal – that every square foot should be occupied by a scrivener bent over their task.
It could well be argued that the minister is fixing a problem that doesn’t even exist. Opinions vary about pre-pandemic office occupancy, but some have suggested 60% as a long-term rule of thumb. Even in the popular holiday week at the start of August, Cabinet Office figures reveal only four out of 19 departmental buildings had occupancy rates below 50%, while 10 had occupancy rates above 60%.
Nonetheless, Rees-Mogg has announced a plan to sell off £1.5bn of London properties over the next three years, consolidating staff into fewer buildings and relocating many to sites outside London.
Wise or otherwise, the plan will at the very least create some excitement as various prime government buildings make their way on to the market. Assuming the new regime doesn’t simply rearrange the plan.
Talking of strikes and other crises, I should warn you that next week’s print edition of Property Week – normally due on 9 September – is likely to be affected by a planned Royal Mail postal strike, and may be delayed substantially. Possibly until the following Wednesday.
As a result, we will make the digital edition of the magazine freely available on our website, to ensure everyone is able to access at least an on-screen version in a timely fashion.
Assuming it arrives at all, the 9 September issue will be in a paper envelope rather than polythene wrapping. This is planned as a permanent change that I hope will be universally welcomed, as a step forward in our ongoing efforts to produce a more sustainable publication.