• Plans unveiled for saving money by targeting vacant space
  • NHS Property Services offers to take on liability for eligible space from commissioners
  • Millions of pounds spent annually paying for vacant space across NHS 

Commissioners are being offered the chance to buy themselves out of their liability for costs associated with vacant properties under a new scheme which starts today.

NHS Property Services wants clinical commissioning groups to identify vacant space and divest themselves of responsibility for the costs associated with it – after paying at least six months’ costs upfront.

The NHS landlord says this will leave the CCGs with more money to spend on care for patients long term.

The organisation is launching the “Vacant Space Handback Scheme” today, with the backing of the Department of Health and NHS England.

While it is extremely difficult to accurately estimate the cost of vacant space in the NHS, chiefs at NHSPS believe the figure may be in excess of £10m a year on their estate alone.

The organisation owns around 3,500 buildings, such as health centres, GP surgeries, and hospitals, which equates to around 10 per cent of the NHS estate.

Currently, CCGs are still liable to pay costs for any vacant space in NHSPS-owned buildings in their areas. These may include rent, business rates, maintenance, and security costs.

But NHSPS are now proposing to take on that liability as long as it is part of a building, which was transferred to NHSPS following the 2012 health reforms.

In addition, for liability to be transferred to NHSPS, the space must be:

  • a separable and lettable self contained unit above 100 square metres;
  • declared surplus to requirements by commissioners;
  • vacant and free of debt;
  • not a private finance initiative; and
  • in a property in which NHSPS has a legal interest.

Handing back the space must also be in line with the commissioner’s strategic estate plans.

If a property is eligible for handback NHSPS will take on its future costs, following a one-off final payment.

The payment is:

  • six months’ accommodation costs for freeholds and long leaseholds; or
  • 12 months’ accommodation costs for all other leaseholds.

Both these payments will be subject to a 50 per cent discount if the property has been vacant since 1 April 2016.

Once the liability has been handed to NHSPS, the organisation will aim to reuse it through either reletting it to other health providers, or earmark it for development or disposal – all in a bid to generate funds that can be reinvested back into the NHS.

Despite being landlords of the buildings, NHSPS cannot reuse vacant space in its buildings until commissioners have officially declared it surplus to requirements.

John Westwood, NHSPS director of asset management, said: “This is an example of how we are applying commercial property expertise for the benefit of the NHS.

“We know that commissioners don’t want to be spending their money on empty space, and now we can help them avoid some of those costs.

“We can use our property knowledge to put the space back into use as soon as possible, maximising the value of the NHS estate.”

He said NHSPS’s team would assess requests to transfer liability for space within 15 days of the request being made.

“By becoming responsible for vacant spaces, it incentivises us to find a new use for the spaces quickly,” he added.

“It is not in anyone’s interests for vacant sites to lie idle and we want to put them back into use quickly.

“We want people to understand that we’re trying to do the best thing for the system, and we’re willing to take on the risk to help the system to reduce the burden of vacant space.”

Lord O’Shaughnessy, a minister in the Department of Health, said: ”This scheme is an important part of our ongoing efforts to help the NHS make the most of its estates, delivering greater value for money and freeing up extra funds for patient care.”

  • Article updated at 08.41 to include quote from Department of Health