The bad news, for the British taxpayer, is that another thing is going wrong at the NHS. The good news, for the British taxpayer, is that there’s a new thing to complain about at the NHS.

That would be it’s £4bn property arm, which was set up in 2013 and has lost money every year it’s been in operation. The UK’s National Audit Office today published a fairly detailed investigation into the company.

Judith Evans, the FT’s property correspondent, has the story here. In short, NHS Property Services is owed more than half a billion pounds of unpaid rent and bills, and doesn’t seem to have the powers to do anything about it.

In parts, the tone of the NAO report is almost sardonic:

The service has no effective way of getting tenants to sign formal rental agreements and 70% of them do not have an agreement in place. It is difficult to run a property management company without formal rental agreements in place.

The problem of unpaid bills is split across various kinds of tenants Almost a fifth of them are not connected to the NHS, but the bulk are made up of GPs surgeries and other buildings related to healthcare.

The company is also meant to dispose of properties that are underused. But that decision is not made by the company itself – instead, it is down to health commissioners and clinicians who use the property in question. So far, it has disposed of 410 properties, bringing in £347m, and released surplus land that “potentially enabled 5,931 houses to be built”.

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There are some echoes of other areas of public policy here. The service is supposed to deliver “value for money” – a term that echoes across the rapidly commercialising arena of UK higher education (the term was also cited in the government’s recent sale of student loans).

Focus on the commercialisation of the NHS — an explosive issue — has tended to focus on the medical industry itself, especially via the US influence. Those exploring that issue might be looking in the wrong place.

After all, the Department of Health & Social Care wanted its property business to be “financially independent from departmental allocations and able to sell the company on the open market if desired”. A huge lossmaking corporation subject to unknowable internal politics? Should be plenty of buyers around then.


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