A State entity set up specifically to manage government’s own properties is unable to list the entire portfolio of assets in its possession in the wake of an outdated and incomplete digital database.  Consequently, the potential of these vacant properties – some of which have become dilapidated – is not being exploited while government entities seeking new premises are resorting to the hefty option of commercial leases.

This worrying trend was exposed in an investigation by the National Audit Office into the operations of the Lands Authority. By law this authority must ensure the best use of government land, provide an effective and reliable land management system and enable the full use of land and building information for better land and property management.

In its investigation the NAO found that the authority’s digital database (LEMIS)  contained incomplete and outdated information while there was no standard operation procedures for managing requests filed by government entities seeking  vacant properties. A major stumbling block was the fact that the reconciliation between the physical files and the digital ones remained outstanding, meaning that not all information had been entered into the system. According to the Lands Authority the database contains around 80% of all government vacant properties which translated to around 4,100 properties.

Apart from these gaping holes in the digital database, it also transpired that the information which was readily accessible was not completely reliable and at times sketchy. For instance, LEMIS included fields in relation to footprint, as well as total utilisable area of properties which had not been populated. Moreover, other characteristics such as the level of accessibility might not be listed while the  locating the keys of the property in question might also pose a challenge. The NAO also remarked that the actual status of the property might differ significantly from what was held on record to the point that a house might in reality be a block of flats.

In this context, concerns were raised that the Authority adopted a rather defeatist approach as it claimed it lacked the resources to carry out a physical inspection of all properties. Nonetheless, even if such task was carried out the exercise would be futile as the status of these properties would change again by the time the inspections would be completed.

Evidence of the problems being encountered by the Authority to fulfil its functions emerged from the act that out of 20 requests received, only two resulted in specific properties matching most specifications. However, these were nonetheless refused due to the extensive refurbishment works required. In this respect the Authority insisted that most of the vacant properties in its possession were in a dilapidated state. On the other hand, it remarked that the requests it received were often too elaborate to satisfy as they included features like onsite parking, excessive floor space and a central location. Meanwhile, the annual budget of around €500,000 for refurbishing the stock of vacant properties was deemed as a drop in the ocean and only enough to carry out urgent repair works.

In its recommendations the NAO called for enhancing existing Lands Authority database of government properties including the physical condition and property ownership details. An updated and real time database of the full population of government properties plays a pivotal role in ensuring effective governance resource allocation and decision-making processes, the report read. However, this would require allocating the necessary human and financial resources, the NAO said.