After decades of under-investment, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is not meeting its commitment to provide all service personnel in the Armed Forces with high-quality subsidised accommodation, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on Single Living Accommodation.
Single Living Accommodation (SLA)1 is normally accommodation blocks inside military bases. At 31 October 2020, 79,963 service personnel, around 52% of the total Armed Forces, occupied SLA, which can vary considerably by type and quality. At this date, around half of SLA residents lived in ‘good’ SLA (Grade 1 and 2), but 36% lived in poorer grade accommodation (Grade 4 or below). In addition, approximately two-fifths of SLA buildings are more than 40 years old, although MoD has confirmed that all SLA was built in compliance with the standards applicable at the time of construction.
Satisfaction with SLA has declined. In the 2020 Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS), 49% of service personnel living in SLA were satisfied with the overall standard of their accommodation, compared with 58% in 2015. In 2020, 34% of service personnel living in SLA stated that the accommodation provision increased their intention to stay in the Armed Forces and 29% their intention to leave.
Some service personnel report that SLA does not always meet their basic needs. In discussions with 14 groups of service personnel from across the Armed Forces, the NAO found that while some were happy with their accommodation, others cited common problems with basics such as heating and hot water, limited storage space, poor or expensive wi-fi, and a lack of cooking facilities. There is currently no MoD-set ‘reasonable standard’ for SLA, so the MoD’s Commands have nothing against which to evaluate what they are providing or to be the basis for requesting additional funds to improve SLA.
Between 2010-11 and 2017-18, the MoD’s overall estate budget reduced by 13% and accommodation had to compete with other infrastructure demands for funding. As a result, since 2010 SLA has been subject to a ‘fix on fail’ approach to maintenance to save costs in the short term. This has contributed to a maintenance backlog worth £1.5 billion across all accommodation. While this approach might have helped with cost savings in the short term, it has led to an overall decline in the condition, shortened the life of these buildings and increased future costs. There has also been no clear strategy for SLA and no single person has overall responsibility.
More recently, MoD has strengthened departmental oversight of its SLA. Since infrastructure budgets were delegated to the MoD’s Commands in 2018, they have increased budgets by around 18% and intend to upgrade SLA through replacement and renovation. The Commands plan to spend £1.5 billion over the next 10 years, although it may be some time before significant improvement is seen. MoD also hopes to move towards a preventative maintenance regime for its infrastructure.
The MoD’s overall plans for SLA require a better understanding of the priorities and needs of service personnel. Its work to understand demand and improve satisfaction has been slow. The MoD does not make the most of information in the annual Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey and while it believes SLA may influence its ability to retain service personnel, it is currently unable to demonstrate an impact.
The MoD does not have a clear picture of the number and condition of its SLA, or readily available information on the total cost of SLA. It is developing a central SLA Management Information System (SLAMIS) to address some of these data needs, but progress has been slow. It has been working on this project for eight years, with completion due in 2022, but risks to delivery remain, and in the meantime, the quality of data remains poor.
Based on available data, 26% of SLA bed spaces were unoccupied as at February 2020, a total of 27,125 bed spaces. MoD told the NAO that this is due to high turnover and movement of personnel around the estate or into other types of accommodation. In contrast, some other sites are close to full occupation. As the MoD does not have a single system for allocating personnel to SLA, it is unable to make the most of nearby under-occupied SLA. It also spent £32.4 million in 2019-20 on accommodation from the commercial rental market for sites where there is insufficient SLA to meet demand, for example in London.
The NAO recommends that the MoD should prioritise developing a more comprehensive overview of its SLA, including gaining a more complete picture on how much it costs and bed space availability, and introducing an easy to use booking system to help make best use of available SLA.