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Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

A week is a long time in politics – and we now have seven weeks to ponder the potential outcomes of the June General Election. The forthcoming County results may offer some insight, but that’s not necessarily guaranteed; the public is feeling fractious, not just about Brexit v Remain, but the fragility of world peace, national security, healthcare and education, as well as personal debt, and – yes – immigration. Threats of increased taxation at a time of rising costs are an added worry.

There is also increased concern about growing inequality, not helped by The TaxPayers Alliance revelations in its latest Town Hall Rich List that 2,314 council employees in both affluent and poor areas, are paid over £100,000 a year, up by 89, with 539 receiving over £150,000, an increase of 53.

Amid claims of austerity, resulting in library and playground closures, as well as inadequate social care (in some areas) councils evidently think these awards are justified, despite the very generous payoffs and pensions (and early retirement provision) payable to these employees – many of whom return to the public sector in different roles after redundancy.

Those seeking a mandate to govern us, whether at national or local level, should remember that the average wage is just £27,300, and despite high employment and rising inflation, wage growth is stagnant. It is these ‘ordinary people’ who fund the public sector, while, at the same time, struggling to buy their own homes.

The metropolitan elite (including the media, many of whom have second homes in Suffolk), especially some hypocritical politicians concealing their privileged backgrounds, titles and valuable property portfolios, should also stop claiming that all pensioners are wealthy. Let them try living on the basic State pension of just £122.30 a week, which is the only income for more than one million retirees, and would barely cover an elite’s weekly shop at Waitrose! Pensioners fit enough to work continue well into their 70’s and 80’s whilst often caring for elderly relatives and subsidising their own families.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times has raised concerns(£) about 49 local authorities using the 2011 Localism Act to ‘go on a £1.3 billion property buying spree’ in the last year – up from £142m in 2015. Helped by cheap loans at 2.5 per cent annually on £100m borrowings from the Public Works Loans Board (PWLB), originally ringfenced for infrastructure improvements, which offers councils access to £65 billion via the National Loans Fund, shortly to be absorbed into the Treasury.

Instead of investing in new homes, some local authorities are using these borrowings to generate fresh income by acquiring commercial sites, without necessarily declaring that purpose to the PWLB. Concerns revolve around the potential risks of investing in this volatile property sector, which councils don’t necessarily understand.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee reinforced these concerns last autumn, when the Chairman criticised local authorities’ complacency when ‘increasingly acting as property developers and commercial landlords’. Others note that yields cannot be sustained if rent reviews are challenged, when changed circumstances may result in leases being surrendered or a new tenant cannot be found at the end of a term, leaving buildings empty.

Assets also lose value without regular maintenance and professional management, which will have an impact on councils’ accounts; no doubt consultants will be the beneficiaries in due course, advising on acquisitions, winning expensive contracts for management and eventual rationalisation – especially in the event of a property crash.

Most worrying is the news that deals are largely based on only paying interest on the debt, with the PWLB taking no security over the asset. As anyone with an interest only mortgage can tell you, the capital has to be repaid at some stage; extending the loan, or switching lender, merely adds to the costs.

Consequently, as it absorbs the PWLB functions, it would be sensible for the Treasury to adopt the Bank of England’s policy in relation to banks, and require local authorities to undertake annual stress tests to verify that they have sufficient funds to withstand a crisis.

The biggest spenders range from Spelthorne in Surrey (£394m) and Surrey Heath (£104m) to Canterbury, Portsmouth and Stockport, but they are by no means alone.

So far, Ipswich Borough council has reportedly clocked up £40m in borrowings, buying up sites in and around the town for the last couple of years, apparently creating a separate property company. However, there is nothing on the website about it: how it operates, who the directors are, nor how it is held to account. Everything relating to this and other related decisions are ‘confidential’ because of their ‘commercial sensitivity’. Such secrecy cannot be justified.

This is especially important since the Council has been unable to recruit a Head of Finance and is now paying a consultant to do the job, whilst the two former Heads of Finance remain on the payroll, but in other roles, with one approaching retirement.

With so much at stake, and further borrowing on the cards, careful and impartial scrutiny of all local authority borrowing is vital. Taxpayers need to know, since they will eventually have to pick up the bill whilst those enjoying the large pay packets at the helm of decision-making take the money and run – to the next public sector job.

2 comments for: Judy Terry: Councils should not be playing the property market

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