Last week Harry wrote about the Sunday Telegraph story on council-owned property, which is worth £250 billion and costs £100 billion a year to maintain. He made the very good point that there is land and property that councils should look to sell. Why should councils own pubs or shops? I've heard that a council owns a garage that performs MOTs too, which one of our grassroots activists is investigating. Harry even mentioned a while ago that his council, Hammersmith and Fulham, once owned a launderette.
A report by the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum (WSBF), led by Matthew Hancock MP, made a range of recommendations about local government estate management, including reducing asset lists by 20-30 per cent and handing control of property management to one central department in the council. The report is good stuff. It makes clear that although the money gained from sales is a one off, the reductions in running costs gained by merging services into fewer buildings will save money in the longer term too.
And some coucils have begun to realise that there are huge savings to be made by using real estate more efficiently and downsizing. I met with councillors at Birmingham town hall who told me that they are aiming to reduce the number of buildings that the council runs its operations in from over 50 to 10. That they had quite so many in the first place is revealing, but it's good that they're looking to scale back and the savings could be big. Suffolk council realised an instant £1.6 million saving by implementing service co-location and property cooperation.
But the obvious first step is for councils to conduct a full inventory of what they own. They should be doing this anyway as part of maintaining their Asset Register but it seems that some councils' information is too disparate. Councillors have told me as much; when they entered office they realised that their council didn't seem to have the basic asset ownership information that it so obviously should. Once that's done, only then can they address the types of issues outlined in the WSBF report. With a full inventory, they can then answer questions about the condition of their assets, their value, and whether they should own it at all.
We can't have a sensible debate about what decisions councils make without full information. It's not desirable for central government to simply tell councils to sell some property, and even the suggestion in the WSBF report of trimming back by 20-30 per cent won't actually mean too much until taxpayers can see a full list of the assets involved. These decisions shouldn't be taken without proper scrutiny and debate. Then we can start working to make savings, and deliver lower council tax.