I yield to no-one in demands for councils to show greater rigour in asset management.
Recently I did some research for the TaxPayers Alliance on how this extraordinary empire building has got out of control.
Sometimes there would be a response from Council spin doctors that owning restaurants, pubs, hotels, farms and golf courses produced a “good return” for the Council Taxpayer – the logic of which would be that councils should be up some more and extend their commercial portfolio. Yet often the return on council owned property is nil – with buildings and land left derelict. Then there would be the (contradictory) response that already plans were well in hand to dispose of surplus assets – move along, nothing to see here…
Yet what of central government assets?
Let us take empty homes for instance. Certainly councils and housing associations could do better regarding the number of “voids” – but so could the array of Quangos and Government Departments. According to the figures for last year (see Table 615) last year there were 3,648 empty homes in Britain that do not belong to councils or housing associations but “other public sector”. Given that the New Homes Bonus applies to bringing empty properties back into use there is a financial interest for local authorities here.
Potentially there is far more that could be done in selling other unused – or underused state buildings – to be used for housing or private business.
Then there is the land. There are 600,000 acres owned by the Ministry of Defence – the size of Surrey. There are another 5,700 owned by Transport for London – the size of Camden.
How much surplus land is owned by Quangos? By the NHS? There is potential for millions of new homes – as well as hundreds of billions to be sliced off the National Debt.
Local councils (or members of the public) can challenge over the use of vacant land or buildings with a Public Request to Order Disposal. More should do so. There is also the Community Right to Reclaim Land.
Councils should also do more to share their buildings with other parts of state. What about town halls also being used as courts if there is room?
Cllr Liz Redfern, the Conservative leader of North Lincolnshire Council has proposed this for the Scunthorpe Court Centre. In that particular case the court building is due to close anyway – and rather than the Council having a financial motive Cllr Redfern is keen for victims of crime not to have to add to their ordeal by facing a long journey. But what of deals where courts are not currently planned for closure but they could be if hearings were moved to town halls?
What of the same with Job Centres? Or GPs surgeries?
So local authorities could do far more to share buildings with other branches of the state.
Councils are right to note that they are not the only culprits when it comes to property being left derelict for years on end. But rather than complaining they should make use of the powers they have to get these assets taken to auction.