Recently I reported on the sluggish sales of public sector land and the imperative to achieve far more to ease the housing supply.
At least Labour-run Bolton Council has been making a reasonable effort.
The Bolton News reports:
“The authority netted £7,816,133 between April, 2015 and March, 2016 from selling plots of land to developers. The figures, which have been revealed after The Bolton News submitted a Freedom of Information request, show that it was a bumper year for the council in land sales.
“The same request for the financial year 2014-15 shows land and asset sales of just £2,084,361 — meaning the authority enjoyed a rise of 73 per cent in this area last year. The biggest single asset sale last year was the Smithills Estate — which the council sold to the Woodland Trust in July.
“Another major sale involved land in Commission Street, in the town centre. Once home to a housing estate, the buildings have been demolished and the £2.5 million plot was sold to the University of Bolton in December, 2015, with plans to create a flagship new £10 million national motorsport centre on the site.
“Many of the council’s land sales have been carried out through its public sector partnership with investment firm PSP. The council uses this arrangement — known as PSP Bolton LLP — to maximise its return on land and property assets and generate new income for the authority.
“One area where PSP has secured a sizeable cash return for the council is on the site of the former Longsight School in Harwood. According to the FOI response, the council secured a £679,800 cash boost from the sale of the land in March this year, with a developer aiming to build 56 new houses on the plot. The council admits that it is under pressure to fulfil government housing allocations and many of the land sales have been done with a view to creating housing developments on brownfield sites.
“This includes the former Chorley Street Car Park, which the authority was paid £100,000 for in August last year ahead of plans for more than 100 apartments and 17 houses being submitted by developer Bolton Site Ltd.”
The Council leader, Cllr Cliff Morris, notes that maintaining buildings is a significant cost. “It costs £3 million per year to run our Corporate Property Unit, which looks after our listed buildings as well as important jobs like checking schools for asbestos and Legionnaires’ disease.” So even if a Council building is unused it still an expense for the Council taxpayer.
The benefits of selling property are not only about improving council finances and providing new homes:
“When you look at the Smithills Estate, not only have we sold that, but it also means we don’t have any liabilities for the area going forward and The Woodland Trust is the best organisation to manage that site.”
“Extending the university is also an important priority for us.”
The Woodland Trust says of Smithills Estate:
“Many features are in need of restoration but this is still a wonderful place to visit, and over the next few years the Trust will preserve and enhance the iconic landscape for the benefit of people and wildlife.”
The objection has been raised that funds raised should be for the capital account rather than for revenue spending. But opposition parties have accused the council of continuing to plead poverty and consider closing services like children’s centres, while adding millions to its coffers. But that misses the point about the Council’s debt and the interest payments required. The Statement of Accounts for the Council indicates a debt of nearly £80 million. The annual interest bill costs the Council taxpayers of Bolton over £4 million.
The challenge to the Council should be over its remaining list of over 2,000 assets. Last year when I asked them they sent a list that included 46 farms, nine shops, three golf courses, two hotels. Plus an awful lot of land that was a “former site ” for this or that but appeared not to have any current use at all.
So the Council’s efforts are welcome. An extra couple of hundred homes will help. But rather than grudgingly doing the minimum required to balance the books, far more should be done to end municipal ownership which so often means poor management and poor value for money.