The organisation called Locality has produced a report, entitled the Great British Sell Off, denouncing local authorities for selling surplus land and buildings. It claims there is “a massive sell-off” of “our much-loved publicly owned buildings and spaces … being sold off for private use.” In response to Freedom of Information requests it adds that 4,000 buildings and spaces a year are being “lost forever.”
The report claims:
“They are our libraries, youth centres, allotments and public swimming pools. These are the everyday places where extraordinary things happen, where local people come together, access vital services and support each other.”
Sometimes they might be. Let us take libraries as an example. Public Libraries News lists ten that are closing this year (including four mobile libraries.) It also lists five new ones. Usually the closures are by Labour councils. That is out of around 3,000. Locality favours the option of a Council handing over the management of a community asset to a community organisation. This might also involve giving it away or selling it for below the market value. That could well be reasonable and often happens. But there might be cases where no community offer has come forward. Perhaps a library has a tiny number of users. Or the building is in very poor repair. Perhaps it might make sense to sell the building and use the proceeds to provide a new library elsewhere.
Or consider allotments. Here the claim in the report is even more misleading. Under the Local Government Planning and Land Act, 1980 a Council can only sell off or develop allotment land where “there is evidence of long-term insufficient demand for continued use of land as allotments” and if “suitable sites are made available to relocate tenants” and also that “any proceeds from land sale is re-invested in developing the allotment service.” It does happen that occasionally land designated for allotments is built on. This could be where it is in the wrong space due to demographic change meaning it is unused – and that replacement plots will be more popular.
Of course there will be controversy. In Watford, the Farm Terrace Allotments are being replaced with housing. The replacement site is two miles away on land that would not be suitable for housing. The former Lib Dem directly elected Mayor said the old site was “really hideous, derelict.” But there was a community spirit and resistance to having to start again elsewhere. One can see both sides of the argument but probably it is right to give priority to new housing. More generally the story is of a lot more allotments. In Taunton. In Deenethorpe. In Dingle. In Plymouth. These are not just replacements but include extra ones – as part of the new garden towns and villages.
Anyway the main way in which the Locality report is misleading is that the vast majority of the 4,000 assets being sold a year are not being used for anything. Not libraries, or allotments or youth centres or swimming pools. They are much more likely to be empty buildings and unused pieces of land. Furthermore the report refers to them going on to be “for private use” and “lost forever”. But the question they asked Councils included future use as lettings – as well as sales at below the market price, which is what Locality is supposed to be in favour of. The wording of their query was:
“How many of the authority’s land and property assets have been disposed of in the following periods: 2012/13, 2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 (to date)? For the purposes of this FOI “disposal” means a sale on the open market for monetary consideration or the letting of any council land or building, or part of a building, regardless of the length of term of the letting.”
From my own earlier FOI requests I have established that Councils owned 407 golf courses, 2,586 farms, 378 pubs and 7,294 shops. If a shop ceases to be owned by the Council and is bought by the shopkeeper who runs it, how does Locality justify the claim that it is “lost forever”? It is the same flawed logic that if a council tenant exercises the right to buy then the home is “lost”.
I asked Locality to provide me with their spreadsheet listing all the responses from individual councils – from which presumably their total was calculated. They refused to do so. Officially they are a charity with an income of £4.5 million a year. Most of this seems to come from the taxpayer – including handouts from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. It is quite wrong for such a group to indulge in left wing lobbying – especially doing so in such a dishonest way.
The real scandal is not that councils are selling too much, but too little. It is likely that a significant slice of your Council Tax bill funds not local services but interest payments. By selling surplus assets councils can reduce their debt and thus their interest costs. There is also the maintenance, security and insurance costs on all the empty buildings. At the same time we have council leaders sitting on these property empires and asking the Government what it is going to do about the housing shortage.