” … Far-reaching research by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the Huffington Post UK has found that nine years of swingeing central government cuts to local council budgets have resulted in a vast and irreversible sell-off of public assets. Of England’s 354 local authorities, 301 replied to the primary Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which revealed that between 2014 and July 2018, more than 12,000 publicly owned assets have been offloaded by local councils. In total more than £9.1bn was generated.
Some of the assets sold off are grand historic buildings; some are small scraps of land. All are now gone forever, in a one-off fire sale of public assets accumulated over many decades, intended to serve the public good, and now generating profit for their new private owners.
Replies to the Bureau’s second set of FOI requests were even more comprehensive (342 out of 354) – and alarming. These concerned the use of “flexible capital receipts”, and showed that in many cases local councils have begun offloading their assets – playing fields, community centres, libraries, youth clubs, swimming pools – to fund redundancies made necessary by central government cuts.
Until new legislation was introduced in April 2016, councils had to to use any proceeds raised from selling land and buildings they own to buy new assets. David Cameron’s government changed all that by allowing them to invest the proceeds of any assets sold by April 2019 to fund frontline services.
FOI data shows that in the first two years following the change in the law, at least 64 councils – one-fifth of those who responded – used these capital receipts to plug gaping holes in their budgets. Often, this has included redundancy payments.
In some cases, desperation has driven local authorities to offload these public assets at knock-down prices. Northamptonshire – which relied on selling assets to plug huge gaps in its finances – got rid of land or buildings it owned for less than they were worth on 12 separate occasions, potentially missing out on income of £6.3m. Half of these under-value sales were to property developers. …”