“CIPFA warns councils over serious commercial activity concerns”

“CIPFA is to work on fresh guidance over concerns councils in England are putting public funds at “unnecessary or unquantified risk” when borrowing to invest in commercial property.

In a statement released today, the insitute suggested local authorities were investing in commercial properties disproportionately to their resources.

This would be against the requirements of the CIPFA’s Prudential Code and Treasury Management code, the joint statement from CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman and chair of CIPFA’s treasury and capital management panel Richard Paver, said.

Whiteman and Paver said that “in some cases these investments have been financed by borrowing” and CIPFA shared concerns there had been an “acceleration of the practice of borrowing to invest in commercial property”.

They warned councils the “prime policy objective of a local authority’s treasury management investment activities is the security of funds, and that a local authority should avoid exposing public funds to unnecessary or unquantified risks”.

CIPFA’s code and the government’s Statutory Guidance on Local Government Investments were “very clear that local authorities must not borrow more than or in advance of their needs purely in order to profit from the investment of the extra sums borrowed”.

The institute will “issue more guidance and will make it clear that these investment approaches are not consistent with the requirements of fiscal sustainability, prudence and affordability,” the statement said.

Government figures released last week showed an increase in local authorities’ commercial activities.

English councils’ acquisition of land and buildings rose by £1.2bn (43.1%) to £4bn in 2017-18 from £2.8bn in 2016-17, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government data revealed.

Total borrowing by councils in England had risen from £4.4bn in 2013-14 to £10bn in 2017-18.

The guidance is expected to be published before the end of the year.

Until it is released, CIPFA advised local authorities to refer to the government guidance, which cautions local authorities against:

– Becoming dependent on commercial income;

– Taking out too much debt relative to net service expenditure; and

– Taking on debt to finance commercial investments.

The MHCLG figures out last week showed the largest investors in commercial property were Spelthorne Borough Council at £270m and Warrington Borough Council with £220m. Eastleigh Borough Council also spent £194m.

In 2016, Spelthorne took out 50 separate Public Works Loan Board loans to fund the purchase of a £360m business park in Sunbury-on-Thames.

PF understands that MHCLG and the Treasury have expressed concern about the scale of commercial property investment.

MHCLG has been contacted for comment.”


Another developers’ charter announced by government

“The government has announced plans to consult on further reforms to the planning system, including giving local authorities more flexibility to dispose of surplus land that could instead accommodate new homes.

Other measures will include

introducing a new permitted development right to allow property owners to extend certain buildings upwards, “while maintaining the character of residential and conservation areas and safeguarding people’s privacy”.

clearer guidance to give more certainty for communities when land is needed to make a new town a reality.

The government has set a target for the delivery of more than 300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020s.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, has also confirmed that the government will ban the use of combustible materials on external walls of high-rise residential buildings. The ban will also apply to hospitals, care homes and student accommodation over 18 metres.

This ban will be delivered through changes to building regulations guidance and will limit materials available to products achieving a European classification of Class A1 or A2.

Other measures announced by the government include the creation of a New Homes Ombudsman to support homebuyers facing problems with their newly built home, and £165m in funding to unlock up to 5,100 homes in Birmingham in support of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.”


Community attempt to save Sidmouth Drill Hall

“Gillian Mitchell has set up a not-for-profit community interest company (CIC) called Sidmouth Sunrise as part of a bid to transform the space into a community hub.

The mum-of-two says she wanted to take on the project to tackle a gap in facilities in the town.

Gillian told the Herald: “The strength of community feeling within Sidmouth is what makes our town and local area a vibrant place to live in.

“The worrying thing is that we have no significant population of young single people, which implies that the youngsters are moving away when they leave education.

“We want to do something to increase the attractiveness of Sidmouth to this age group and encourage a more balanced population and create a sustainable vibrant community.

“We are serious about what we are doing. We really want to make sure that we have it right; we have to make sure this is feasible.”

Sidmouth Sunrise has also gained backing from Real Ideas Organisation (RIO) of Plymouth, which will serve as a consultant and funding partner.

Gillian says RIO has ‘vast experience’ in breathing new life into redundant buildings to bring them to community use and will be able to provide support and advice to manage their own projects.

Sunrise Sidmouth has carried out a structural survey and is consulting architects about final designs, before holding public meetings.

Gillian, who is chairman of the organisation, says she is looking to work collaboratively to put in the strongest bid to Exeter-based agent JLL.

She said: “We’re not aware of any other community bids that are being put together and if there is, my group would like to work together rather than have multiple community bids.

“We are really up to talking to anybody and get behind one bid.

“We’re not going to please everybody, and it is quite a small space. I do not want to be in competition with my own community.

“If we are successful with our bid, all funds and profits will be reinvested into securing the future of the Drill Hall and future similar projects.”

EDDC has given community groups six months to develop their ideas. The commercial property sector will have three months to prepare their proposals, with all bids to be submitted to JLL by February 4.”


“Tories trigger ‘secret NHS firesale’ as land selloffs ‘soar 31% in a year'”

“The amount of NHS land being sold off is up almost a third, up from 1,300 hectares last year to more than 1,700 according to research by Labour.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said patients would be “alarmed” at the “huge rise” in the amount of health service land under consideration for sale.

Labour’s health chief said hospitals were being forced into a “fire sale” of assets because of the Government’s mismanagement of NHS finances.

Analysis by the party showed 1,750 hectares were listed – an increase of 31% in the last year.

And over two years the amount of land for sale has risen by a staggering 320%, meaning there is now more than four times as much NHS land for sale compared to 2015/16. …”


Council charges bereaved woman £324 for privacy space at mother’s inquest – reduced from £1000

“A bereaved woman was asked to pay more than £1,000 for the use of a room at an inquest this week into her mother’s death.

Christie Dyball is due to attend a three-day hearing at Reading town hall and requested a family room – a private space away from the courtroom – which is a standard facility at most coroners’ courts.

The inquest into the death of her mother, Anne Roberts, 68, who was detained in hospital, starts on Tuesday and will be held before a jury.

Dyball was initially told the cost of the room would be more than £1,000. After protests from her solicitor, Merry Varney, the sum was reduced to £324.

Inquests in Reading are held in the town council building because there is no dedicated coroner’s court in the area.

Dyball said: “It was a huge surprise. It’s disgraceful. What do they expect us to do? Huddle in a public corridor and discuss behind our hands with our lawyers? How can we express our feelings in private?

“It’s a shame that the council would rather keep the room empty than let us use it. It’s been a real disappointment and added to the stress. I have had to pay the £324 in advance or else lose the room.”

Dyball, who lives in north Norfolk, sought the help of her local MP, Norman Lamb, to obtain legal aid to ensure she was represented at the hearing. The Legal Aid Agency declined to pay for the family room.

Varney, a solicitor at the law firm Leigh Day, said: “This is ridiculous for such a charge to be made against a bereaved family who are there through no fault of their own.

“The response from the town hall was that it’s a commercial venture and that’s why they have to charge. It is totally unreasonable for a bereaved family member to pay a fee for a facility offered routinely to other bereaved families up and down the country when attending a loved one’s inquest.”

Inquest, the organisation that supports relatives at coroners’ courts, condemned the demand. Selen Cavcav, a caseworker, said: “Bereaved families must be at the centre of the inquest process. This cannot be achieved when they are forced to pay for a basic requirement.

“When families are expected to sit next to those who may have been involved in the care of their relative, their trauma is only exacerbated. It is essential for the family to have a private space where they can go during distressing periods and to speak to their legal representatives in confidence.”

Reading borough council said: “Family rooms are not generally requested at inquests, but where they are there is a standard charge.

“We aim to provide a sensitive service for the bereaved and we intend to do everything we can to assist the family to find an area where they can have some privacy during what will no doubt be a very difficult time, but we cannot always guarantee to have rooms routinely available. In this instance the family were given a discretionary discount on the hire of the room.”


Misleading headline about future of Sidmouth’s Drill Hall

The Midweek Herald website has an article entitled “Concerns over Sidmouth’s redundant Drill Hall site quelled”. On reading the article it will become patently clear that, far from being quelled, the future of the Drill Hall looks extremely insecure:

“… In June, community groups were given six months to make a bid for proposals to redevelop the site – they have until February 4, 2019.

Exeter-based agent JLL, which was appointed by East Devon District Council (EDDC), plans to open the bidding up to the commercial property sector in the Autumn, giving them three months to put forward a bid.

Two members of the public came forward at the latest Sidmouth Town Council meeting on Monday. Resident Di Fuller raised issues with there being no published criteria on what the bids would be judged on. While, resident Simon Fern spoke out about his fears that the owners of the Drill Hall (EDDC) will simply sell to the highest bidder.

District and Town Councillor David Barrett said: “It would be impossible for me properly discuss the details of that criteria until it is discussed in the forum that decides the criteria.”

He added that the forum was hoping to meet soon and that he believed they would be looking at the criteria then.

Town Clerk Christopher Holland said: “My understanding is that it isn’t this council that gets the final say on this, it is not even this council who will have a say on this as such. We are being consulted and that is about it.

“My understanding is that when the criteria has been agreed they will be made publicly available to everybody but that will be through the agent. It won’t be through us, it won’t be through EDDC. It will be through the appointed agent so that they are fair to absolutely everybody and that is commercial and community bids both. They have to be fair to everybody and treat everybody in exactly the same way. So approaching us or EDDC for other information is just not going to work, you have to deal with the agent.”


Are your fears quelled? Owl’s are not!

“The great British sell-off”

“Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Locality, takes a look at the number of publicly-owned assets being sold off to the private sector after bearing the brunt of austerity, and considers what can be done.

We have known for some time that many of our important local buildings and spaces are being lost. These are our swimming pools and libraries; our parks and play areas; our community centres and town halls. Local authorities, which have borne the brunt of austerity since 2010, have often found themselves struggling to keep them open, or have been seeking a short-term cash boost by selling them off to the private sector.

At Locality, we hear these stories every week from our member local community organisations. But with no official data available, it’s been impossible to gauge the overall scale of the sell-off.

We issued a Freedom of Information request to all local authorities in England to try and get a better picture of what’s happening in our communities. The results have been staggering: we found that more than 4,000 publicly-owned buildings and spaces are being sold off by councils every single year.

To give you a sense of just how big a number this is, it’s more than four times the number of Starbucks shops across the country being sold off by councils annually.

We believe this ‘Great British Sell-Off’ is hugely damaging to our communities. These are the places where people come together, take their kids, exercise and get to know their neighbours. When the country feels more divided than ever, when social isolation is one of our biggest challenges, this loss of social space couldn’t be happening at a worse time. We are never going to bring our country back together if we don’t have welcoming places where people can come together.

That’s why we want to see our places protected through community ownership so they are there for all of us forever. Community ownership doesn’t just mean a building is saved. It can also mean revitalising a space that the council has struggled with and putting it to productive use for local people.

Take Bramley Baths in Leeds, for example. This is a beautiful local building – a Grade 2 listed Edwardian Bath House – that provides a crucial service. For years, it’s been where local families have taken their kids to learn to swim, or where young adults have learned to be lifeguards.

In 2013, the council was looking to close it due to budget cuts, but the community rallied round and took over the baths. It’s now a shining example of community ownership. Not only are the swimming baths now profitable, but opening hours have doubled and more children are being taught to swim.

The benefits of community ownership

Community ownership has such wide benefits. We want to see councils prioritising it when they think about the future of their property portfolios.

We know through our work at Locality that the community organisations who have been most resilient to recent ill winds have been those that own an asset. This gives an organisation a sustainable income stream, which makes them less dependent on grant funding or contracts. It gives them the independence to invest in the services their community really needs.
There is also a wider economic impact to be gained from community ownership. Community organisations provide spaces for business startups and social enterprises, creating hubs of local enterprises.

We’ve been working with NEF Consulting to measure the contribution this makes to the local economy: the economic value community organisations create not just through their own activities, but by hosting tenants.
We found that 10 Locality members had collectively enabled approximately 1,400 jobs and contributed £120m of gross value added to the local economy through their tenant organisations.

This economic contribution is particularly important because our members tend to work in the most deprived neighbourhoods – places the public sector finds ‘hard to reach’ and the private sector tends to forget. So community organisations are a critical way of boosting the economy in so-called ‘left behind’ areas and creating genuinely inclusive growth.

Community ownership fund

So community ownership not only guarantees that a building or space will be available for the whole community, it also invests in the local area and helps the community take control.

But we need more support for more communities to stop the sell-off. We’re calling for government to kickstart a Community Ownership Fund of £200m a year for five years, to provide communities with the resources they need to take on ownership of local buildings and spaces.

We also want to see local authorities put in place a Community Asset Transfer policy to make sure they give the community the consideration it deserves when making decisions about the long-term future of our crucial public buildings and spaces. We have lots of resources for how to do this and the key considerations available on our website.

There is no sign of an end coming soon to the spending squeeze, and we know the pressures on the public sector will only intensify. But while it’s an understandable urge, looking for a capital receipt from a public building or space can only ever offer temporary respite.

Local authorities need to think about how to maximise long-term social value for their places – and they can do this by saving our spaces through community ownership.”