“Councils forced to sell off parks, buildings and art to fund basic services”

Of course, some councils (naming no names) positively relish selling off the family silver to fund such things as posh new HQ … and note the bit about “transforming services” … a phrase our council adores!

“On Friday, the government-appointed inspector sent in to examine Northamptonshire county council’s books after it went effectively bankrupt is due to publish his report on what went wrong.

While he may identify some failings that can be laid at the council’s door alone, in reality Northamptonshire merely had the dubious honour of last month becoming the first local authority since 1998 to be unable to balance its books. According to last week’s report by the government’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, there are around 15 councils that could follow suit in the next three years. The most likely contenders seem to be the Tory-run Surrey, Somerset, Lancashire and Norfolk county councils.

The NAO’s analysis highlights the financial predicament facing councils across England. Government funding has fallen by nearly 50% since 2010. Combined with increased demand for adult and children’s social care and homelessness services, as well as paying higher national insurance contributions for staff, implementing the “national living wage” and the apprenticeship levy, growing numbers of unitary and county councils are relying on their reserves to balance their budgets, the watchdog found.

If current rates of spending continue, the NAO calculates that 10% of social care authorities will have exhausted their reserves within the next three years, while more than 20% will have depleted them within four to five years. A recent survey by the Local Government Information Unit thinktank (LGIU) found that 80% of councils were concerned about their finances. Having already slashed spending on management, administration and non-statutory services, as well as raising council tax, local authorities are desperately trying to find sources of revenue. Most plan to increase or introduce charges for services such as parking, garden waste disposal, burials, planning, home care and meals on wheels. With no financial lifeline from the chancellor, Philip Hammond, in his spring statement on Tuesday, many are also having to sell off their assets to raise cash.

Although councils have long been able to sell school playing fields, swimming pools and leisure centres, they were previously barred from using money from building or land sales to fund frontline services. But since 2016, the government has allowed them to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 in “transforming” frontline services. This has given councils a greater incentive to flog assets. According to the NAO, in the year to April 2017, £118.5m of such capital receipts were used in this way.

Northamptonshire’s proposed sell-off of its new £53m HQ has been widely reported. But numerous other councils are hoping to sell their historic town halls, from Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, to Southall in west London and Shotley Bridge in County Durham. Until last month Broxtowe borough council in Nottingham had also planned to sell Beeston town hall to developers, but in the face of fierce local opposition it is now inviting bids from those interested in making alternative use of the building.

“It’s a historic building which has been the civic centre for Beeston since 1936 and represents a lot for the people,” says Matt Turpin, a project and communications manager at Nottingham Unesco City of Literature and the co-founder of a blog about Beeston. “The locals are hugely against it. The council ran a consultation last year and 94% said they were against demolition.” A spokeswoman for the council says shortlisted proposals will be asked to submit business plans before a full council meeting makes a final decision.

With buoyant land values, it is hardly surprising that council-owned parks are vulnerable. Knowsley council in Merseyside is planning to sell 17 parks to developers for an estimated £40m. This will be used to create a charitable trust that will fund all future maintenance and upkeep of its remaining parks. The council will no longer fund parks and green spaces after 2019. After its 2018 budget was approved last week, the plans will now go before the scrutiny committee before a final decision later this year.

Knowsley is far from alone. More than half of cash-strapped councils in the north-west of England are considering selling their parks or finding other organisations to maintain them.

A 2018 parks survey being published on Thursday by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) reveals that 85% of cash-strapped councils expect to cut parks and green spaces funding. Paul O’Brien, APSE’s chief executive, says this is a false economy. “While divesting parks may seem like a quick solution to financial pressures, in the long term we lose a valuable community asset that can generate a real return for local places and local people, he says.

“If we want to create healthy, active communities, develop attractive public realms to bring in new businesses and jobs, and safeguard the environment, then parks are the answer not the problem.”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/14/councils-forced-sell-parks-buildings-art-fund-basic-services

“Since Margaret Thatcher came to power, 10% of the area of Britain has left public ownership. No wonder there’s a housing crisis”

“… in all the proliferating discussion about the rights and wrongs of the history of privatisation in Britain – both from those determined to row back against the neoliberal tide and those convinced that renationalisation is the wrong answer – Britain’s biggest privatisation of all never merits a mention. This is partly because so few people are aware that it has even taken place, and partly because it has never been properly studied. What is this mega-privatisation? The privatisation of land.

Some activists have hinted at it. Last October, for instance, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a progressive thinktank, called in this newspaper for the government to stop selling public land. But the NEF’s is solely a present-day story, picturing land privatisation as a new phenomenon. It gives no sense of the fact that this has been occurring on a massive scale for fully 39 years, since the day that Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street. During that period, all types of public land have been targeted, held by local and central government alike. And while disposals have generally been heaviest under Tory and Tory-led administrations, they definitely did not abate under New Labour; indeed the NHS estate, in particular, was ravaged during the Blair years.

All told, around 2 million hectares of public land have been privatised during the past four decades. This amounts to an eye-watering 10% of the entire British land mass, and about half of all the land that was owned by public bodies when Thatcher assumed power. How much is the land that has been privatised in Britain worth? It is impossible to say for sure. But my conservative estimate, explained in my forthcoming book on this historic privatisation, called The New Enclosure, is somewhere in the region of £400bn in today’s prices. This dwarfs the value of all of Britain’s other, better known, and often bitterly contested, privatisations. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/08/biggest-privatisation-land-margaret-thatcher-britain-housing-crisis

Axminster North-South relief road gets £10 million from government plus grant for “Greater Exeter” alternative green spaces

Good news for Axminster? The much-needed relief road that East Devon District Council Tories initially refused to put in the Local Plan (when Bovis was building in the town) is getting a government grant of £10 million. £10 million doesn’t go far on roads these days, so will it be enough? Good news for Crown Estates and Persimmon who are said to own a large parcel of land to the east of Axminster (at least they did in 2015]:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2016/05/27/axminster-persimmon-and-crown-estates-meet-the-neighbours/

On a more worrying note, “Greater Exeter” (which includes East Devon) also gets £3.7 million for “Greater Exeter Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space” which means allowing developers to build on current green spaces if others can be created elsewhere.

The only problem being, the areas to be concreted over seem to get build on rapidly before the “alternative green spaces” are found or designated!

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/678379/MVF_Successful_Bids.xlsx

Green spaces – use them or possibly see them flogged off

Owl says: health benefits of public open spaces? Pah! Flog ‘em, flog ‘em!

“ Corporate Green Space policy 1 –

Survey, plot and categorise all council managed green/open space across the district (including housing land, and allotment sites)
assess sites based on a range of criteria including;

strategic importance,
accessibility,
alternative or additional use,
levels of use, amenity value,
ability to protect our outstanding environment and cost.

Identify which sites are suitable for retention, community transfer or disposal taking into account our corporate policies, our Local Plan and open space study.

http://eastdevon.gov.uk/media/2319199/170118-joint-overview-scrutiny-agenda-combined.pdf

EDDC: “More open spaces to be closed for private events, say council”

And all for £35,000 … our PUBLIC open spaces paying for their new HQ?

Or planning a money-spinner for Grenadier?

“East Devon District Council agenda papers say the authority is planning to close public spaces like Manor Gardens and Exmouth beach for privately-rented events.

Exmouth’s beach, parks and gardens could be closed to the public for privately-rented events such as weddings and festivals, under new proposals.

According to East Devon District Council (EDDC) agenda papers, the authority is considering hiring an events officer to ‘actively market’ its open spaces.

Previously, Exmouth’s Manor Gardens has been closed to the public for private occasions such as weddings and an open-air cinema. An area on the seafront was also used for the observation wheel last summer.

Proposals in the joint overview and scrutiny committee agenda say that these sites could be used for a big screen to show sports and music events.

There could also be Christmas markets, food fairs, and beach volleyball or surf lifesaving championships.

The agenda, for the meeting taking place on Wednesday, January 17, also says £100,000 could be set aside from EDDC’s capital reserve and that charges would be ‘in line with the private sector’.

EDDC says all parks, gardens and beaches are being considered as host venues and that town and parish councils will be consulted.

An EDDC spokeswoman said: “As part of the council’s objective to develop an outstanding economy through being more commercial, we have been making steady progress in improving our events offer and rentals of our assets such as parks and gardens.

“Last year we increased events income from £10,000 to £35,000.

“This has already included a wedding in Manor Gardens, Exmouth, the Exmouth Observation Wheel and other ticketed events such as open-air cinema, where the park or area was closed to the public.

“We consult with the local town or parish council and elected members before such events go ahead.

“Any East Devon District Council parks, gardens, beaches or open spaces will be considered by the council for events bookings or private functions.

“Charges will be in line with the private sector and anyone interested in making a booking, should contact the council on 01395 517528 or visit http://eastdevon.gov.uk/events.”

http://www.exmouthjournal.co.uk/news/exmouth-beaches-parks-rented-out-privately-1-5351545

Another new-build developer scam

Estate rent charges apply in Cranbrook:

Thousands of homeowners on private estates are facing unregulated and uncapped maintenance fees, amid allegations that developers have created a cash cow from charging for communal areas not maintained by the council.

Management contracts for “unadopted” private estates are frequently sold off to speculators and property management companies in the same way as freeholds and ground rents – leaving homeowners with spiralling fees and nowhere to turn.

If a new-build estate is “unadopted” it means communal areas such as roads, grass verges, pavements and playgrounds are retained by the developer. The developer then usually sub-contracts day-to-day management.

These companies then pass on the costs to homeowners (both freeholders and leaseholders) via a deed of transfer which obliges the homeowner, under the Law of Property Act 1925, to pay for maintenance of this land. This is often referred to as an “estate charge” or “service charge”. These are on top of full council tax – even though the council doesn’t maintain their street.

Critics say the system is open to abuse because management companies have no obligation to keep costs down or provide evidence the services they charge for are being carried out. Buyers may find the bills spiral as soon as a management contract is sold on.

Lynn Myers bought her two-bed leasehold house in Penrith, Cumbria, from developers Persimmon in September 2016. The sales agent told her the estate would be managed by Carleton Meadows Management Company with an estate charge of £100 a year per household for grass cutting.

When Gateway Property Management took over in July 2017 it tripled the fee to £308 a year – that’s £17,000 from the 55 residents. Myers alleges that the fee includes more than £3,000 “postage”.

“I am on a lower-end income and ploughed my late husband’s insurance money into this property,” says Myers. “I worry that I will be unable to afford this on top of full council tax etc, and also I will be unable to sell. I have been mis-led by Persimmon and the government.”

Persimmon says the initial costs had been miscalculated and that it was working with Gateway to resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, 40 miles away across the Lake District, residents in Church Meadows in Great Broughton are in a similar situation. Richard Elsworth moved into his Persimmon-built freehold property in May 2013. The estate’s 58 residents each pay Gateway a service charge of £125.53 a year, amounting to £7,281 to maintain about 600 square metres of grass.

But Gateway’s charges don’t stop there. When Elsworth’s neighbours sold their home, they were charged £360 for a “management pack” for the buyer, plus £144 for a deed of covenant.

“The only part of the pack that is relevant to the sale is a financial statement so that the service charge information is available to the prospective buyer. As the properties are freehold, Gateway has no responsibility whatsoever for the conveyancing process, other than to receive a deed of covenant from the conveyancing solicitors,” says Elsworth.

Gateway claims it provided an “often exhaustive” amount of information to purchasers’ solicitors when a sale takes place. It said it was common practice for managing agents to charge fees for sales packs and additional legal documentation. It says: “The information we are asked to provide varies from development to development and this is reflected in the amount we charge ranging from £150-£300 plus VAT.

“It is best-practice for the information to be prepared by professionally qualified staff because purchasers are reliant on information being accurate to enable the sale to proceed as smoothly as possible. Typically, a sales pack contains in excess of 25 pages and is tailored to the development.”

Privates estates were debated in parliament earlier this month. Kelly Tolhurst, Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood in Kent, told MPs how homeowners in Hoo bought from Taylor Wimpey and Bellway but are now in dispute with their property management company, SDL Bigwood.

Tolhurst went on to criticise Hyde Housing Association, and London and Quadrant. The latter tried to charge residents at Lodge Hill, Chattenden, for street lamps and street cleaning undertaken by Medway Council.

The Homeowners’ Rights Network (Hornets) is the campaign group fighting for a fairer deal for homeowners on private estates. Its main issue is a lack of a cap on charges and that homeowners don’t have a choice of provider. And, if homeowners have a dispute, there’s no resolution service in place.

Cathy Priestley, spokesperson for Hornets and a freeholder on a private estate, says the private estate model seems to be the norm for new-build estates. “We can only speculate as to why this has happened. The main benefactors are the plc developers who get to keep the estate land, don’t have to prepare it to adoption standards and don’t have to pay for its maintenance or the commuted sums for adoption,” she says. “All councils have to do, under planning, is to ensure there is a long-term sustainable arrangement to maintain the land (under the Town and Country Planning Act). They seem to readily accept assurances from the developers that the management company will deliver this. They don’t appear to have thought about how this affects homeowners.”

While leasehold owners have some (albeit limited) statutory protection, freeholders have very few options. They can take cases to court, but this can be expensive and time consuming. If they decide to simply not pay, they can ultimately lose their home. “Any arrears will normally be recoverable as a debt claim in the county court.

“However, homeowners should be cautious as the rent charge owner may have a number of options including the ability to take possession of the property,” says Adrian McClinton, associate solicitor at Coffin Mew.”

https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/dec/02/homeowner-freehold-management-fees-unadopted?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Two councils, two very different approaches to retirement housing

It is interesting to compare the Millbrook development in Exeter with PegasusLife’s at the Knowle, Sidmouth.

At Millbrook [the retirement complex in Exeter, Exeter City Council being the planning authority] the development was considered to be C3 (dwelling houses) and therefore attracted affordable housing provision which consisted of a payment to the Council of £5.65 million plus the transfer of land at no cost to enable the Council to construct a public extra care facility on the site. In addition the developer contributed almost £300,000 towards sports facilities and £35,000 towards archeological recording.

And what are PegasusLife, who are backed by Oaktree, a billion-dollar equity giant with offshore tax-haven connnections, contributing?

Answer: nothing, whether the development is adjudged to be C2 (residential institution) or C3. Unless of course, you include an information board to tell you where the elegant lawn terraces in the public gardens used to be.

So how many “affordable” houses (or other provision) is East Devon losing out on?