Last October, Theresa May took to the stage at the Conservative Party conference and declared to the nation that austerity was coming to an end.
Less than six months later, an investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – in partnership with HuffPost UK – has found councils across the country are selling off hundreds of millions of pounds worth of public land and buildings just to make ends meet. In many cases, these sales are paying for council workers to be made redundant.
The Bureau sent out Freedom of Information requests to all 353 councils in England to bring data into the public domain that would otherwise not have been available. The list of lost community assets will ensure greater transparency about what has been happening at councils across the country in recent years. The findings reveal:
- More than 12,000 public spaces have been sold, transferred or are otherwise no longer in council ownership since 2014/15, including libraries, playgrounds and day centres for the disabled.
- We originally quoted £3.2 billion raised by councils from selling property during this period. In the context of the investigation, this only refers to councils that are making use of sales to pay for cost-cutting measures. If we include all council property sales, the figures comes to £9.1 billion during that same period.
- Before 2016, any money made from selling assets had to be reinvested into buying or maintaining new ones. Then the rules were relaxed to allow councils to spend the proceeds on cost-cutting measures which have upfront costs but reduce spending in the long-term, such as investing in new
technology, or making people redundant.
- Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Bureau found 64 councils in England – one in six – have spent a total of £381 million made from property sales using the new freedom since the policy came into effect. Almost a third of that – £115 million – was spent on making people redundant.
- Over the three years since the rules were relaxed, the average number of redundancies was 75% higher at councils that made use of the new spending powers than at those which did not.
- In Bristol, the number of council workers made redundant jumped ten times from 39 the year before the new rules were introduced to 401 the year after.
As part of the project, The Bureau of Investigative journalism has created a searchable map, in which readers will be able to enter their postcode to see what has been sold in their local area. This will be hosted on the Bureau’s website, as well as on HuffPost UK.
The findings will be released on Monday March 4 in a series called “Sold From Under You” published that week. These stories will reveal the scale of loss at a local level – of public servants, public services and public spaces. Follow @bureaulocal @huffpostUK and #SoldFromUnderYou for the latest updates.
In response, Tony Armstrong CEO of Locality, said: “Our own research has also highlighted the large scale sell off of publicly owned buildings and spaces such as parks, libraries, town halls and swimming pools. We are deeply concerned that many of our valued community spaces are being lost forever to solve short term budget pressures.
“Although local authorities are facing huge financial pressures, short term budget pressures should not be the driver of the loss of many of the places which communities rely on as once they are sold, they are sold. Many local authorities are taking a longer-term view and supporting community organisations to take on ownership and stewardship of spaces for the long term benefit of local people.
“Locality’s Save Our Spaces campaign asks councils to consider community ownership as an alternative to private sales. Community ownership can reinvigorate local economies, help bring additional funding that councils can’t access and create services for local people that are rooted in local knowledge.
“While selling some land and buildings for private use is appropriate, the danger is that this becomes the only option for councils unaware of the longer term benefits of community ownership. There are hundreds of examples of successful community-owned projects and we want this approach to be more widespread rather than lose our communal assets forever.
“We know that local authorities are under pressure, and we are calling on central government to do more to support community ownership including by committing to new funding for community ownership of £200 million a year for five years.”