Hidden Treasure: How we found a secret map of £7bn council assets

The truth behind these assets numbers is both bizarre and prosaic.

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Richard Harries

Director of the Power to Change Research Institute

On 30 April, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell wrote an article for the Sunday Mirror making the case for up to £7 billion of asset transfers from local authorities to the community.

Let me tell you the strange story behind this number.

Local councils in England own buildings worth £81.5 billion. They own land and community assets worth £21.7 billion, and they hold surplus assets worth more than £2.5 billion.

That sentence should astonish you. It should astonish you because, before you read it, these figures had never been published anywhere before.

Why had they never been published? The short answer is that their very existence was known only to a select group of civil servants working at the very heart of Whitehall. Yet they are not some sort of state secret. There is no hidden conspiracy to hide information from the public. The truth behind these numbers is both more bizarre and more prosaic.

First the bizarre. While the law requires all private and third sector organisations to report their finances according to an agreed set of international standards, the government itself is not bound by the same rules. Instead, the National Accounts follow a set of principles originally developed a century ago by statisticians who were more interested in measuring the flow of economic activity than the accumulated stock of assets and liabilities.

(This has led, extraordinarily, to the exclusion of the cost of public sector pensions, a financial liability of more than £1.5 trillion for which no provision has been made. To put that number into context, it is almost exactly equal to the ‘official’ level of debt the Government has been trying without success to reduce since the 2008 financial crash.)

The more prosaic reason these assets figures have never been collected, let alone published, is that until very recently no-one in Government really thought that public sector land and property was a strategic resource that ought to be properly managed.

Thankfully that attitude is beginning to change.

Of course, only a fraction of these assets could or should be transferred. On a conservative assumption that 5% of local authority land, buildings and community assets might be suitable for transfer, and perhaps 75% of assets already identified as surplus, this suggests that as much as £7 billion might be up for grabs.

The real figure could be much higher and as we continue to interrogate the data we will no doubt learn more. Nevertheless, for the first time ever, we have a genuine sense of the scale and location of local council assets. This information is vital to the work of organisations like Power to Change and Locality that want to see more of these assets transferred to local community businesses and anchor organisations. We have a treasure map and it’s time to start digging.