Revealed: Essex County Council raises millions by selling off public assets
PUBLISHED: 08:45 08 March 2019
Essex County Council has generated more than £59million since 2014 by selling off libraries, community centres and children’s homes.
In a major collaborative investigation with journalists across the country, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has compiled data on more than 12,000 public spaces disposed of by councils over the last five years.
In 2016, the government gave councils in England the power to use proceeds raised from selling land and buildings they own to fund reforms to their services - as long as the measures generated “ongoing savings”. Previously, such one-off monies had to be used to fund the purchase of new assets.
Essex County Council (ECC) has used the sales of public assets to plug gaps in their finances. In 2017-18, the council used £546,000 of capital receipts – money raised from selling council assets – to meet the cost of borrowing, an increase from £480,000 in 2016-17.
This money gives local authorities cash when Government funding is being withdrawn and ECC is driving up its capital receipts - budgeted to increase to £7million in 2019-20, before rising to £10million and £15million in the following two financial years.
In 2017-18, the council raised £8.4million by selling off assets, compared to £28.2million in 2016-17, £12.6million in 2015-16 and £9.1million in 2014-15.
Cash-strapped councils are selling public assets without consulting the public to make ends meet, but it comes at a cost. Selling a public space such as a library, community centre or playing field can help councils to set a balanced budget in the short-term, but the assets are lost forever.
In Uttlesford, the county council sold Clarence House, the site of Thaxted’s former library and an adult education centre, for £815,000 in 2015.
Martin Foley, district councillor for Thaxted and The Eastons, is a former governor of North and West Essex Adult Education Colleges which Clarence House was part of before being sold off.
“I am not against selling assets that are not needed anymore, however in the case of Clarence House in Thaxted there was a crafty planned reduction in services and marketing of the building as at the time it was used as an adult education college, and a library, which just a few years before boasted around 500 part-time students. So the fewer people knew of it, the fewer people used it,” Cllr Foley said.
Others spaces sold off in Uttlesford include land in School Lane in Newport, part of a primary school playing field in Carmet Street in Great Chesterford, the former Takeley Youth Centre in Dunmow Road and land in Stebbing Road.
Cllr Foley, who has been a councillor for 25 years, said: “What has been happening, plain and simple, is some councils are selling off the family silver and often in a very underhand way.”
Debden Church of England Voluntary Controlled Primary School, near Saffron Walden, was sold by ECC in 2016 after an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted inspection in 2015. It was turned into an academy and is now run by Great Oak Multi-Academy Trust.
In 2017, Takeley Parish Council purchased the former Takeley Youth Centre in Dunmow Road from ECC to refurbish it into a community hub. Former social services offices in Great Dunmow at Twyford Court were sold in 2017 and turned into office suites. John Ray House in Braintree, the town’s registrar’s office, was sold by the council in 2017 for £482,000.
ECC also sold its former council offices at Crossman House in Braintree to a housing developer.
Fairfield Court in Braintree, the former site of the town’s police station, magistrates court and ECC’s field archaeology unit, was disposed of in 2015 and turned into 14 homes.
Witham Family Centre was sold in 2017 and turned into flats and Writtle Wick Family Centre in Chelmsford also sold for £880,000.
A community resource centre in Colchester was sold by ECC to a developer in 2015. Inland Homes want to build 66 homes on the site in Brook Street. Roundacre Community Centre in Basildon was also turned into houses by Basildon Council after being sold.
A children’s home in Brentwood, known as Leverton Hall, was disposed of by the council in 2015. The property was sold for £5.4million and planning permission was later approved for 13 apartments and eight houses on the site.
Red House in Colchester, a former children’s home and later a centre for adults with disabilities, was also sold by ECC in 2015 for £903,000.
Berecroft Home, a residential home for adults with learning difficulties in Harlow, was sold by the council for £748,000 in 2016 and demolished by developers to be turned into new houses.
An adult community learning facility in Harlow, known as Northbrooks House, was also sold for £1.4million in 2017 to housing developers.
In Witham, land at Maltings Lane was sold by the council for £2.3million. Taylor Wimpey has since built a new housing development in the area called Maltings Park.
Land at St Johns Road in Epping sold for £6.7million and the former Beis Shammai Grammar School in Chigwell earned the council £5.7million.
Andrew Gwynne, Shadow Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, said: “This analysis reiterates what we saw in February’s local government settlement: this is a crisis of the Tories own making, forcing councils to sell libraries, youth centres and playing fields to make ends meet.
“For nine years, Ministers have sat in meetings in Whitehall and cut funding to councils hundreds of miles away, never having to see the library that is closed, the potholes that go unfixed and the elderly people that go without care as a result.
An ECC spokesman said: “We cannot and do not use capital receipts to fund revenue costs or to meet ongoing interest costs associated with external borrowing.
“Where assets are declared surplus, there is a consideration of what to do with that asset on a case by case basis, including the opportunity for development.
“Assets are declared surplus for a number of reasons including no longer being required for any function delivered or commissioned by the county council or having no realistic prospect for returning rental income. Prior to making any decision on an asset, all options are carefully considered.”
The council says it chooses to reinvest capital receipts in school places, highways, infrastructure, broadband and other schemes to ensure it “delivers on its priorities to the residents of Essex”.