Councils selling thousands of public buildings each year

A new report by the Locality charity has found that local authorities are selling off more than 4,000 public buildings and spaces every year, with more than 7,000 others at risk over the next five years.

After discovering that the majority of the sites being offloaded are being sold to private developers for the highest price, the charity has urged the government to create a £200 million-a-year community ownership fund, to be available for the next five years, to encourage the preservation of buildings and spaces for the use of local people.

The Great British Sell Off report, based on 233 responses from local authorities in England, finds that only two fifths of councils have a strategy to support community ownership, known as a community asset transfer policy. However, the charity says that all councils should have one of these policies, giving community groups first right of refusal to buy public buildings and for them to have a year, rather than six months, to draw up a proposal.

Tony Armstrong, Locality’s chief executive, said: “This is a sell-off on a massive scale. We know that many of the buildings being lost have valuable community uses. Everyone of us can think of a local public building or outside space we love and use, from libraries to lidos and town halls to youth centres. They are owned by the public and they’re being sold off for short-term gain to fill holes in council budgets. Many hundreds of local community groups are stepping up and fighting for community ownership. But they urgently need support and help with startup costs if they are to compete with the commercial developers.”

Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “Councils take their responsibilities to maintain public buildings and the public spaces in their care extremely seriously. However, with local government facing an overall funding gap in excess of £5 billion a year by 2020, councils face difficult decisions about how best to use their resources to support local services, day-to-day activities and to protect public assets, such as buildings.

“Before a decision is made to sell an asset, the cost of selling it versus the benefit it could bring is considered carefully. Local councillors, elected by local people, understand the deep connection communities have with their public spaces and buildings. If we are to be able to maintain them and fund front-line services, the government must address our funding shortfall of over £5 billion a year by 2020 as soon as possible. It is essential that the funding for local government, which has faced cuts of 40 per cent over the last eight years, is put on a sustainable footing, so we can support our communities through essential services and vital infrastructure.”