Wasted assets?


Eric Pickles’ latest burst of ‘localism’ is his plan to force councils (and other public bodies) to publish a public register of their assets.  Like the requirement to publish minute details of expenditure, this will encourage the press and others to try to catch councils out.  They’ll try to find things they don’t know they own or (in the views of the press) shouldn’t own.

For example, already mention has been made of county councils owning farmland, as if his were a horrendous crime.  Yet as Steve mentioned in his bucolic Northumberland post, tnanted farmland is profitable and a perfectly reasonable asset to hold.

Yet Andrew Boff, Conservative housing spokesperson in the GLA, says anyone looking at the land owned by public bodies will be shocked.  He must be of a sensitive disposition.
I looked at the public assets shown on the DCLG’s map for an area I know well.  Surprise, surprise: the council owns several parks and open spaces, a school or two, a library and – yes, shock horror – a house!

The DCLG register is just a trial, apparently. Before being opened to public scrutiny, the real asset registers will have to be consolidated from different records, checked for veracity, put in a central system (standardised across England?) and then kept up to date.

Just think about the implications for housing alone – a council’s (say) 20,000 houses
might well be digitally mapped, but will they be on the same database as (say) the schools?  Assets change constantly – for example, as houses are sold through the right to buy.  If empty assets have to be shown, will the system have to show every short-term void?  In the case of council housing, the cost of doing all this or harmonising databases will presumably fall on the housing revenue account – in other words, tenants will pay from their rents.

Now you could argue that this is all no more than good practice in the digital age, and the more transparent these things are the better.  Both are good arguments.  But I don’t think
they are foremost in Pickles’ mind.  I think he wants to imply that these assets – or a good proportion of them – are being poorly managed or kept empty at the taxpayer’s expense.  Then I think he wants another smokescreen for insufficient houses being built.

Finally, if he or his spies in the Daily Mail can find a few wasting assets, he’ll no doubt feel vindicated and might even manage to get a site or two sold on to private builders.  Don’t hold your breath though, he’ll be happy if he gets the odd example of incompetence to ‘justify’ the whole bureaucratic exercise.

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