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Great British sell-off: how desperate councils sold £9.1bn of public assets

The Guardian logo The Guardian 05/03/2019 Dan Hancox
Manchester United parade the FA Cup and the Premiership trophy past Stretford Town Hall in 1996. © PA Manchester United parade the FA Cup and the Premiership trophy past Stretford Town Hall in 1996.

Stretford Public Hall is the kind of building that embodies the idea of the public good. A magnificent, Grade II listed red-brick Victorian edifice, it has served the local community in Trafford, Manchester, since 1878. Home to one of the first libraries in the city, as well as public baths and a civic theatre, it has hosted community celebrations for the end of both world wars as well as events ranging from debates, meetings, plays and speeches by everyone from Oswald Mosley to Tony Benn to dances and historic Rock Against Racism concerts featuring the Fall and John Cooper Clarke.

In December 2013, Annoushka Deighton, chair of the Friends of Stretford Public Hall, discovered via a news story on Facebook that the cash-strapped local council had put it on the market – and the most likely buyer was a “heavyweight” property developer who wanted to turn it into flats. “The council were under enormous pressure, because of cuts to their budget, and wanted to see what the best deal they could get for it [was].”

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It was, Deighton and her neighbours quickly realised, “a tragedy in the making. Once you sell off a building like that, it’s lost to the community forever. Stretford is a very neglected part of quite a rich borough. We were always seen as the rubbish end of town, the pubs and bars were all closing down, there’s very little social space and it’s really looked down on. Directly opposite the hall is a 1930s cinema, which is privately owned, and hasn’t been open for 20 years. If [Stretford Public Hall] had shut as well, it felt like that would have been the end of the town.”

Eventually, after a hard-fought campaign featuring hundreds of volunteers, the local community took control of it themselves in 2015, and saved it from being sold off. Many other communities have not been so fortunate.

“It’s always pools and libraries that are hardest for councils to justify – they’re not profit-making enterprises.” © PA “It’s always pools and libraries that are hardest for councils to justify – they’re not profit-making enterprises.”

Far-reaching research by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism has found that nine years of swingeing central government cuts to local council budgets have resulted in a vast and irreversible sell-off of public assets. Of England’s 354 local authorities, 301 replied to the primary Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which revealed that between 2014 and July 2018, more than 12,000 publicly owned assets have been offloaded by local councils. In total more than £9.1bn was generated.

Some of the assets sold off are grand historic buildings; some are small scraps of land. All are now gone forever, in a one-off fire sale of public assets accumulated over many decades, intended to serve the public good, and now generating profit for their new private owners.

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Replies to the Bureau’s second set of FOI requests were even more comprehensive (342 out of 354) – and alarming. These concerned the use of “flexible capital receipts”, and showed that in many cases local councils have begun offloading their assets – playing fields, community centres, libraries, youth clubs, swimming pools – to fund redundancies made necessary by central government cuts.

© Reuters

Until new legislation was introduced in April 2016, councils had to to use any proceeds raised from selling land and buildings they own to buy new assets. David Cameron’s government changed all that by allowing them to invest the proceeds of any assets sold by April 2019 to fund frontline services.

FOI data shows that in the first two years following the change in the law, at least 64 councils – one-fifth of those who responded – used these capital receipts to plug gaping holes in their budgets. Often, this has included redundancy payments.

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In some cases, desperation has driven local authorities to offload these public assets at knock-down prices. Northamptonshire – which relied on selling assets to plug huge gaps in its finances – got rid of land or buildings it owned for less than they were worth on 12 separate occasions, potentially missing out on income of £6.3m. Half of these under-value sales were to property developers.

Councils sold off more than £9bn of publicly owned property between April 2014 and July 2018. Guardian graphic. Source: Bureau of Investigative Journalism. *Top 10 of councils which replied to FoI requests. © Guardian News & Media Councils sold off more than £9bn of publicly owned property between April 2014 and July 2018. Guardian graphic. Source: Bureau of Investigative Journalism. *Top 10 of councils which replied to FoI requests.

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Andrew Gwynne, was unequivocal about where the blame lies – not with the local councils scrambling to sell the family silver in order to balance the books, but with central government in Westminster: “This is a crisis of the Tories’ own making, forcing councils to sell libraries, youth centres and playing fields to make ends meet.”

It is hard not to see the great public sell-off as a tragic unravelling of the public good, a rapid dismantling of a public realm forged over a century and a half at local level, and a desecration of the legacy of the Victorian and Edwardian idealists – from factory workers to wealthy philanthropists – who believed that a rich, healthy and fulfilling civic, social and leisure life was a right held by all the people who flooded into Britain’s towns and cities, not just a tiny group who could afford tennis courts or gardens on the grounds of their mansions, or private libraries in their stately homes. © Getty

Taming the urban wild west

To understand this disaster, it is important to remember how cities came to be the sprawling, densely populated, messy agglomerations that preceded serious urban planning, regulation and governance. The urbanisation of the 19th century was more akin to an urban wild west than anything else. London’s population grew from around 950,000 in 1801 – the year of the first census – to 4,775,000 in 1881. Manchester went from 75,000 to 500,000; Leeds from 100,000 to 430,000; Birmingham from 95,000 to 530,000. By this point, after decades of chaotic expansion driven by the industrial revolution and its accompanying “railway mania”, more than 70% of the British population was urban. But for the new city-dwelling working classes, their experience of the city was overwhelmingly crowded, dirty, disease-ridden and deadly. Life for the majority was poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow, written in 1902, captured the spirit of the age, contending that “crowded, ill-ventilated, unplanned, unwieldy, unhealthy cities,” were “ulcers on the very face of our beautiful island ... These crowded cities have done their work; they were the best which a society largely based on selfishness and rapacity could construct.” In their place, he proposed cities with a “beautiful and well-watered garden” at their heart, surrounded by “the larger public buildings: town hall, principal concert and lecture hall, theatre, library, museum, picture-gallery, and hospital”. Some places are in particularly dire straits. The Bureau data shows that Birmingham City Council has spent £53m from asset sales to balance its books. © Getty Some places are in particularly dire straits. The Bureau data shows that Birmingham City Council has spent £53m from asset sales to balance its books.

Howard’s vision of a rich cultural and leisure life as basic civic rights, created by and maintained in the name of the public good, became the foundation of the garden cities movement, and influential on urban planning in general. New towns built by entrepreneur-philanthropists like Titus Salt in Yorkshire incorporated baths and wash houses, parks, hospitals and schools. Advertisements for Letchworth Garden City promised “the health of the country, the comforts of the town” – but the health and happiness of those who remained in the existing cities desperately needed addressing, too.

As towns and cities expanded in the 19th century, the newly created local authorities used their expanding powers to build public baths, wash houses, parks, concert halls, theatres, museums, cemeteries, schools and libraries – “the trappings of civilised living,” as Simon Heffer put it in his book about the Victorian era, High Minds. Some of it was led by wealthy philanthropists, but state intervention was needed too: the patchwork contributions to public life of paternalistic industrialists still left far too many gaps. The health of the country, the comforts of the town’: Letchworth Garden City, created by the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard. © Getty The health of the country, the comforts of the town’: Letchworth Garden City, created by the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard.

Following growing pressure from ordinary people – sometimes in public meetings held in these very buildings now being sold off – local authorities began to use compulsory purchase powers to seize land and build public parks, providing much-needed space for leisure and exercise, as well as dissipating some of the stench of cities still in need of sanitation systems. A series of new laws, like the 1866 Metropolitan Commons Act, enabled local authorities to preserve and improve these new open spaces. Local councils were increasingly taking the initiative to uphold the second half of the old socialist poem and slogan, “bread for all, and roses, too” – the idea that leisure and joy were as much a right as basic health and nutrition.

It seems entirely likely that historians will look back on the 2010s as a great unravelling of these long-standing principles: generating local civic pride through the public spaces and buildings that communities share.  The main pool in Moseley Road Baths, Birmingham, before its refurbishment by the local community. © PA The main pool in Moseley Road Baths, Birmingham, before its refurbishment by the local community.

Some places are in particularly dire straits. The Bureau data shows that Birmingham City Council has spent £53m from asset sales to balance its books, more than any other local authority in England. As much as £26m of that revenue was used to fund redundancies at the council. The trend is set to continue: last week the council announced another 1,095 jobs would go over the next 12 months; their workforce has halved in size since 2010. Council leader Ian Ward called it the most challenging period in their 180-year history – they must now find another £46m of savings in the next financial year alone.

That puts more buildings in the firing line. The magnificent Moseley Road Baths in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath district is the only Grade II* listed swimming pool in the country that is open to the public. But it was very nearly lost to the public sector scrap-heap, too, when the council announced they had no choice but to close the building within a few months.

It was saved by the local community, who now own and run it themselves. “The problem is that pools don’t make money,” said Vivienne Harrison, a local resident and a trustee of the baths. “It’s always pools and libraries that are hardest for councils to justify – they’re not profit-making enterprises.” More than 100 swimmers from around the UK taking to an empty gala pool and posing in the style of the ancient sculptures to highlight the plight of Birmingham's historic Moseley Road Baths © PA More than 100 swimmers from around the UK taking to an empty gala pool and posing in the style of the ancient sculptures to highlight the plight of Birmingham's historic Moseley Road Baths

It is now run by community volunteers. “We were training lifeguards, learning the quirks of the boiler system – and doing it all ourselves,” says Harrison. “The baths were built for the people of Balsall Heath, along with the library, as an incentive for them to join the city of Birmingham; so it has that origin in civic pride and ambition, the idea that Birmingham was going to be this great city – so, you know, come and join it.”

Public health was a key imperative for its creation in the Victorian era: indeed its “slipper baths”, for public hygiene, rather than swimming, only closed in 2004. “It’s quite a deprived area in many ways,” Harrison says. “There’s some quite shocking statistics in terms of life expectancy, levels of heart disease and diabetes, levels of obesity. Having a facility like that where people can swim and exercise is essential.”

Aside from its practical utility – the service it provides to swimmers – Harrison thinks that the message sent by keeping hold of public assets like this is of considerable value.

“As a building it’s important internationally, in terms of its heritage significance, but it’s also just very important locally that that building is open to the public for swimming. Because if it closes, it becomes another rundown building in an area that’s not really got much investment in it. And when it’s smack in the middle of the high street, that’s such a powerful signal to send to people, isn’t it? It says, ‘your neighbourhood isn’t important anymore’, if you’ve got this crumbling, once-beautiful building on your doorstep.”

Protestors gather at the start of an anti-austerity demonstration in central London. © Getty Protestors gather at the start of an anti-austerity demonstration in central London.

Community ownership

Last year, following their own FOI research into the sale of public buildings, pools, parks and piers, the NGO Locality launched a Save Our Spaces campaign to support local communities trying to prevent such sales and explore models of community ownership. They helped advise both the Moseley Road Baths and Stretford Public Hall campaigns.

“Part of the problem is a lot of councils don’t have policies in place to think about alternatives to selling off properties to the private sector,” says Tony Armstrong, Locality’s CEO. “Councils are under a huge amount of pressure, and we definitely sympathise with them, but when they look at plugging these budget holes in the short term, once they’ve done that, they can’t do it again - and these places are lost forever.”

In a period of austerity, non-profit making services are “just seen as a drain”, Armstrong says.

During periods of austerity, non-profit services such as libraries and public pools are seen by councils as simply a drain on resources, say campaigners. © Getty During periods of austerity, non-profit services such as libraries and public pools are seen by councils as simply a drain on resources, say campaigners.

“It probably sounds like jargon, but we talk about this concept of ‘social infrastructure’. It’s common sense really, but what brings communities together is the common experiences that we share, and a big part of that is the tangible, physical places where we get together.”

Armstrong points to rising concern about isolation and an epidemic of loneliness among older Britons – which has raised concern in Westminster, too.

“It’s not surprising that people feel isolated, if there’s physically nowhere for people to come together and just have a coffee, or somewhere they might run into a neighbour, a friend or an acquaintance. When facilities like libraries or community centres are sold off, we lose something much more dramatic than just a building. If you only look at it in terms of ‘can we make these spreadsheets stack up?’, without thinking about how to retain that community spirit in a local place, you lose something really valuable.”

Since the community took over Stretford Public Hall, more than 300 people have volunteered, according to Deighton – of ages ranging from teens to those in their 80s, from plasterers to electricians, and for tasks from painting and decorating to teaching classes or running the hall’s social media.

These last-ditch campaigns shouldn’t be necessary, says Armstrong – nor are they guaranteed to succeed. “We’re not going to pretend that it’s really easy,” he says. “It requires a lot of what is sometimes called ‘sweat equity’ – it’s hard work! But we need to make it as easy as possible for communities to be able to do this kind of thing.”

For Deighton, it’s a fight well worth having. “A short-term loss of an asset like [Stretford Public Hall] gives the council a short-term financial gain, but then that’s it, forever. There isn’t enough money in the world to buy the community spirit you generate by keeping these places open.”

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Gallery: Photos of the day (Reuters)

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