Discover the hidden assets belonging to St Albans council

John Bunyan's Chimney in Coleman's Green

John Bunyan's Chimney in Coleman's Green - Credit: Archant

Councils’ own commercial assets are worth millions of pounds, it has been revealed. But is it time to sell-off the family silver? We look at what land the district council actually owns.

Most will think of their local council as the people who make sure their bins are collected, decide on planning applications and demand Council Tax.

But few may know many also hold a significant number of commercial assets, aimed at either recouping extra funds or as a way of providing certain recreational services.

In a new national report St Albans City and District is listed as owning land which houses two golf courses, 36 car parks, three swimming pool/leisure centres, two theatres, a pub, eight restaurants, 36 shops, a hotel and even three football clubs.

Hertfordshire County Council, meanwhile, has one golf course, 18 car parks, a swimming pool, 74 farms, a restaurant and various air raid sirens.

In many of these examples the council will be landowner, recouping rent from the private company running it - and possibly even providing a subsidy.

Councils say this can be a very effective way to bring in much-needed cash and better than having it sitting in a bank account.

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But in the context of tightened budgets, as well as a push to free up land to meet ambitious government housing targets, questions have been raised as to whether better use could be made of the estates.

Concerns have also been raised that authorities have more important priorities, rather than looking to be landowner and make a profit.

Communities secretary Greg Clark recently launched a national call for Whitehall departments to let go of surplus and redundant land and property to make way for new homes – and urged town halls to follow suit.

Mr Clark called on England’s 326 councils to look at the land assets they hold, and use some of those plots, particularly those on brownfield sites, to provide new homes for their communities.

He said: “The chance to own your own home should be available to everyone who works hard and aspires to. The scale of our ambition is clear – to release enough surplus and redundant public sector land for 150,000 homes over the next five years.

“Councils are significant landowners and town halls should be looking at their estate.”

Government accounts show that in 2011, councils held £223 billion of assets – of which £108 billion was in land and buildings.

Its challenge raises the question as to whether council-owned land housing facilities like golf courses, swimming pools or football pitches could be put to better use.

But a spokeswoman for St Albans council said that such assets had been of great benefit to the authority - and the people it serves.

She added: “Most of our assets have been in our possession for many years. Some assets were gifted to us, for example Clarence Park in St Albans.

“Others were acquired under a particular Act of Parliament, such as housing or public health assets.

“Back in the 1950s and 1960s it was not unusual for local authorities to build a commercial hub within its housing estates to provide services to those communities.

“In St Albans we provided mostly shops, but other local authority estates often included pubs and petrol stations. More recently, in the last three years we have built three new leisure/sports centres.

“Although the local estate shops do not perhaps have the importance that they once did to the local community, they still provide a convenient retail offering for local people.

“The rents generated from them are also returned to the Housing Revenue Account to contribute towards the maintenance of our housing stock.

“In a wider sense, council assets can be used to enable development and regeneration. Local examples include sheltered housing refurbishments, museum/art gallery revitalisation driving economic growth, former garage sites used for public housing development.

“The income generated from the general fund corporate property rents contributes to the council’s budgets and helps to keep council tax down.

“Finally, the innovative way in which the three new leisure/sports centres mentioned above have been delivered has meant that not only does our community now have access to excellent sports facilities, but overall we have achieved £1.5m in annual revenue savings.

“Adult participation in sport and active recreation in the St Albans district has also risen from 21.9 per cent in 2010/11 to 33 per centin 2013/14.”

And that last line holds the key. Selling-off the land and facilities council’s own could be to the detriment of the people they serve. This would explain why the council was cool on the idea of selling off too much of its property.

The spokeswoman added: “Over the years the council has sold off assets - doing so raises capital receipts, but it also means that we are then unable to generate on-going income to support the budget in years to come.

“These days, although we will still consider the sale of an underperforming commercial asset, we are looking to be far more creative with our assets than simply selling them to raise cash.

“Retaining an interest in a property allows us to generate income from it and also to benefit from any future redevelopment or other opportunities.”