Cash-strapped councils sell off land and property worth £66m

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Hampshire County Council made 100 disposals of land, buildings and homes worth a combined £44.6m

PUBLIC property worth more than £66m has been sold off by cash-strapped councils running services in the New Forest and Christchurch.

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The biggest seller between 2014 and 2018 was Hampshire County Council which made 100 disposals of land, buildings and homes worth a combined £44.6m, according to research led by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Over the same period Dorset County Council made 37 sales worth nearly £17m, New Forest District Council 14 for £3.23m, and Christchurch Borough Council four worth more than £1.33m.

The sell-offs have come as government funding for local authorities has plummeted, leaving local leaders seeking new sources of cash and to shrink running costs.

Making up more than half of NFDC’s £3.2m total was St John’s Street car park in Hythe which went to Lidl for £1.95m. A supermarket has since been opened there.

Other examples are Golf Cottage in Main Road, Dibden Purlieu, auctioned in 2015 for £420,000, and the former Cussons day centre in Fairview Drive, Hythe, went to MDMM Ltd in 2016 for £330,000. Earley Court, Lymington, was sold to ECM (Lymington) Ltd in 2014 for £230,000.

NFDC’s service manager for estates and valuation, Andrew Smith, described most of the activity as “business as usual” sales of surplus properties, or transfers to town and parish councils that had been “carefully scrutinised under our normal processes”.

Among HCC’s sales in the New Forest was land at Sabines Farm and Barrack Lane in Ringwood, bought by developer Linden Homes in 2016 for just short of £2m.

Normandy Farmhouse in Normandy Lane, Lymington, was sold privately in 2015 for £515,000. Manor CofE infant school in Teachers Way, Holbury, was made a statutory transfer in 2016 to the Winchester Diocesan Board of Finance.

HCC did not respond to the A&T’s request for comment.

The Christchurch total was made up entirely of Grange Road Depot being sold to Spectrum Housing Association in 2016 for nearly £1.33m. The other three were un-costed leases or transfers.

Land at Wharncliffe Road went to Jackson Developments in 2018 on a 125-year lease; Druitt Hall to the Druitt Hall Community Association on a three-year lease in 2014; and Mudeford Wood Community Centre to the Mudeford Wood Community Trust on a 25-year lease in 2014.

Proceeds of “surplus assets” go into the council’s reserves and are “earmarked” for future capital schemes, said Dan Povey, joint financial services manager for Christchurch and East Dorset authorities.

Pointing to the Grange Road Depot, he said: “The site was dilapidated and underused and therefore the decision was taken to rationalise the council’s use of the space into a much smaller area, freeing up an area of the land for development.”

DCC’s sales included an unnamed transfer of Somerford Youth and Community Centre in Bingham Road, and the sale of land classed as a “county farm” in Lymington Road, Highcliffe.

The council’s service manager, Peter Scarlett, said it had been seeking to match its estate to its “insufficient” budget since 2010, including gifting to community groups and shrinking its own offices from 26 buildings to eight.

He denied it was a “direct result of austerity” and said: “Where the county council has disposed of surplus assets, the proceeds of sale have been reinvested into the authority’s capital programme, and used to repay borrowing.”

In total across the UK, more than 12,000 public spaces have been disposed of by councils since 2014/15, raising a total of £9.1bn.

The report, assisted by Huffington Post and regional journalists, claimed one in six councils in England have used a total of £381m from sales of buildings and land to pay for cost cutting since April 2016.

Almost a third of that – £115m – was spent on pay-offs to make people redundant.

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