Real Estate

From Kirklees to Croydon, some historic buildings English councils could sell

For centuries councils have owned vast tracts of land and buildings. From the municipal palaces of Victorian England’s biggest cities, to leisure centres, museums, and parks in towns and villages across the country.

In the deepest financial crisis to hit local government for decades, however, council leaders are warning they could be forced to sell millions of pounds worth of public assets to fill gaping budget shortfalls.

Local authorities in England own about 520,000 hectares (1.3m acres) of land, including farms, municipal golf courses, allotments, parks and land for regeneration. Almost £15bn of assets have been sold off in the past decade. But alongside much-loved gems, some councils have ploughed billions of pounds in borrowed funds into costly white elephant schemes, failing companies, and risky commercial projects – such as the tiny Surrey borough of Spelthorne buying BP’s campus headquarters, Thurrock in Essex bankrolling solar farm developments, and Labour-run Warrington buying shares in a bank controlled by a former Conservative party treasurer.

In the financial crisis facing local government, growing numbers of councils have approached Michael Gove’s levelling up department seeking “capitalisation directions” – a tool allowing councils to use the proceeds from asset sales to fund day-to-day costs, if granted government approval to do so. Those thought to be involved in talks include Somerset, Nottingham, and Middlesbrough.

Ministers are considering rules eliminating the need for government approval – handing more flexibility to sell assets to plug budget gaps. The aim is to encourage the exit from speculative investments, rather than assets owned for core public aims. Critics, however, worry that much-loved public buildings and valuable parcels of land will also be on the chopping block, to be lost forever from common use. Below are some of the disposals already being considered.

Aston Hall in Birmingham in the snow. Photograph: John James/Alamy

Birmingham is combing through its £2.4bn asset portfolio, the largest land estate of any local authority in the country, for potential assets to sell. Max Caller, the lead commissioner to the council appointed by the government, has revealed it will need to identify and sell £500m worth of assets. Those it controls include the city’s central library, museum and art gallery, Aston Hall, and Sarehole Mill museum, and the council’s stake in Birmingham airport.

Nottingham is expecting to sell properties worth more than £74m between now and 2026 after declaring its effective bankruptcy late last year. It had already sold assets totalling £64m over the past four years. Sales could include the former central library building on Angel Row, which shut in 2020 before the opening of a new facility late last year.

The former Nottingham central library building on Angel Row. Photograph: Tracey Whitefoot/Alamy

Leeds is planning to raise £20m from asset disposals, including a rare personalised car number plate gifted to the city’s mayor in 1903, the 1970s-built Pudsey civic hall, and a disused council office in a Grade II-listed former Victorian school building.

Middlesbrough has conducted an asset review to raise £33m from selling publicly owned buildings and land to avert bankruptcy.

Southampton is looking to raise £85m by selling publicly owned buildings over the next two years, amid a budget shortfall of £150m in the medium-term.

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Somerset is considering selling assets and land worth £20m after declaring a “financial emergency” in November, with a projected budget gap of £100m. Assets up for sale could include Taunton technology park and a major regeneration site, Saxonvale, in Frome town centre.

Croydon is planning to sell off £145m of assets over three years, including assets once owned by its bust housing development arm Brick By Brick. Earmarked sales include a scout hut, golf course, tennis club and a rugby club.

Kirklees, which counts Huddersfield as its main town, is considering selling the former Red House Museum, a 17th-century Georgian mansion with links to Charlotte Brontë, which the authority shut in 2016 to make cuts. It is also examining land sales.

The Red House in Gomersal, West Yorkshire. Photograph: Leo Rosser/Alamy

Peterborough is reviewing whether to sell 28 buildings in an asset portfolio containing leisure centres, swimming pools, libraries, and community facilities.