St Helens Council under fire for 'poor' data provision in huge probe of public assets sell-offs

St Helens Town Hall
St Helens Town Hall
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St Helens Council claims it “misinterpreted” a Freedom of Information request about the selling off of public spaces after it was accused of providing poor data.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) recently published the findings of a major collaborative investigation with HuffPost UK and regional journalists across the country, including the Wigan Post.

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Related: Wigan Council have sold off £14m worth of buildings and public spaces in five years

The investigation compiled data on more than 12,000 public spaces disposed of by councils since 2014-15.

Councils raised a total of £9.1 billion, the investigation found, selling off public spaces such as libraries, community centres and playgrounds.

Some local authorities are also using money raised from selling off buildings and land to pay for hundreds of redundancies, including in vital frontline services.

In St Helens, the Bureau said the quality of the council’s response was “so poor” that the information could not be “meaningfully interpreted”.

The Bureau said St Helens Council has also not responded to requests for clarification, something the council denies.

A spokesman for St Helens Council said: “While the council did not provide the information requested in full due to a misinterpretation of the request and the ambiguous nature of the dates requested, we received no calls for clarification or further detail on our response.”

Within the Liverpool City Region, since 2013-14 Knowsley Council made £3.1 million by selling off 87 spaces; Wirral Council made £12.7 million from 114 spaces; Halton Council made £28 million from 35 spaces.

Like St Helens, Liverpool Council’s response was also deemed to be so poor that it could be meaningfully interpreted.

The Bureau said there were gaps or errors or delay in Sefton Council’s response and asked for the request to be reviewed internally.

Elsewhere, Wigan Council made £13.8 million by selling off 102 spaces and Warrington Council made £2.7 million from 27 spaces.

The selling off of public spaces is just one new tactic councils have employed to offset massive funding cuts over the past decade due to austerity.

Historically, one of the main sources of funding for local authorities has been a grant from central government.

This funding has been cut by two thirds since 2010 and by next year will be almost completely phased out, in a drive to make councils self-sufficient.

Previously, money made from selling public assets could only be used to fund the cost of buying new ones.

However, the rules were relaxed by the then Chancellor George Osborne in April 2016.

This allowed local authorities to spend the proceeds on cost-cutting measures, such as sharing back-office functions with other authorities, investing in new technology or other reforms which have upfront costs but reduce spending in the long-term.

Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Bureau found 64 councils in England have spent a total of £381 million made from property sales since the policy came into effect.

Almost a third of that – £115 million – was spent on making people redundant.

The investigation found that over the three years since the rules were relaxed, the average number of redundancies was 75% higher at councils that made use of the new spending powers than at those which did not.

Councils selling public assets to fund cost-cutting measures must produce annual reports detailing the amount of money being spent, the projects funded, and the savings targets set.

This policy is called the “flexible use of capital receipts”.

St Helens Council said it does not take part in this practice.

The investigation found that two thirds of councils are not fully adhering to government’s rules around the data they have to publish about the land and buildings they own.

Additionally, about 30 refused all or most of the Bureau’s FOI request, which asked for details about what assets they had sold.

Another 36 councils responded to the request but withheld how much the properties were sold for and who they were sold to.

The national TBIJ report and an interactive map if available at https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2019-03-04/sold-from-under-you and https://council-sell-off.thebureauinvestigates.com/