Schools, farms and care homes among councils’ multimillion pound sell-off
PUBLISHED: 06:30 04 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:57 05 March 2019
Cash-strapped councils in Suffolk and Essex have sold off millions of pounds’ worth of assets including schools, care homes, farms and community buildings.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has revealed details of hundreds of assets disposed of by councils as ways to cut spending, off-load redundant buildings, or give communities ownership of their facilities.
The data shows some councils sold off scores of buildings, others retained all their assets and some used land to fuel development.
From 2014-18, eight local councils responding to TBIJ’s Freedom of Information requests with financial details received more than £44 million pounds from asset sales. But while many sales achieved market value, more than half went for nothing
Councils claim transfers helped communities run their own services, while those used for commercial enterprises, such as housing, charged the going rate.
Suffolk County Council disposed of the most assets, totalling just over £30m in sales.
More than 50 related to schools. Former middle schools at Halesworth, Needham Market and Stowmarket were transferred for no charge, to find other purposes for the buildings and land.
Saxmundham’s former primary school was sold for £586,900 to developers Fielden Ltd, which built new homes on the site.
Ipswich Hospital paid £1.75m for the Bridge School’s former Heathside campus when it relocated to Sprites Lane.
Most disposals related to schools transferring to academies. While some were transferred for no cost, including 20 that went to The Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, others sold to “private individuals” for six-figure sums, such as Hollesley Primary School, Felixstowe’s Kingsfleet Primary School and Wells Hall Primary School in Great Cornard.
Leiston’s Alde Valley Academy was transferred for £1 to Suffolk Coastal District Council, but was run by Bright Tribe Academy Trust.
Rattlesden Community Council was given the village’s primary school field. Stoke Ash primary school, which closed in 2014 due to dwindling pupil numbers was given to the Girl Guides organisation, which set up a new centre for “adventure and fun”.
More than 20 disposals related to farms raising around £5m for the council. At least four of the disposals were part of the County Farms scheme, which is meant for farmers starting out in the business.
The amount of County Farm land across the county has halved since the 1970s, sparking campaigns to prevent councils selling-off the remainder.
The Tenant Farmer Association said County Farms should be looked on as a “national asset, and not as something to be sold to fill a budget shortfall.”
SCC also sold off more than a dozen care homes,for £12m. Many were bought by other providers to run as care homes, while some have been redeveloped as housing. The former Hawthorn Drive residential care home in Ipswich was sold for £851,000 to AP Bond Properties Ltd in June 2016, and later subject to a planning application by Crown House Homes to create apartments aimed at people looking to downsize their homes.
SCC’s other disposals included land and buildings, once part of libraries, youth services or offices.
Land at Bungay Youth Centre was sold for £348,750 to McDaniel Construction in July 2018 to build seven new homes. Land and buildings at Alexandra House Children’s Home was sold to Havebury Housing Partnership for £1 in June 2015 to develop 11 affordable houses and 14 assisted units alongside a communal hub for carers. The children’s home remains open.
Newmarket Household Waste & Recycling Centre was given to Forest Heath District Council in August 2016. Charity Newmarket Open Door had run the Depot Road centre since 2011 but increased operational costs saw trustees decide to shut the site last August.
Richard Smith, who is responsible for finance at SCC, said the council had saved £260m since 2010 by transforming the way it works, included looking at whether its assets are required to deliver services.
Mr Smith said SCC looked to sell assets for the best price or to transfer to other providers to run. He said SCC was required to transfer schools to their sponsors when they became academies. Closure of middle schools and transferring care homes were part of council policy.
“Reviewing and disposing of assets in this manner is all part of a well-managed financial and service strategy that ensures maintenance, energy and ownership costs are kept to a minimum while assets continue to be effective in supporting service delivery,” Mr Smith added.
St Edmundsbury Borough Council made three sales, totalling £259,075.
An unnamed private individual paid £249,999 for 10 Well Street, Bury St Edmunds.
The grade II listed Georgian town house has since undergone a restoration and is advertised as a “stunning self-catering holiday cottage”, which rents for £540p/w.
The council also sold off the Chalkstone Community Centre in Strasbourg Square, Haverhill, to the River of Life Community Church for the nominal sum of £1. The church continues to run the centre.
Forest Heath District Council made three sales, totalling £175,001. The council transferred land at a former social housing property in St Johns Close Mildenhall, to Orbit Housing for a £1 as part of a community project. The land was used to build St John’s Community Centre.
FHDC sold land at Palace House Stables for £60,000 to SCC. It was used to expand the adjoining school.
Babergh made two asset transfers and two sales, totalling £832,129. The council sold East House, a Grade II listed building in Hadeligh, in 2017, for £697,129, to an unnamed buyer. The council said it had been used for services which had since moved. BDC also transferred Gainsborough Chambers in Sudbury to the Gainsborough’s House Society, in 2018. BDC bought it for £235,000 in 2014 to give Gainsborough’s House Society time to raise funds to buy it. After four years, BDC gave it to the organisation for no cost in recognition of the tourism offer it would bring.
Mid Suffolk District Council transferred one asset in Denny Avenue, Haughley, for £1 to Orbit Housing as part of a district wide regeneration project to demolish 84 council-owned properties to create affordable and shared ownership housing.
Tendring District Council disposed of eight assets, including six sales totalling £814,000. Two of the sales, Clay Hall and public toilets in Old Road in Clacton related to redundant council facilities that were sold for development.
TDC’s deputy leader Carlo Guglielmi said the best interests of the taxpayer and the district were considered in the event of any asset sale.
“Sometimes we may also have the ability to unlock a wider regeneration scheme for an area by selling ownership of parts of land, to support the greater benefit of an area,” he added.
“Any sale is considered as part of our Property Strategy, if a site is not already covered by a more specific policy or strategy.”
Sites used for regeneration
Councils used assets to unlock land for multimillion pound retail developments.
Ipswich Borough Council sold two plots in Scrivener Drive for a new Aldi supermarket and Greene King restaurant.
Aldi bought its site for £1.35m in October 2015 and opened the store the following August. Greene King paid £1.14m for its site and built Chestnut Tree Farm, which opened in August. The plots were part of a 21 acre site, which saw the establishment of One sixth form college in 2010.
IBC sold the Malthouse building in Princes Street, formerly Zest nightclub, for £600,000 to Pertwee Park Ltd, in March 2018. The new owners are converting it into offices.
Fison House in Princes Street sold for £200,000 to Malcolm Hobbs in August 2016. The building was redeveloped as the £9m Connexions 159 offices.
The council also sold 141-145 Princes Street for £245,000 to Churchmanor in October, 2014. It has since been redeveloped as £12m headquarters for Birketts solicitors. West Villa Hostels, 28-34 Woodbridge Road East, sold to Apollo (Ipswich Ltd) for £850,000 in April 2015 and was used for the Two Rivers Medical Centre.
IBC’s seven sales totalled £4,990,000.
The council said it had a long trck record of selling land to faciltiate development, including sites now occupied by Anglia Retail Parl, Cardinal Park and Ravenswood.
However, it also land via Ipswich Borough Assets, which was set up in 2016 to develop an investment portfolio, bringing in around £2m a year. Purchases include the £42m Anglia Retail Park; 17-19 Cornhill and Portman House.
Colchester Borough Council sold part of Gosbecks Road Depot site to Lidl for £675,000, a site off the A12 near Colchester Stadium to McDonald’s for £819,000 and part of the Lookers Land Rover site on Axial Way for £1.4m to Boiling Investments.
CBC said recent policy was to retain freeholds, though there were instances where sites had been sold to reinvest funds .
Other sales included temporary accommodation at Gothic House, Wivenhoe, which was sold for £515,000 to a private landlord. A temporary accommodation review recommended disposal of several properties, including Gothic House, which was deemed not fit for purpose. CBC also sold Wivenhoe Town Council its offices in March 2017, for £200,000, and transferred its public toilets and car park.
After CBC moved its visitor information centre in High Street to Hollytrees Museum the former building was sold for £350,000 to a real estate company.
Suffolk Coastal said many of its asset disposals were driven by its “enabling communities” agenda - giving local people control of their own facilities.
Over the five years, SCDC transferred 18 assets, such as cycle paths, commons, and public open spaces, to town and parish councils to manage.
Examples include Ufford Parish Council and the Friends of Parkland Woods, taking on an area of woodland, which it has managed to encourage more wildlife and Debach Parish Council transforming some land into a village green, community orchard and wild play area.
Other transferals included the Spa Pavilion in Felixstowe, which was sold for a nominal £1 to NRG Theatres in May 2015, and The Layden’s Centre in Felixstowe,which had been used for meals on wheels but had remained empty for several years and was transferred to community interest company A Brighter Life for Everyone, to run its community cafe.
An SCDC spokesman said: “As part of our Enabling Communities agenda, we believe in empowering local town and parish councils by continuing to transfer amenity and community assets to them with their agreement.
“This enables the councils to work with local residents to best utilise the assets for the benefit of the whole community.”
SCDC also sold off flats above its former Tourist Information Centre and Revenue and Benefits Office in Undercliff Road, Felixstowe, after the services were relocated to the town’s library. No one lived in the flats, which were used for storage. They were sold in March 2015 for £260,000 to Coltway Properties, a real estate company.
Bloor paid £670,000 on March 31, 2016, for land on the Felixstowe South Seafront Development site, where it has built 127 homes. The land was said to be a “part exchange”, whereby Bloor Homes created a leisure and recreation space beside the development.
SCDC made a total of £3,587,913 from eight property and land sales.
The biggest single sale related to Cedar House, opposite the council’s old headquarters in Melton Hill. P J Livesey County Homes, which specialises in refurbishing period buildings, paid £2,591,223 for the land and buildings. The house, built in the late 18th or early 19th century, was used by the Cedar House Trust from 1996-2013 when it was handed back to Suffolk Coastal. The redevelopment has created, 15 new homes including three affordable.
Waveney District Council disposed of more assets than any other district or borough council - but most related to the creation of two new town and parish councils.
Of the 120 assets disposed of, 77 went to Lowestoft Town Council and a further 34 went to Oulton Broad Parish Council, which were both formed in April 2017, after WDC approved a ‘reorganisation order’
A WDC spokesman said: “Under the Order, a number of valuable assets, including recreation areas, parks, museums and allotments, were transferred from Waveney District Council to the new parish councils. By transferring these assets, which comprise a mixture of income-generating assets and those which require funding, the new councils have more control and can work with local residents to decide what is needed for the area.”
Assets also car parks, public toilets, and sporting facilities as well as parks, gardens and cafes.
WDC’s other disposals included several sales, totalling £2.4m, some of which related to land and buildings sold to housing developers.
Badger Building EA Ltd bought land in Monkton Avenue, Oulton, for £856,750 and Meadowlands, Wrentham for £475,000. Orbit Housing Association bought land at the former Compass Street council offices in Lowestoft for £112,000.