January 9, 2014
The UK Government’s ongoing attempt to divest itself of large parts of the public sector estate or at least find other ways of using them took a new turn yesterday with the announcement that members of the public and businesses can now challenge central Government to release land for alternative uses. Originally announced in last year’s Spending Review and since developed by the Cabinet Office, it will now be possible to bid to buy up a part of Whitehall’s vast and sometimes underutilised £330bn land and property portfolio under the Treasury-backed Right to Contest scheme – if it can be demonstrated that there is a potentially better use for it. The programme is an extension of the Right to Challenge programme that already operates in local government giving communities, organisations and individuals the power to contest the use of vacant or surplus property owned by local authorities.
Right to Contest applications will be assessed by a committee of ministers from the Treasury, Cabinet Office and the landholding department. If a site is deemed “vital for operational use” or there are other “overriding reasons” the land not be released to the open market, according to the statement from the Cabinet Office.
“The Government is the custodian of the taxpayers’ assets,” claimed Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. “We certainly should not act as some kind of compulsive hoarder of land and property that could be better used for things like housing and local economic growth. That is why we are accepting applications from the public contesting the use of public land and property. I would encourage people to submit an application if they know of any government sites which could be put to better economic use. We will sell them back to the community and local businesses at a fair price.”
The announcement will not affect essential Government properties such as Downing Street and Parliament but, according to the Treasury, may have a transformative effect on the UK because the public sector holds as much as 40 percent of developable land and around 27 percent of brownfield land in the UK.
As we reported last Spring, the UK Government already claims to have sold some £1 billion of unwanted public sector properties since 2010.