Desperation can take so many different forms. Now the government is talking about the disposal of some of our national assets such as The Tote, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the Dartford Crossing. Given the state of the economy, some disposals are probably necessary but we should still be worried with this government’s previous track record.
The disposals would only have a tiny impact on our huge national debt and an even smaller impact if the government got it wrong. This government once engaged in self-congratulation on its economic competence. It did so even while disposing of 400 tonnes of our gold reserves at a 20-year low in the market. Traders have nicknamed this period the “Brown Bottom”. Had the gold been sold today, it would have realised four times the price or an extra £6 billion. So this was an inauspicious start in the finely calculated pursuit of asset disposal.
We are now in a situation where land, property and other asset values are seriously depressed from their peak market values. The government therefore needs to proceed carefully to ensure that best value is obtained for the tax payer. That means learning from past mistakes and marketing any assets in the best way related to their value. To help, I point out to the government that it was only ever a rumour that BAA’s sale ofGatwickAirportwas proceeding through ebay. It was never really true.
The government can only sell an asset once, meaning that this approach is only a limited short-term assistance. To put this into context, asset sales of £3 billion would not even pay one week of the government’s borrowing. Long-term economic stability is only achieved with the political honesty that has driven Conservative policy for seeking real savings in the public sector.
Locally there is concern about the government hinting that local authorities should join in the great sell-off. There is nothing wrong with local government making prudent decisions about the disposal of assets especially when there is commensurate community gain. This could take the form of affordable housing or leisure and cultural facilities. At Crawley Council, we have taken just such a policy lead for housing but in a careful and measured way.
The potential threat comes from central government applying its perceived wisdom to tell local authorities what to sell and when. This would be totally contrary to the principle of localism where decisions are taken as close as practically possible to the people that they affect. We will be resisting any such unjustifiable edicts from the government and expect to have the support of the LGA (Local Government Association) in doing so.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
21st October 2009