Getting the most value from public assets shouldn't just mean selling them off

We couldn't find a picture of a piece of "for sale" sign in front of some MoD land. Image: Getty.

The autumn spending review, delivered by the chancellor last month, included a number of policies relating to public sector assets. Some of these relate to nationally held assets, with a number of government departments agreeing to release land and property worth £4.5bn between 2016-17 and 2020-21 – including up to £1bn of estate sales by the Ministry of Defence.

But more interesting for us, many of the policies focused on the assets held by local government, estimated to be worth £225bn in England. The announcements were aimed squarely at encouraging the sale of surplus assets and improving asset management.

This is the topic of our latest reportDelivering change: Making the most of public assets, which explores the changing role of assets in the local economy, as well as the role of asset management within councils. The report highlights the shift away from selling assets to generate one-off receipts, towards local authorities treating land and property assets as a means of generating revenue streams.

This is motivated by the need to find new sources of funding, as local authority budgets are cut, and as places struggle to fund services. Selling off an asset can generate a one-off cash receipt, but the money can only be used to fund capital expenditure, such as transport. Most places tell us that the real challenge is in funding local services, staff salaries and day to day running costs.

Asset management approaches and local government funding. Click to enlarge. Image: Centre for Cities.

In his statement last month, George Osborne announced that local authorities will now be able to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from asset sales to spend on public service “reform projects” – in other words, revenue spending. By providing an additional means for cash-strapped local government to generate revenue from public assets, the headline of this announcement is welcome. But the all-important implementation detail and conditions have yet to be set out.

Last year’s Autumn Statement already included provision for local authorities to bid for the use of £200m from expected asset sales made between 2015 and 2017. This was specifically for the one-off cost of public service reforms, rather than public service delivery in the long-term. 

But to be effective, the newly announced policy will need to go further and be simpler than previously announced measures. It needs to give localities genuine flexibility and control to spend the proceeds of local public asset sales, in addition to other revenue streams, in ways that support the economy and public services over the longer term.

The proposed strengthening of the Right to Contest, the commitment to improving the availability of asset data and providing an additional £31m for the One Public Estate programme, are also welcome in light of some of the challenges the report identifies:

  • Local areas need more control over national asset disposal strategies. The Right to Contest allows businesses, residents and local authorities to challenge the ownership and use of a public asset. If it can significantly improve the ability of local authorities to influence how individual nationally held assets in their area can be used to support growth, this will be a positive development.
  • Data and local relationships are vital in supporting a more strategic approach to asset management. There is currently no comprehensive database of public assets, or good way of mapping them, both of which restrict the ability of local leaders to take a strategic approach to managing assets (at all levels of government) and to optimising the value of the combined public estate in one place.

Requiring local authorities to list their assets on the e-Pims register would provide better national coverage – although local practitioners say it doesn’t contain enough information to be useful in local decision-making. Programmes like One Public Estate have been a catalyst in some places, for places to gather data, as well as build relationships between different public sector bodies and across borders.

Many of these reforms and proposals will go unnoticed, dwarfed by some of the more headline grabbing figures on national growth or welfare and health spending. But the way in which local government is able to make the most of public assets is intrinsically linked to its ability to continue to deliver vital services such as social care, maintain local facilities and support economic growth and regeneration.

Louise McGough is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities. This article was first posted on the think tank’s blog.

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12 things we learned by reading every single National Rail timetable

Some departure boards, yesterday. Image: CC-BY-SA

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked CityMetric’s editor about the longest possible UK train journey where the stations are all in progressive alphabetical order. Various people made suggestions, but I was intrigued as to what that definitive answer was. Helpfully, National Rail provides a 3,717 page document containing every single timetable in the country, so I got reading!

(Well, actually I let my computer read the raw data in a file provided by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Apparently this ‘requires a good level of computer skills’, so I guess I can put that on my CV now.)

Here’s what I learned:

1) The record for stops in progressive alphabetical order within a single journey is: 10

The winner is the weekday 7.42am Arriva Trains Wales service from Bridgend to Aberdare, which stops at the following stations in sequence:

  • Barry, Barry Docks, Cadoxton, Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest

The second longest sequence possible – 8 – overlaps with this. It’s the 22:46pm from Cardiff Central to Treherbert, although at present it’s only scheduled to run from 9-12 April, so you’d better book now to avoid the rush. 

  • Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest, Trehafod

Not quite sure what you’ll actually be able to do when you get to Trehafod at half eleven. Maybe the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park could arrange a special late night event to celebrate.

Just one of the things that you probably won't be able to see in Trehafod. Image: Wikimedia/FruitMonkey.

There are 15 possible runs of 7 stations. They include:

  • Berwick Upon Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars
  • Bidston, Birkenhead North, Birkenhead Park, Conway Park, Hamilton Square, James Street, Moorfields
  • Bedford, Flitwick, Harlington, Leagrave, Luton, St Albans City, St Pancras International

There is a chance for a bit of CONTROVERSY with the last one, as you could argue that the final station is actually called London St Pancras. But St Pancras International the ATOC data calls it, so if you disagree you should ring them up and shout very loudly about it, I bet they love it when stuff like that happens.

Alphabetical train journeys not exciting enough for you?

2) The longest sequence of stations with alliterative names: 5

There are two ways to do this:

  • Ladywell, Lewisham, London Bridge, London Waterloo (East), London Charing Cross – a sequence which is the end/beginning of a couple of routes in South East London.
  • Mills Hill, Moston, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly – from the middle of the Leeds-Manchester Airport route.

There are 20 ways to get a sequence of 4, and 117 for a sequence of 3, but there are no train stations in the UK beginning with Z so shut up you at the back there.

3) The longest sequence of stations with names of increasing length: 7

Two of these:

  • York, Leeds, Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road
  • Lewes, Glynde, Berwick, Polegate, Eastbourne, Hampden Park, Pevensey & Westham

4) The greatest number of stations you can stop at without changing trains: 50

On a veeeeery slow service that calls at every stop between Crewe and Cardiff Central over the course of 6hr20. Faster, albeit less comprehensive, trains are available.

But if you’re looking for a really long journey, that’s got nothing on:

5) The longest journey you can take on a single National Rail service: 13 hours and 58 minutes.

A sleeper service that leaves Inverness at 7.17pm, and arrives at London Euston at 9.15am the next morning. Curiously, the ATOC data appears to claim that it stops at Wembley European Freight Operations Centre, though sadly the National Rail website makes no mention of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

6) The shortest journey you can take on a National Rail service without getting off en route: 2 minutes.

Starting at Wrexham Central, and taking you all the way to Wrexham General, this service is in place for a few days in the last week of March.

7) The shortest complete journey as the crow flies: 0 miles

Because the origin station is the same as the terminating station, i.e. the journey is on a loop.

8) The longest unbroken journey as the crow flies: 505 miles

Taking you all the way from Aberdeen to Penzance – although opportunities to make it have become rarer. The only direct service in the current timetable departs at 8.20am on Saturday 24 March. It stops at 46 stations and takes 13 hours 20 minutes. Thankfully, a trolley service is available.

9) The shortest station names on the network have just 3 letters

Ash, Ayr, Ely, Lee, Lye, Ore, Par, Rye, Wem, and Wye.

There’s also I.B.M., serving an industrial site formerly owned by the tech firm, but the ATOC data includes those full stops so it's not quite as short. Compute that, Deep Blue, you chess twat.

10) The longest station name has 33 letters excluding spaces

Okay, I cheated on this and Googled it – the ATOC data only has space for 26 characters. But for completeness’ sake: it’s Rhoose Cardiff International Airport, with 33 letters.

No, I’m not counting that other, more infamous Welsh one, because it’s listed in the database as Llanfairpwll, which is what it is actually called.


This sign is a lie. Image: Cyberinsekt.

11) The highest platform number on the National Rail network is 22

Well, the highest platform number at which anything is currently scheduled to stop at, at least.

12) if yoU gAze lOng into an abYss the abySs alSo gazEs into yOu

Image: author's own.

“For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved”, said Thomas.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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