POLITICS

George Osborne's Big British Land Sale Has Been A Seriously Awkward Flop

05/09/2014 14:26 BST | Updated 05/09/2014 15:59 BST
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07: Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne tours the construction site of the new fourth platform at Manchester Airport Rail Station which is part of the Northern Hub Project on February 7, 2014 in Manchester, England. The Chancellor officially launched and unveiled a plaque to mark the the start of the GBP 600 Million Northern Hub Project which will enhance the rail network. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

George Osborne's plan to sell redundant government property at a "fair price" has been branded a "damp squib" after the Huffington Post UK found that nothing has been sold yet.

In response to a Freedom of Information request from HuffPost UK, the Cabinet Office admitted that only nine applications had been made asking for certain bits of land or property to be sold off since the launch of the "Right to Contest" programme this January, with seven of those applications already rejected by officials.

The Cabinet Office said that three of the applications demanding the sale of particular bits of Whitehall-owned land had been rejected as the sites were judged to be "vital to operations", while the other four were "out of scope" of what applicants can request. The final two applications are "still ongoing" and awaiting final judgement.

Danny Alexander, the Chancellor's deputy, said at the programme's launch that it would help stop the government being a "compulsive hoarder of land and property that could be better used for things like housing and local economic growth", as members of the public could challenge officials to justify why certain sites should not be sold off.

The Cabinet Office at the time said the scheme was "expected to boost the supply of land available for house building and business growth."

A Labour spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “This scheme, launched amid great fanfare, looks like another damp squib from this out of touch Government. We’re in the middle of a housing crisis under David Cameron, with the lowest level of housebuilding in peacetime since the 1920s. This is more proof that the Tories and Lib Dems have no answers to the challenges facing Britain.”

The house building industry expressed concern about the revelation. A spokesperson for the Home Builders Federation told HuffPostUK: "With a lack of land now the biggest constraint to providing the homes we need, the Government must find a way to cut through the red tape and deliver on promises to fast-track such land.”

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: "The Government owns far more property than it needs and selling some of it off is a sensible way to help bring the deficit down. However, with the majority of these applications being rejected, it's hard to shake the suspicion that the "Right to Contest" is nothing more than a publicity stunt."

Each application goes before a committee comprising ministers from the Treasury, Cabinet Office and the landholding department. The Department for Communities and Local Government manages applications that challenge officials to sell land and property owned by local authorities.

Some may welcome the fact that the government's land scale scheme has not had phenomenal success, as it was condemned as a plan "to sell off the family silver" at its inception.

See also: George Osborne's Land Sale Plan Like 'Selling Off Family Silver', Critics Warn

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, who voiced the criticism to HuffPost UK, said: "These are resources built up over centuries, to be used for the common good, but here he wants to offer one more part of our joint resources for private profit.

"After the debacle of the sale of Royal Mail for far less than what is now its market value, we can have no confidence that the government will be able to even get a ‘fair’ value for these assets.

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“But they should not anyway be sold off. Public assets should continue to be used for the common good, whether it be sporting fields, libraries or community meeting rooms. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. We’ll have little chance of getting them back and we’ll all be poorer.”

The Cabinet Office defended the slow progress of releasing land under the scheme, saying: "We aim to encourage people to use the Right to Contest so that they can help government make the best use of its property assets within their communities."

"As part of the long-term plan to tackle our country’s budget deficit, the government has already raised over £1.4 billion since May 2010 through the sale of land and property. It has exited 2 million square metres of space across the country.

"The government is also delivering on its ambition to release enough land for 100,000 homes by March 2015. By the end of March 2014 it had disposed of enough land to build 76,000 homes."

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