Last October Theresa May took to the stage at the Conservative Party conference to the tune of Dancing Queen and declared to the nation that austerity was coming to an end.
Less than six months later an investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in partnership with HuffPost UK, has found local councils across the country are selling off billions of pounds worth of publicly owned property just to make ends meet. In many cases, these sales are paying for council workers to be made redundant.
Austerity isn’t just alive and kicking, it continues to claim victims – public servants, public services, and public spaces.
Since 2010, local authorities have lost around 60% of their funding as part of the austerity agenda. From next year, the core funding given to councils by the government will have been withdrawn entirely.
While the government has shown no sign of reversing these cuts, it has tasked councils to raise money in other ways, and it was one of these changes that led the Bureau Local to launch a UK-wide collaborative investigation, its biggest ever, to shine a spotlight on one little-known policy change that is quietly but significantly changing communities.
It all started in April 2016, when then-Chancellor George Osborne temporarily relaxed the rules that govern what councils can do with the land and buildings they own, allowing them to use the money from selling those things off to fund changes to their services, so long as those changes led to “ongoing savings”.
The result? Councils have been selling community centres and libraries, youth clubs and health clinics, council buildings and land, to raise funds – and in many cases this cash has been used to fund job losses.
This is a double-blow to our communities. We are permanently losing public spaces that have served people for generations, only then to use the funds to support the loss of jobs and services.
The findings are part of a wider investigation by the Bureau into the perilous state of local government finances, which has named the authorities showing multiple signs of crisis and revealed how councils have gambled billions on the property market. This latest series of stories reveals how this climate of uncertainty and risk-taking is impacting on communities across the country.
The Bureau decided to team up with HuffPost UK to tell the story, after their What It’s Like To Lose series, launched in January, examined how the loss of valued public services and spaces – libraries, bus routes, leisure centres and job centres – impacts on local communities in profound ways.
For this trailblazing investigation, the Bureau sent out Freedom of Information requests to all 353 councils in England to bring data into the public domain
The Bureau operates differently to many other media organisations, working collaboratively with more than 900 people – from journalists and academics, to data scientists and members of the public – who all use their knowledge and contacts to investigate and report what is happening in communities at a local level.
For this trailblazing investigation, the Bureau sent out Freedom of Information requests to all 353 councils in England to bring data into the public domain that would otherwise not have been available. The list of lost public assets, buildings and spaces will ensure greater transparency about what has been happening at councils across the country in recent years.
Given the unprecedented financial strain placed on local government, it is unsurprising that, offered the freedom to sell things off, some councils have done so. Selling a community centre and using the money to pay for people to be made redundant is within the rules. The problem is the public is often denied the chance to properly scrutinise these decisions.
This lack of transparency is compounded by what appears to be a dearth of understanding over the use, and impact of, these guidelines. None of the union officials we contacted knew redundancies were being funded by property sales.
The influential cross-party Public Accounts Committee recently completed an investigation into council finances that made no mention of the sale of land and property.
While the funding formula for local government is in the process of being redrawn, no one expects there to be a radical overhaul and injection of additional money. Yet what we do know is that our councils – now financially bare-boned – are having to make extremely difficult decisions to stay afloat, and that has meant a shrinking of public space and the loss of public jobs and services.
As a result, we must shine a light on this funding crisis and start a public debate on the policies in place.
Gareth Davies is a journalist at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Emma Youle is special correspondent at HuffPost UK