Surrey County Council urged to shed secrecy around its commercial property deals
SCC has been urged to drop the secrecy surrounding its property gambling worth £200m outside the county
There have been demands that Surrey County Council drop the secrecy surrounding its secret commercial deals around the UK that have been revealed to be worth £200m. The call for transparency has come up after a government proposal urged local authorities to be more open about their purchases of commercial properties for investment purposes.
Now, SSC has been urged to publish a list of its property investments after it gambled around £200 million on commercial buildings outside the county. However a SCC spokesman, said “sometimes there is a need for commercial sensitivity to ensure we get the best possible result”, adding that the information will be made public soon.
According to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Surrey’s Liberal Democrat Party, SCC spent millions “on commercial properties outside Surrey purely for income from rent” from September 2017. Out of the total amount of £320 million, 83% or £200 million was allocated outside of the county. Half of its total commercial investment was allocated to retail property, 29% invested in offices, 15% in industrial properties and 6% in hotel and leisure investments. Responding to the FOI, SCC estimated a “net return to the council of £10 million by 2020” and “the eventual fund size will be determined as a result of this stated strategy”.
Leader, Councillor Hazel Watson said that this is a hugely risky approach to gamble with council tax payers’ money and it is clear that the government is becoming increasingly concerned that councils such as SCC may easily lose money as a result. Watson said that the county council has not been very open or transparent about its purchases of commercial properties outside Surrey. The purchases include warehouses, retail developments and office blocks around the UK. To date, the county council has spent approximately £200 million on commercial properties outside Surrey, purely for income from rent. Watson said that Surrey residents have a right to know how their money is being spent by the county council. To put such large amounts of money at risk and hide it from members of the public is unacceptable. A list of all properties purchased by the county council, including the amount spent by the council, the type of property and the address should be readily available for all to see on the county council’s website but unfortunately this is not the case and so urgent change is needed.
Earlier, a government-led public consultation stated that local authorities need to demonstrate more transparency and openness and to make it easier for informed observers to understand how good governance and democratic accountability have been exercised. It added that local authorities need to remember that their prime duty is to deliver statutory services for local residents.
Watson welcomed the government’s guidance on the role of local authorities, which is to provide services to local residents. Watson said that the county council’s current priority is investing in commercial properties, 83% of which are outside Surrey. This is risky and will not benefit services for Surrey residents or increase economic growth in the county. Watson called on the Conservative administration to drop the secrecy, invest in Surrey and stop spending millions of pounds on speculative property investments hundreds of miles away.
In response, a SCC spokesman said that it is trying to generate the best possible return for the services Surrey residents value and will therefore consider investing in a range of appropriate opportunities when they arise.