The government has just published lists of government and local authority assets to open debate about which ones can be sold instead of cutting services, the government says. Thecoalition has produced a map of properties and facilities belonging to 87 councils in England. We shouldn’t be worried about transparency when it comes to public assets; the general public ought to know what assets are held by national and local authorities and be able to appraise the value for money aspect of their ownership.
However, the existence of a list should not be based on the presumption that selling the assets off is the way forward. Assets liquidised are rarely regained, as we have seen with the housing market in the 1980s. Had the social housing stock been managed properly, we would not find ourselves in the unsustainable situation that we now have. It was completely wrong to sell homes for as little as one third of their market value and has lead us into the £20bn annual cost of Housing Benefit. Efficient asset management should produce sufficient returns. Selling off assets to subsidise services is poor, short-term thinking. It was the very reason why former prime minister Harold Macmillan criticised Margaret Thatcher’s government for ‘selling off the family silver’ when they privatised various public utilities in the 1980s. The bar chart to the left demonstrates exactly what happens when a government applies an ideological policy to a social commodity.
Local authorities should not be browbeaten into divesting themselves of valuable or strategic assets that serve their communities at the whim of the coalition government. The record of such strategies is, as you can see from the chart, is not in our best interests in the long run. The coalition government seems to be ideologically driven by the belief that privatising – reducing the size of the state – is the answer to the country’s economic difficulties. What we may end up doing is leaving ourselves at the mercy of private firms whose bottom line is only profit. I am afraid that we seem to have been sold the lie that there is no other way, which is not true at all.