THE GOVERNMENT HAS PUBLISHED PROPOSALS CALLING ON LOCAL AUTHORITIES, INCLUDING SURREY COUNTY COUNCIL, TO BE MORE OPEN AND TRANSPARENT ABOUT THEIR PURCHASES OF COMMERCIAL PROPERTIES FOR INVESTMENT PURPOSES. THE CONSULTATION, WHICH CLOSED ON DECEMBER 22ND 2017, STATES 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", AND THAT "LOCAL AUTHORITIES NEED TO REMEMBER THAT THEIR PRIME DUTY IS TO DELIVER STATUTORY SERVICES FOR LOCAL RESIDENTS". THE NEW RULES, IF ADOPTED, WILL BE INTRODUCED IN APRIL 2018 AND TAKE EFFECT IMMEDIATELY.
Cllr Hazel Watson, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Surrey County Council, said today:
"I welcome these proposals from the Government to increase the openness and transparency about commercial investment activities by local councils, such as Surrey County Council.
"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 £200m on commercial properties outside Surrey, purely for income from rent. 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 Surrey County Council could easily lose money as a result.
"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. Unfortunately this is not the case and so urgent change is needed.
"I also welcome the Government's guidance on the role of local authorities which is to provide services to local residents. 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.
"I am calling 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".
The Government's consultation documents can be found here:
More information on Surrey County Council's property portfolio can be found in the response to this recent Freedom of Information request: