Craig Simpson on an English political microcosm
Northumberland serves as a microcosm of the English political landscape. Post-industrial, urban Labour strongholds, vanishing Lib Dem support, and outposts of affluence amid swathes of rural Conservatism. The SNP are a border away. The South East of the county is a pocket of urbanisation with all the signs of decline. The much depended upon pit wheels have been conspicuously replaced by towering, unsightly windmills, and the jobs they once provided have been replaced by nothing quite as visible or as numerous. This pattern – insert primary industry of choice – is not unique to the region, nor is the stripping back of welfare provision, and neither is the rapid, policy-driven process of public assets being transferred into private ownership.
The shaping of the new Northumberland is outlined in the Northumberland Investment Plan 2010-2020, which is self-described as a “high level, strategic vision”. A long term strategy, formed in concert with national government, it is the “first iteration of what will become a 15 year plan; the basis around which the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) will invest resources. It is a product of the Single Conversation process between Northumberland County Council and the HCA.” Part of any consideration of the region’s future must be a plan for council property, and the direction the local authority is taking this regard is clear from the advice and assistance it is receiving, that is, from the HCA (Homes and Communities Agency). Its purpose as an aid to the expedient transfer of public land becomes apparent upon reading the HCA’s Land Development & Disposal Plan 2014/15 . The organisation is, along with government more broadly, “committed to achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth by using public land to accelerate economic activity”.
Consider two former school lots in South East Northumberland: Moorside in the town of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, and Coulson Park in the east of Ashington, both within the Wansbeck constituency and nearly identical economically. Racked by recession and decades of decline, the majority of employment is comprised of semi-routine, lower paid occupations, and the benefit claimant rate is nearly double national average. Along with much else, the schools have been closed. The sites lie dormant, held by the Local Education Authority – in this case the unitary Northumberland County Council. In line with the Council’s development plan this land is to be disposed of, and there are, as with everything, consultants for this purpose.
GVA Bilfinger, a popular development partner of local councils, have a portfolio advertising the land available at these sites, which notes the suitability of the plots for housing. Inquiries confirm this, and the very real possibility of changing the D1 (non-residential institution) planning class. How best to go about this? One is directed, of course, to the County Council. Conversion of common property to private is less than onerous. Land transfer is driven by government policy, catalysed by the HCA, and facilitated by the local authority. The mechanism and the motivation share the same institutions. It must also be noted, gallingly perhaps, that the HCA makes use public funding to finance the improvement of potential development sites, making both the plot and the price more attractive to private investors to whom public land is sold.
Housing is in increasingly short supply nationally, and even in east Ashington it is fantastically lucrative as well as necessary. However, in a locality with nearly twice the national unemployment rate according to locality profiles, most are economically barred from the benefits of their amenities being sold for private housing, and this in an area which the local authority itself recognises has “a high demand for social rented stock”. These transactions hold little gain for the communities involved, and once gone there is no direct replacement of the dissolved D1 institutions, no immediate benefit to the public now lacking. Furthermore, the non-hypothecated capital generated is lost – invested elsewhere or used to pay down the deficit – along with the assets. This is national policy, as proudly stated in the recent Treasury Spending Review, fostering “a new commercially-driven approach to land and property asset management across the central government”, and boasting that “In terms of estates utilisation, the UK now has one of the most efficient governments in the world”. The Conservative fiscal justifications for such wholesaling are well known and oft repeated. Meanwhile, the deeds irreversible change hands, and the localities effected are the lesser for it. Given the nature of such investment, it will always be areas subject to decline which are cruelly susceptible to further deprivation.
What is perhaps more universally damaging is the incentivisation involved in such politically-backed asset transfer. In this case there is demand for housing (although this housing is not readily affordable, and therefore not strictly in demand), and the government is disposing of its holdings, a local school is as good as anything, to the benefit of private development companies. The stakes riding on school closure, as in this example, are significantly raised – and the considerations are not solely educational. Questions must be asked as to the limits of commercial availability. If there such a market connection between the playground and the showhouse, what institutions are safe under such a hucksterish government?
Every time a Secretary of State makes noises of reform, impels the healthcare system to greater acts of sacrifice, the education system to greater reorganisation, or any other service to any moveable goalpost, a suspicion of financial motivation is not unjustified. It is the self-declared intention of the incumbents to boost the economy by sale of public land, agencies are in place to facilitate this, and local authorities have the power to allow the transfer. No matter the department, the public assets they hold in trust are, if no longer sacrosanct, something potentially commodified, potentially sold. Be it plots of land or the institutions themselves, the local apparatus by which they are maintained or offloaded can be easily realigned to accommodate the prevailing political will. In Northumberland the privatising ambition is on full display, and ‘development’ is increasingly to the detriment of local communities.