Will Forster

Mayor of Woking and Lib Dem County Councillor for Woking South Learn more

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Surrey County Council’s property empire

by willforster on 9 October, 2017

During tomorrow’s Full Council meeting, the Lib Dem Group will call on the Conservatives running Surrey County Council to stop further investment in commercial property outside of Surrey and to instead prioritise Council owned vacant buildings to either be used to provide services or to be sold or let.

The County Council has invested in a large property portfolio outside of Surrey despite its clear inability to properly utilise its own buildings within Surrey.  The Tory administration at County Hall has invested £199 million in commercial properties outside of Surrey which is 77.1% of its investment portfolio.  This is a huge amount of money and a huge proportion of funding which will not improve services and will not increase economic growth in Surrey.

These investments in warehouses, office buildings, a cinema and retail premises across the country in places such as Wiltshire, Salford and Macclesfield are putting public money at risk.  The risk is that the costs of maintenance, professional advisers, rates and other costs of these properties will exceed the rent received, such as if the tenant leaves and if the building becomes outdated.  It is not uncommon for office buildings to be vacant as they become outdated and retail premises are becoming increasingly risky investments given the trend for shopping online.

These risks are likely to increase as the Conservative administration’s stated intention is to invest up to £1 billion by 2021 with a maximum return of only 2%.  This low rate of return gives very little room for manoeuvre if problems arise, costs increase and therefore the risk of making a loss increases.

Whilst amassing a large property portfolio outside of Surrey, the County Council owns a significant number of vacant buildings, some of which have been vacant for years such as the former Adult Education Centre in Dorking and the Pond Meadow school site in Guildford.  This is a waste of money as these assets are unutilised, deteriorating, and thus losing value whilst they make a loss as they incur costs such as rates, maintenance and security.

Details of the Tory administration’s commercial property investments and its own vacant properties are shrouded in secrecy – we have been forced to submit formal questions to obtain basic information about the County Council’s publicly funded commercial properties and Freedom of Information Act requests about the County Council’s own vacant properties.  It is clearly a source of embarrassment to the Conservative administration to make this information readily available to the public.

The Tories at County Hall needs to get their priorities right – it is unacceptable and risky to invest huge sums of money in properties outside Surrey whilst leaving its own buildings vacant, deteriorating, losing value and losing money.  The County Council is not a property company and its primary role is to provide services to Surrey residents.  The message is for the County Council to stop risking public money on commercial properties outside Surrey and to stop wasting money on empty buildings.

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