Council rich in real estate

Elise Benjamin

Elise Benjamin

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , covering business. Call me on 01865 425433

Who owns Oxford? To a surprising extent the answer is: you do. Oxford City Council, which is, of course, owned by the public, owns 577 properties in Oxford, valued at £193m — and that figure does not include the 8,000 council dwellings of which it is also the landlord.

Obviously, Gown owns even more than Town, but many will be surprised to see just how rich the city is in property of the type that former PM Harold Macmillan called “the family silver” — which could be sold if necessary.

It may be short of ready cash in its current account in these hard economic times — last year alone its employee count dropped 100 from 1,300 to 1,200 according to the Top 100 employers published today in the In Business magazine — but when it comes to capital it is in much the same position as a genteel old lady. Namely: house rich; cash poor.

A copy of the council’s property portfolio, obtained by The Oxford Times, shows that it owns huge swathes of the city centre — including most of Broad Street, St Michael’s Street, the Covered Market, George Street, much of the High Street, Queen Street, Ship Street, Carfax, Cornmarket Street, and Turl Street.

In addition it owns shops and other property in Cowley Road, Gloucester Green, all of Cave Street. Then it owns assets along the River Thames including Keble College Boat Club, Medley Sailing Club, and Bossoms Boat Yard; and there is Blackbird Leys, plus most of Sandy Lane, Atkyns Road, and Barns Road.

It is the landlord of pubs including the Bear in Alfred Street, and the Bullnose Morris in Watlington Road, and restaurants including Jamie’s in George Street. Then there is the New Theatre and Oxford City’s Court Place Farm football ground in Marsh Lane. The list goes on and on.

And on top of all this the council also owns the whole of Shotover Country Park, an area of heathland extending to about 152 acres, with 178 more acres at Westhill and College farms.

Altogether, its annual return on its property investments, some of which date back to the 16th century, is £6.59m a year — according to 2010/11 financial year accounts, the latest available.

But is this concentration of capital wealth in local authority ownership unusual for a city the size of Oxford?

By way of comparison, rival university city Cambridge, admittedly with a smaller population of 108,000, has a property portfolio, excluding council housing, worth just £108m.

Oxford Lord Mayor Elise Benjamin said: “This huge property portfolio does give the council an unusual amount of power. For instance it means it has the power to shape the city centre to a much greater extent than is the case in most cities.

“Where the arguments and discussions begin, though, is whether or not the council has the vision to use this power to deliver what its voters want.”

Graham Jones, chairman of the city traders’ organisation ROX, said: “I think the situation is very unusual here in that the council owns so much of the city centre. It has to generate good returns, which, of course, we all understand if we want good services and low council taxes, but at the same time it is the planning authority as well.

“I think, without seeing the thing as two opposing sides in a battle, we have built up a fairly strong traders’ association because we are dealing with strong landlords — usually the council, the university, or individual colleges.”

He added: “They need primarily to be good custodians of property and, importantly, also of tenants, or retailers. And here I don’t think they are good custodians, particularly when it comes to dealing with independent traders. And they often get the balance between their roles wrong.

“For instance, at a breakfast meeting earlier this month I told city council leaders that they were good at talking about helping us but that this did not always come through on the ground.

“For example, many councillors were prepared to allow further development on car parks in St Clements which would have meant parking difficulties for customers in that part of the city — where 20 per cent of customers arrive by car.”

Council leader Bob Price said: “The good thing about owning such a large property portfolio is that it produces another income stream, other than council taxes and charges (such as parking).

“The downside is that it is taken into account when determining what sort of central government grant we can expect. But it does mean much of the power is in our own hands, which is a significant advantage.

“But the main point here is that our two roles are kept entirely separate.”

In this context he said that the fact the council was now receiving far less money from its £30-£40m non-property investment had no bearing whatsoever on its management of its city real estate asset management.

He added: “But there is a tension here between making best financial use of property and ensuring best ethical and useful needs are met. However, we certainly don’t have an entirely free hand in planning matters. We have to conform with planning regulations and to agree a core strategy with inspectors.

“Also we have inherited an historical situation. In the 1920s, our forefathers rented out property at low rents at a time when they did not have to look to inflation as we do — and some of these are only now coming up for renewal.”

However, the fact remains that for many years properties were left empty for years, sometimes decades.

For example, the total business rate bill for empty council-owned properties this year was £25,515. And it would have been yet more, except that business rates are not payable on empty listed buildings.

But the total council tax payable for the council-owned Grade II-listed house at No 24 St Michael’s Street is £17,708.57. The building has been empty since June 2004, but is now due to become part of a hotel.

Of course, the city also owns the ornate Town Hall, and the nation’s biggest mace (dated 1629), and one of the heaviest mayoral chains.

I asked the Lord Mayor what it was worth.

The reply from Ms Benjamin: “About £150 in osteopath fees.”

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