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Lib Dems condemn poor rates of return and secrecy as Surrey County Council bets the house on property investment

March 28, 2017 4:42 PM

Cllr Hazel WatsonLiberal Democrats have condemned proposals for Surrey County Council to dramatically increase its property investment portfolio of commercial buildings , whilst at the same time removing the opportunity for scrutiny before decisions are taken. Currently, proposals to purchase commercial properties are brought before the county council's Cabinet for decision, albeit in private, whereas under the new arrangements the Cabinet would receive information on purchases after the decision has been taken.

Cllr Hazel Watson, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Surrey County Council, said today:

"This money is public money and it has to be used carefully and responsibly for the benefit of Surrey residents. I am deeply concerned that the current return on the county council's investment portfolio of commercial properties, worth £223m, is actually only £1.8m - a return of less than one percent. Despite this, the Conservative administration at County Hall plans to dramatically increase its commercial property empire around the UK so that by 2020/21 it will be worth between £0.5bn and £1bn, with an annual return of £10m which is a return rate of between one percent and two percent.

"Furthermore, the Conservative administration wants to take these important decisions in secret and to remove the opportunity for scrutiny before individual decisions are taken to buy commercial properties worth millions of pounds. This is akin to gambling with public money, and exposes the county council to an unacceptable level of financial risk.

"The original principles behind the strategy were to approve "Investments that have the potential to support economic growth in the county of Surrey". However the reality has been quite different to date, with over £148m worth of commercial properties outside Surrey purchased by the council's wholly-owned property company Halsey Garton between November 2015 and December 2016. The large sums of money involved and the level risk require more, not less, scrutiny to safeguard public money. The county council should be focussing on becoming more efficient and providing better services to Surrey residents, rather than acting like a property investment company in the private sector."

NOTES

A list of commercial properties purchased by the County Council can be found here:

http://scc.lib.dm/d2Nm

The new investment strategy can be found here:

https://mycouncil.surreycc.gov.uk/documents/g5105/Public%20reports%20pack%20Tuesday%2028-Mar-2017%2014.00%20Cabinet.pdf?T=10