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County Council Property Investment Process Criticised By Lib Dems

Published on: 29 Mar, 2017
Updated on: 31 Mar, 2017

Surrey County Council (SCC) is to dramatically increase its property investment portfolio of commercial buildings to create an income stream of up to £10 million per annum, a move they say is required because the funding from central government is drying up.

Liberal Democrats have been left  unhappy by the announcement and say, in a press release, that the council is: “…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 Denise Le Gal

But the Cabinet member for business services at Kingston, Denise Le Gal (Con, Farnham North) has dismissed the Lib Dems complaint as “politicking” in the run up to the county council elections in May.

Last year (2016) SCC invested in property across England, including: B&Q in Macclesfield; Travel Lodge Hotel in Stratford upon Avon; cinema and retail units in Worcester; and a distribution park in Milton Keynes.

Cllr Hazel Watson, Lib Dem leader at County Hall, said: “This money is public money and it has to be used carefully and responsibly for the benefit of Surrey residents.

Cllr Hazel Watson

“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.”

Cllr Watson says she is also worried that the Conservative administration wants to take the relevant decisions in secret and to remove the opportunity for scrutiny before individual decisions are taken to buy commercial properties worth millions of pounds.

She continued: “This is akin to gambling with public money, and exposes the county council to an unacceptable level of financial risk.

“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.”

But Cllr Denise Le Gal…. yesterday (March 29) rejected the Lib Dem claims saying: “The Lib Dem press release is just politicking as we approach the county council elections.

“The fact is we are creating an investment portfolio in order to generate an annual income of £10 million, money the council will need as our grant is cut further and further.

“There is an urgency to get the arrangements into place, hence the delegation to the Investment Board and there is a need for commercial confidentiality.

“But there will be a chance for scrutiny once the group reports back.”

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