Wigan council have sold off £14m worth of buildings and public spaces in five years

Ashton Town Hall - one of the assets sold off
Ashton Town Hall - one of the assets sold off

Cash-strapped Wigan Council has sold off almost £14m worth of buildings and public spaces in the past five years, in a bid to balance its books.

Houses, civic halls, own halls, industrial and business land, car parks and depots are among the items the town hall has shed according to statistics from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

In total 102 items have been disposed of by the local authority since 2013-14, with the biggest boosts to the town hall coffers coming from land in Platt Bridge and Leigh as well as a firm building a massive facility to make wet wipes.

The mass offloading of public assets, which has seen house-building firms, developers, businesses and private individuals among the beneficiaries, comes as Wigan Council has faced some of the harshest cuts in the country, with savings of £160m to be made by 2020, and in the same time period it made 673 people redundant.

However, the council told Bureau researchers that every penny from the sale of assets had been ploughed back into new capital expenditure, with none of the sales being used to fund redundancies.

The town hall also said it had not made any use of a controversial local government financing initiative called flexible capital receipts, which since March 2016 has permitted authorities to use sales to reform their services.

The Bureau launched a national investigation into sell-offs amid fears that many town halls were trimming their asset portfolios in order to meet their costs as budgets shrink or to make their workforces smaller.

Paul McKevitt, deputy chief executive at Wigan Council, said: “The change in our asset base reflects the change in the council’s plans rather than any strategy to sell assets to balance the books. Our approach has been strategy-led, rather than looking for one-off receipts.

“We rationalised our admin buildings by moving from 24 buildings to four when we re-modelled the town hall, and introduced flexible working which saved the council £1m a year in running costs.”

The most valuable sales overseen by Wigan Council are for land, with the biggest single amount the £1,431,700 received from Gleeson Regeneration for vacant land on the Millers Lane estate, on Calder Drive and Ribble Road in Platt Bridge.

The council also received £1.06m from Persimmon Homes for open land on the Higher Folds estate at Queensway. Nice-Pack International and Liberty

Quayside also shelled out a massive £990,000 in 2015-16 for land at the Quayside Centre at Westwood Park, for building an enormous commercial facility.

Offloading the Fourways Assessment Unit, meanwhile, brought in £770,000. The list also contains a number of controversial items, such as the civic halls sold to 8th Wonder in 2014-15.

The stats shows the council received £66,445 for Atherton’s Formby Hall, £105,646 for Lowton Civic Hall and £59,965 for the Monaco Ballroom in Hindley, all through sealed bid processes.

These deals came under considerable scrutiny from furious residents after 8th Wonder sold them on just a few years after taking over, amid allegations they had deliberately run them down in order to minimise costs.

While the Hindley venue is still used for events, Formby Hall was flattened for a care facility and Lowton Civic Hall bulldozed for housing.

Another sale which sparked much local unease was the decision to offload Ashton Town Hall for a new medical centre, the Bryn Street venue eventually going under the hammer for £226,000.

Selling off playing fields often grabs the headlines and leads to criticism, but there was just one example of Wigan Council doing this.

Trade unions slammed politicians in Westminster for not investing in local government properly and questioned whether councils should go along with it.

Unite national officer for local government Jim Kennedy said: “We do question the purpose of selling off assets built up for local communities over decades.

“It is being driven by right-wing ideological imperatives and does nothing to invest in services for the future of a growing population.

“Unite is currently monitoring the council asset sell-offs across the country and will have a clearer picture of this pernicious trend in the next couple of months.”

For the full list of assets see the Wigan Post (Monday).