By Tom Moseley, Parliamentary Correspondent
CASH-strapped councils are sitting on a property empire including restaurants, dozens of pubs, a department store and a nightclub.
Cafés, an upmarket hotel and a cinema are also among thousands of “investment properties” owned by local authorities in the Bristol area, according to a Government list.
The vast collection is revealed today as ministers urge councils to publish their entire property portfolios in an attempt to “save billions”.
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said the public had the right to “see the sheer scale and variety” of the asset wealth of the public sector.
He said: “The general public probably have no idea of the sheer scale and scope of property and land on the public sector’s books. In many cases it goes way beyond traditional frontline services.”
Bristol City Council said its 5,000-strong portfolio generated £12 million a year, which was used to support frontline services.
The council said it was actively reviewing its collection of buildings but insisted in most cases renting them out was better value for taxpayers than selling them off.
The city council’s collection includes the Primark store in Broadmead, Tubes nightclub in Unity Street and more than 25 pubs – including four on historic King Street – The King Street Warehouse, King William Ale House, Mulligans and the Famous Royal Naval VolunteerCORR.
Bath & North East Somerset Council owns 13 shops and three hotels including the Empire Hotel and the Forum cinema in Bath.
Mr Pickles said: “I want the public sector to take a good hard look at what they own. By cataloguing each and every asset, councils can help Government find innovative new ways to improve local services, keep council running costs down – and save taxpayers money.”
Ministers say publishing the lists will allow councils to run more efficient services by co-ordinating with other public sector organisations and providing better information for community groups who could take over the buildings. It would also pressurise councils – already facing cuts to services and job losses – to consider selling some of them off.
A city council spokesman said: “Bristol City Council currently owns some 5,000 investment properties. These produce an annual income of over £12 million, which makes an important contribution to the council’s revenue programme, in addition to encouraging economic development and the regeneration of the city.
“The portfolio comprises a variety of uses including retail, commercial leisure, industrial and office property. A significant proportion of the investment properties is let on leases in excess of 25 years and is subject to ground rents.
“The current value of the investment portfolio is £204 million out of a total value of all the council’s property assets of £2 billion. However, we are actively examining the properties that we occupy to see if we can improve the efficiency of our estate.”
“The performance of the investment portfolio is reviewed annually and any under-performing assets are identified for sale. The council has an ongoing disposals programme and this year proposes to raise some £5 million in capital receipts.
“At present, income generated from renting out properties that we own gives a better return than if we sold and invested the proceeds.”
No details of property owned by South Gloucestershire Council was included in the list, although some North Somerset Council assets, including Weston-super- Mare’s Playhouse Theatre, were included.