Council discovers properties it ‘didn’t know were there’
The council has admitted to an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the number of “low value” properties that it owns.
And it indicated on Thursday that there may yet be more properties of which it is not aware.
Head of capital programming Robert Sinclair told members of the audit and standards committee that “day by day we discover more that we didn’t know were there”. But he may quickly have regretted this choice of words as councillors began to grill him over the issue.
Mr Sinclair had been asked in June of last year to prepare a report on council properties for which a “peppercorn rent” was charged. The two paragraph response given this week was not considered satisfactory.
According to Mr Sinclair, the council owns “several” properties leased for nominal sums, varying between 25p and £175 per annum, which are mostly let to community organisations and charities. Generally these groups take on the responsibility for keeping the buildings wind and watertight.
But no definitive list had been compiled for councillors, and because of the “historical” nature of the agreements it was not clear whether all of the properties had yet come to light.
North Mainland representative Andrea Manson seemed genuinely baffled as she asked how it was possible for the council not to know what it owned.
Surely if rents are being paid, she said, there must be a record.
Mr Sinclair assured members that for those properties on which rent was paid, information would be available. But, he added, “in some cases the rent agreement exists on the basis that it may or may not be asked for” – a statement which raised more than one pair of eyebrows in the chamber.
Both Billy Fox and Theo Smith demanded that an up-to-date register be made publicly available as soon as possible. “I don’t think that’s asking too much”, said Mr Smith.
Mr Sinclair suggested to councillors that they should “get this into perspective. This is a small amount of low value properties” he said.
But there were more questions to come.
Steven Coutts raised concerns over the council’s liability for the properties, particularly as it can’t seem to keep track of what it actually owns. Could Mr Sinclair provide a guarantee that all properties are appropriately insured?
Mr Sinclair was forced to admit that he could not give such a guarantee, but said that he would be “absolutely amazed” if this were not the case.
The council would be able to react, he added, should a situation arise which required it to do so.
Perhaps “a more proactive than reactive approach” might be appropriate, said Mr Coutts.
Councillors agreed that the gap in officials’ knowledge was unacceptable and Theo Smith warned that “insignificant” properties can suddenly and unexpectedly become “significant” ones.
Mr Sinclair agreed to prepare a full report for the next meeting of the audit and standards committee.