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Sale of public land inquiry


Central government owns around £179bn of land and property across the United Kingdom which, at about 43% of the total public sector estate, is a significant public asset. The Government sees benefits in selling land it no longer needs because sales of sites can release land for new homes and proceeds can be reinvested in public services. Therefore, it has a policy to retain only the publicly-owned assets that meet public service obligations: surplus land should be disposed of within three years and surplus residential property within sixth months.

 There are a number of key players:

  • the Cabinet Office has overall responsibility for the government estate
  • the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) oversees the "Public Land for Housing Programme"
  • Homes England is the government’s land agency which focuses on land disposals as well as selling its own land for homes
  • HM Treasury monitors the pace and performance of programmes as well as setting overall fiscal policy and leading spending reviews; and
  • Land-owning departments are responsible for meeting their targets under the "Public Land for Housing Programme" while complying with all relevant rules and guidance.

There are two main land disposal targets: 1. MHCLG’s "Public Land for Housing Programme" which aims to increase housing supply by releasing surplus public sector land for at least 160,000 homes between 2015-2020 and 2. the Cabinet Office target to deliver £5bn between 2015 and 2020 through the release of surplus public sector land and property across the UK.

A recent National Audit Office (NAO) report has found that the government is unlikely to meet its target of releasing sufficient public sector land to build 160,000 homes by 2020. Current estimates from MHCLG predict the release of land to fulfil 65,000 homes (41% of the target). The Department has identified issues with: land still being used to provide essential public services, planning permission, decontamination requirements and legal ownership of sites.

The NAO report also found that the government does expect to achieve its second target of raising £5bn in proceeds by selling land and property. Having generated £2.48bn between April 2015 and March 2018, it expects to raise the remaineder through two future transactions in the final two years of the programme. However, there is limited programme-level data on who buys public land and the use of proceeds, making it impossible to see where it is being spent in government.

On 12 June at 2.30pm, the Public Accounts Committee will question lead officials from all of the key players in the government’s land disposal strategy and programme: the Cabinet Office, HM Treasury, MHCLG and Homes England. It will challenge departments on the progress they are making on land disposal targets and examine the government’s approach to managing activity across multiple departments.