Selling off the silver, by David Walker

14 Oct 09
DAVID WALKER | After the privatisations of the Tory era, there isn’t much of the old nationalised stock left to sell

As Conservative leader David Cameron’s fortunes soar, the citation count for a predecessor of his – Harold Macmillan – has also risen. Now, to Macmillan’s nonchalant remarks about the public debt (its growth never seemed to bring the promised ruin), we need to add the great stylist’s response to Thatcher era privatisation. Macmillan disapproved, sniffing that selling assets smacked of the sort of desperation seen in individuals or states with serious financial problems. ‘First of all, the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the salon. Then the Canalettos go.’

No one would readily compare the Tote let alone the Dartford Crossing to oil paintings. But think of canvases and you get an inkling how Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s latest plan for asset disposal is simultaneously a tired old landscape and a work barely begun. After the privatisations of the Tory era, there isn’t much of the old nationalised stock left to sell. What price Royal Mail without any restraints on delivery?

But the state’s assets have scarcely been mapped, let alone paraded in the auction room. Our (the Audit Commission’s) recent study of asset management by councils confirmed that despite Gerry Grimstone and several previous attempts, no comprehensive register exists showing what the state owns. It’s partly definition. Are the real Canalettos in the National Gallery state property available, at least in theory, to be sold?

Accountants burn the midnight oil over how to classify cultural goods, let alone artefacts given to state institutions such as art galleries (though the philosophical difference between a picture bought by public money and one given in lieu of taxes feels pretty slight). It’s partly the nature of the UK state, all arms and legs and quasi-autonomous bodies, all with leases and furniture, some with freeholds and varieties of going concerns. Why single out one particular bridge and the Channel Tunnel? The answer is partly that the Treasury knows, we assume, who the owner is and legal impediments are small. Try, instead, Tower Bridge – owned by the City of London and ensnared in legal small print. Or the Angel of the North? Or Manchester Town Hall?

Brown’s ploy offended localists for just assuming councils in England would flog £13bn worth of assets. But localists would have to acknowledge that councils often don’t know what they do own, let alone where it fits in any strategic sense (the message of the Audit Commission's Room for improvement report earlier this year). But his move was typical of successive governments – and the point applies as much to the Tories as Labour. They don’t have much of an idea of the state. Yes, they might want to shrink or expand it, but they lack a sense of the ‘thingness’ of the state, expressed for example in buildings.

Go back to Macmillan’s phrase about the family silver. Is infrastructure or architecture constructed with public money a sort of trust? Are public buildings a patrimony to be passed between generations? Bluster about the public debt misses the essentially historical nature of taxing and spending – and what public investment buys.

David Walker is managing director, communications and public reporting at the Audit Commission

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