Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Saving the planet - or just costing the taxpayer?

At last nights Strategy Scrutiny committee that I am a member of, the great City Council property sale continued. It was agreed to sell the former Yasume club premises on Auckland road on the open market, which will mean the substantial proceeds will be spent on other capital projects around the City, which is fair enough.

It was also agreed to dispose of 1-36 Simons House, and 18-25 Rackhams Close, Cambridge to Flagship Housing Group, on a long lease. The terms are confidential due to the negotiations required with the other parties involved, (not to mention pretty incomprehensible to work out the precise economic effect on each party, having read the confidential report) but the proposal does involve demolishing existing buildings including bungalows, and incurring significant construction costs on new buildings with very high energy efficiency ratings.

Great - I'm all for taking steps to reduce total carbon dioxide production, the problem is that it was impossible for Councillors to work out exactly how much carbon dioxide would be saved - or indeed if any at all would be saved, as there is no analysis of the carbon dioxide cost of refurbishment compared to rebuilding, or of the annual carbon dioxide savings. As such, we have no way of knowing if we are getting good value for the huge additional costs of creating a zero-carbon or near zero-carbon buildings (whatever that means), or indeed if there are any carbon dioxide reductions at all in the short term.

It is far from clear that the information given to Councillors when making these disposal decisions is sufficient to ensure we can scrutinise that Council tax payers are getting the best deal. I have an action plan that I will be trying to get the Council to adopt to protect the Council tax payer better:

When the Council disposes of a property at below its open market value in order to meet other policy objectives, any reduction in value should be scrutinised as would any other council spending, the cost of meeting each policy objective should be separately considered, to determine if we could get better value in a different way.

To be specific, when we are spending any money on 'climate change agenda' projects, especially meeting low carbon building standards, the proposals should be accompanied by an estimate of the carbon dioxide saved, over what timescales and at what cost. All carbon dioxide production is the same in terms of climate change damage, it is pointless spending a fortune on high profile projects so we can claim to be saving the planet, if much more effect could be achieved on less glamorous measures like insulating existing properties.

Finally, I think the Council should prepare a list of property it owns, along with most recent estimated market value, rents received and carbon dioxide usage per square metre, for annual review by Councillors on the strategy committee. We could then scrutinise that the Council is obtaining the best rents possible, or if accepting lower rents, we are happy with the reasons why. Such a list may also prompt suggestions for more innovative redevelopments of underused sites, and finally, we can make sure spending on climate change is directed at the most inefficient buildings in the most cost effective way.

As a footnote, the third disposal decision was pulled at the last minute as it became clear there had been insufficient consultation with both ward Councillors and Community services about the effect of losing community use of the buildings. There does seem to be a gulf between the Council's aspiration to engage interested parties when making decisions, and the reality. The Lib Dem Executive Councillor made a revealing comment when discussing another agenda item: 'The Council is seen as authoritarian entity... [by businesses, colleges etc] ...that doesn’t necessarily listen to what people are saying.' You don't say!

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