Taxpayers battered as projects stall in downturn

Colin Harrop, RICS regional board chair
Colin Harrop, RICS regional board chair
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TAXPAYERS in Yorkshire could face a multi-million-pound bill for maintaining local authority-owned buildings left empty for years because of stalled regeneration projects, experts have warned.

Office blocks and shops across the region have been left empty as the economic downturn caused investors to pull financial support for ambitious schemes such as Sheffield’s new retail quarter.

Many properties are owned by local authorities, either because they have been bought up as part of a regeneration agreement with developers, or are former council buildings now surplus to requirements. But council finance chiefs have been left with continued bills because empty buildings are still liable for business rates, need maintenance and incur security and utility costs.

The Yorkshire Post has learned that Central Offices in Barnsley town centre has cost more than £200,000 to maintain since it was vacated by council staff four years ago ahead of a £180m town centre regeneration scheme.

Staff were moved into new offices and the building should have been demolished in 2008 but remains standing, leaving the authority to pay out more than £200,000 on a building with no use. Each year since staff moved out, the council has paid business rates between £30,000 and £35,000 each year, with a combined annual bill for security, utilities and maintenance of around £21,000.

Bills will continue in future, because it will not be demolished until at least 2014.

That is just one of a series of buildings in the town emptied ahead of the redevelopment.

Colin Harrop, the chairman of the Yorkshire regional board of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, said the Barnsley situation was repeated across Yorkshire and in other regions of the UK.

He said: “I think this is something that local authorities, particularly in the North, have suffered with. It’s really knocked the stuffing out of a lot of regeneration projects and local authorities.

“Now they are going to have to think a lot harder about what they do with these buildings, and they have got to look at the uses for them and what they can do to reduce the costs that are building up. They need strategy to deal with the buildings in the current environment.”

Central Offices cannot be demolished ahead of regeneration work, because it was built above the markets complex, which will also disappear under the scheme.

Barnsley Council’s development spokesman, Coun Tim Cheetham, said the costs for the empty building were “not a concern”.

He added: “It’s all part of the plan. Obviously there has been a delay in the markets project which we did not want, but for a building of its size and where it is the costs are not massive.”

But Independent councillor Bill Gaunt said the costs on Central Offices were just one part of a major problem. Coun Gaunt said: “There are other buildings in the town which are also being abandoned by the council to move staff into their grandiose new building which will also incur significant costs so the bill will be higher.”

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