Revealed: The thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money spent maintaining empty council properties
PUBLISHED: 00:01 03 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:36 03 June 2019
Suffolk councils are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to pay for security and upkeep of former schools, council offices and other commerical properties.
The figures, released following a Freedom of Information Act request by the Tax Payers' Alliance, reveal that between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2017, what now is known as West Suffolk Council spent £297,880 managing security, maintenance and renovation costs at 70 vacant sites.
During the time frame given, the authority was split between Forest Heath District Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council.
However Peter Stevens, portfolio holder for operations at West Suffolk Council, said the buildings were only vacant briefly, with work carried out while tenants were waiting to go in.
He also said the cost of any renovation and maintenance was covered by the council's £9million income from rent in that two year period, rather than by taxpayers.
It was a similar situation in Babergh and Mid Suffolk, with the combined authority owning a total of five vacant properties during that period, which between them generated bills of £136,717.
Among those empty properties were the former Stowmarket and Needham Market middle schools, costing the taxpayer £55,368 and £13,748 respectively, and Belle Vue House in Sudbury, which hit headlines in recent months with plans for an area surrounding it to be turned into a budget hotel.
Sudbury Town councillor Ellen Murphy described the costs spent on Belle Vue House as "ridiculous", questioning why the situation at the house has not changed in recent years.
"They are just wasting our money," she added. "There should never be such a thing as an empty building. Before it gets to that stage a decision should have been made about what happens to it."
However Mr Stevens said: "The council owns a number of commercial properties across West Suffolk which supports jobs, businesses and housing as well as bringing an annual income this year of £5.2million from rents.
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"Over the two years of the FOI, the council received £9million in income from rent alone, which means any renovation or maintenance is covered by this and not council taxpayers. Indeed the income means, in a time of reduced national finances, we can support vital services people use, bring businesses and jobs into the area by maintaining or renovating old premises and support the local economy.
"We tend to wait until premises are empty to carry out work to avoid disruption to businesses or tenants if we can.
"The vast majority of those properties mentioned in the FOI were vacant briefly with tenants waiting to go in after work was carried out.
"Properties remain vacant for as short as time as possible until we either rent them out, sell them if need be, or intentionally hold onto them for future development."
John O'Connell, chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: "Councils have a duty to maintain properties for future tenants and owners, so of course some costs will be involved.
"Many people will be startled by the total cost of maintaining empty properties and want an explanation as to why these haven't been used or sold by the council.
"At a time when families are struggling with the cost of living, and sky high council tax bills, it's important that local authorities do all they can to ensure that they are making decisions with taxpayers in mind."
East Suffolk owned two empty properties during the time period, but there were no expenses for the upkeep, while Ipswich Borough Council forked out £1,837.95 for two properties - which included the former Victoria pub.
The East of England region as a whole was found to have the highest amount of vacant properties in England during the period, with 694 properties lying empty, totalling more than £12million in expenditure.