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Beware of Public Sector ‘Steals’ With a Sting in Their Tail

James Goddard, a commercial property partner at law firm SAS Daniels, takes a closer look at the pitfalls to avoid when acquiring land or property from your local authority, borough, county - or the public sector generally.

It’s not an uncommon event in the age of austerity, cuts in local government spending, shrinking community budgets and digital disruption. A piece of publicly owned land, or a building, comes onto the market with the proviso that the vendor will look favourably on granting permission for change of use, perhaps to fit in with a large scheme or plan.

Road and traffic developments - like the building of a bypass or one-way system - the replacement of outdated facilities, such as schools, hospitals, welfare facilities or clinics, the re-organisation of parking - or simply the discovery that the authority in question owns a parcel of land that has remained unused and forgotten for quite some period of time.

It may have only recently come to light, by accident, that the site is publicly owned. All manner of disused footpaths, byways, former railway and tram tracks, underused amenities like libraries, community meeting halls and bowling greens, lie hidden in the huge portfolios of local government.

The property in question might be an out-dated school, with a playing area that has been replaced by a modern alternative, storage or workshop facilities for now-defunct refuse, maintenance or gardening services that are now out-sourced; parks, playgrounds, swimming pools…the list goes on.

Opportunities for investors
Over recent years the release of such assets has provided a regular stream of opportunities for many investors and developers. Brownfield sites are in constant high demand for housing projects, but they can also be rich seams of opportunity for retail, storage and office development.

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