For the first time ever, the Treasury last week published a comprehensive valuation of assets owned by the government. And interesting reading it makes, too.
No longer do we have to puzzle over the value of government and agency buildings, antiques (everything from furniture to ceramics is listed), the navy’s submarines and ships, airforce fighter planes, and all kinds of army equipment. It’s all here to see. And it’s all thanks to finance officers who have been beavering away on the introduction of resource accounting, a key element of which was the production of the asset register, because the new system is intended to be like commercial accounting.
Of course, there are important reasons for compiling such a list. The new National Asset Register is said to be a key tool in managing public assets, and should help civil servants to pick exactly the right time to off-load something so that Labour can put some more cash in the kitty.
Indeed the NAR reveals that in 1999-2000, #1.3bn worth of assets were sold off. That’s against total asset holdings of #274bn, which compares to annual government spending of around #380bn and a gross domestic product of around #1,000bn.
These are big figures and, if nothing else, the NAR is interesting from that point alone. But the element that makes this document so compelling is finding out just how much all those small things are worth, or stumbling upon valuations that you’d never imagine asking about for yourself.
One of the biggest holdings in the NAR is property, which seems fairly dull until you realise that many government departments own property on some of the most prime real estate in the world.
Among the assets of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the list of property is staggering. For instance, the most valuable holding is in the US, where the FCO portfolio is worth #71.6m.
The next largest holding is in Hong Kong, where the property is valued at #70.9m. But here’s the interesting thing. In the US, the portfolio includes the main embassy plus 14 residences and five accommodation buildings.
For virtually the same amount of money in Hong Kong, the FOC gets two offices and seven buildings for accommodation.
Just to put things into perspective, the FOC office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is worth #45,000. Good thing cheap property is not the key consideration when deciding where to place an embassy.
Another interesting department is the Cabinet Office. It kicks off with probably the most famous address in the country – Downing Street. It turns out that 10-12 Downing Street – the homes of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair – are worth a hefty #20m. The Cabinet office also owns Admiralty Arch, a new headquarters, which is a valued at #28.3m. Proximity to St James Park must help there.
Downing Street also contains around #6.1m worth of art and antiques, which includes #5m worth of furniture. More bizarrely, Cabinet Office assets also include #1.4m of jewellery donated to current and former prime ministers.
But for boys who like their toys powerful and lethal, the Ministry of Defence section of the NAR is a revelation. For instance, RAF Strike Command has at its disposal 162 Tornado jets worth a grand total of #804m. Each plane is worth nearly #5m. That’s a lot of money to lose in a battle – and underlines the point made by many strategists that we can no longer afford to fight long wars. Indeed, if you were to lose a Trident submarine, about #800m would be sunk forever.
However, while the assets are clear, there is no sign of liabilities.
Surely, any proper balance sheet needs to show who is owed what?
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