Election '97: Slim pickings left after selling the family silver

Diane Coyle on the choices over privatisation facing a future Labour government
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The Independent Online
A favourite joke amongst economists is the one about the economics professor who walks past a pounds 50 note he sees lying in the street. "If it were really there, somebody would have picked it up already," he explains.

So it is with privatisation. If there were a lot of easy sales left, the Government's plans would have pencilled in privatisation receipts of more than pounds 1.5bn next year and pounds 1bn the year after. This is a far cry from the peak of more than pounds 8bn in 1992-93.

Some of the more obvious candidates left for sale would not be big money spinners. The Post Office was expected to go for pounds 1.5bn-pounds 2bn when its sale was discussed last year. Bits like Parcelforce would bring in less. Channel Four would be a smaller sale. London Underground would raise nothing because of its continuing need for subsidy.

In fact the list of obvious targets remaining in the public sector presents slim pickings. The National Air Traffic Control Service? The Tote? British Waterways? The new town Development Corporations? Nirex? The Oil and Pipelines Agency? The Commonwealth Development Corporation?

The Conservatives have sold off the family silver apart from the odd salt cellar - raising about pounds 70bn since 1979. A privatising Labour government will have to start thinking about selling the furniture and the ancestral home.

With Gordon Brown's office suggesting that it would be possible to realise "several billion pounds" over the course of a parliament, the options for privatisation must include government land and buildings.

This is a plausible figure. The Treasury is in the middle of a process of auditing everything central government owns as part of the introduction of commercial style accounts to the public sector due to start in 1999. The current, less-than-satisfactory estimates in the national accounts put the value of central government-owned tangible assets at pounds 94bn - almost certainly an underestimate, but it does include almost all the roads and bridges in the land.

Selling off a few tangible assets would be less controversial than the other alternatives. Apart from the BBC - and it may yet happen - that boils down to the Housing Action Trusts and National Health Service Trusts. To sell the entire NHS is probably a step further than even new Labour would be prepared to go.