The value of a nation: a snip at just £274bn

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The Independent Online

Baroness Thatcher was accused of selling off the family silver when she embarked on privatisation but it turns out she only scratched the surface.

The first register of all assets owned by the State, published on Thursday, shows that Whitehall and its many agencies still hold the deeds to £274bn of property and goods, equivalent to more than a quarter of the entire annual output of the UK economy.

While the bulk of the portfolio is made up of land, it also includes such things as all the military's kit from warships to individual weapons, London Transport's railway network and every piece of Civil Service office equipment.

The 921-page National Asset Register is the result of three years' research ordered by the Treasury as part of efforts to squeeze extra efficiency out of the public sector. Inevitably such a massive exercise has thrown up some other examples that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Bisham Abbey, the England football team's training camp in Berkshire, is owned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and is valued at £7.1m. At the other end of the scale, the Department for International Development admits to owning one pick-up truck in Nepal, net worth £1,000.

The Foreign Office lists its embassies in all four corners of the world, from Albania to Zimbabwe, but fails to give a price for the renowned wine cellar below the one in Paris.

The report also reveals that 10 and 11 Downing Street, the official residences of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, would be worth more than £20m on the open market.

The single largest asset was the road network, which was priced at £62.27bn.

Some assets are too priceless to be given a value. Top of that list is the tree from which an apple fell onto Isaac Newton's head, so leading to the discovery of the law of gravity. The tree, which derives from a graft taken from an old tree in Newton's mother's garden in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, lives in the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, south-west London.

The Treasury insisted the whole exercise had a value beyond satisfying the prying nature of the average British homeowner. It said the register was a key tool in improving the efficiency of the public sector, by making it possible to calculate whether government departments were getting value for money out of their assets.

An official said it was the first time any government in the world had put a value on all its assets – although cynics might point out only a nation of accountants such as the UK would want to do that.

Andrew Smith, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said: "This is the most ambitious property inventory compiled in this country and the first in the world. This will focus the minds of public sector managers."

The list is part of a change in the way the Government accounts for assets in the public sector. Departments will now have to account for depreciation of their assets in their annual spending budgets. In the past the use of government assets was not counted as a cost to the public sector. "We want departments to move away from just holding assets to actively managing them," said the official.

The process is already delivering results with a total of £1.3bn of assets sold off in the financial year to April 2000. According to the closest comparable estimate, the sell-off in 1997/98 was £800m.

The largest property-owner was the Ministry of Defence with total assets of £86.7bn. The MoD must sell £600m of assets by April 2004. Last year it disposed of £234m.

The document was scheduled for publication at Easter but was understood to have been delayed by arguments over how much individual departments had to disclose.

The Treasury denied the new accountancy regime would be used to show that public-private partnership schemes would deliver better value for money than traditional public sector investment.


Millennium Dome £516.17m


Barley Mow public house, east London £1.35m


Shooters Hill recreation area, London £100,000


10 cottages at Enford, Wiltshire £200,000


UK road network £62.27bn


Isaac Newton's Apple Tree priceless


One pick-up truck in Nepal £1,000


MoD police control post at Royal Mint £256,000


10-12 Downing Street £20.01m


Cinema Lydd Ranges, Hythe, Kent £10.34m


Stud farm in Inverness £506,000


Hangman's cell at Devonport naval base no value


Bisham Abbey, Maidenhead £7.71m