Spending cuts inevitably prompt debate on services and jobs, but another dimension is set to move centre stage in the months and years to come – a glut of public buildings which may be sold, typically for developers to turn into homes.
Sell-offs of Army and Air Force bases, local libraries, town halls, courts, hospitals, schools, museums, swimming pools and other buildings are now under consideration by local authorities, quangos, government departments and health authorities. Most likely to go are older properties, many of which are listed or in conservation areas. Although more architecturally interesting than modern premises, they are costly to upgrade to new environmental and safety standards. However, they are likely to fetch significant sums when sold and offer some unique opportunities for buyers.
A prime example is RAF Bentley Priory at Stanmore in north-west London. It was the HQ for Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain but from later this year will serve as setting for 113 apartments and townhouses on its 57 acres (to register interest, contact City & Country Homes, 01279 817882, www.cityandcountry.co.uk). Even after the conversion, the two Spitfires now displayed on the estate will stay as a reminder of its public service pedigree.
On civvy street, earlier this year, 14 councils submitted 100 lots to property auctioneers Lambert Smith Hampton, including a priory, an ornate swimming pool and a 19th-century hospital. The Courts Service has put two terraces of Georgian buildings in Greenwich up for sale, while Suffolk County Council has sold windmills, which it purchased and restored decades ago.
Meanwhile, central government has raised £115m since the end of last summer through sell-offs including historic buildings such as the former Land Registry building at Lincoln's Inn Fields in London – and all this is before the current round of cuts really takes full effect.
The recently disposed-of premises have not yet been turned into homes, but earlier sell-offs have shown the results can be absolutely stunning.
The Mount Wise Village in Plymouth is being built on the 18th-century estate of the Lieutenant Governor of the Plymouth garrison, and above two miles of subterranean tunnels which housed Britain's military telecommunications until the end of the Falklands War. And soon, this 28-acre waterfront site, recently sold by the Ministry of Defence, will boast 469 homes (£120,000 to £400,000, 01752 676633, www.mountwise.co.uk).
The former Mary Datchelor school in Camberwell Grove, south London, is now a block of 90 apartments and townhouses priced from £419,950 (www.camberwell-grove.com), while the Clock House in Chichester was in fact the old Graylingwell Hospital, built in 1897 and providing 85 acres of parkland, some of which is now allotments (flats from £249,995, 01243 781494, www.graylingwellpark.com).
In Ormskirk, Liverpool, the Old Pumphouse – you can guess its former public sector role – is a seven-bedroom house these days (£1.7m, MovingWorks, www.movingworks.co.uk).
The Victorian gothic architecture of Mayfield Grange, a former college dating from 1865, now makes up 63 converted and new homes, plus 20 acres of grounds (from £555,000, www.weston-homes.co.uk).
"Public buildings are usually extremely well-built," says Kenton Budd of Chichester estate agent Henry Adams. "Internal rooms are sizeable, having been converted from offices, hospital wards and meeting rooms. If done well, a conversion can create apartments with a tremendous sense of space, high ceilings, large windows and some stylish period features."
Yet there are some downsides, according to Conrad Mazen, head of new homes at estate agent Chesterton Humbert: "Disadvantages include strange and unworkable room sizes and configurations, rooms that can be hard to heat, and difficulty in providing private outside space such as balconies, terraces and gardens."
Mazen also suggests the high price of some conversions makes them unpopular with investors buying to let out the homes, because rental yield – the proportion of the purchase price recovered by landlords each year in rent – is typically fairly low.
Nigel Bosworth of Dwell Residential, a lettings agency, agrees, saying: "The service charge could be quite meaty and, unlike buyers, tenants are usually less willing to pay a premium for an interesting property. Price and location are often top priorities – how it looks is still important, but less so than these other considerations."
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is also concerned, especially about the next phase of public sector premises about to go on sale. SPAB is worried, not so much about the quality of future conversions, as about whether there are enough developers to buy the number of hospitals, town halls and police stations likely to be sold.
"The situation could well become something of a gamble for hundreds of historic buildings. Great swathes of the nation's built heritage will face an uncertain future under new ownership or will be mothballed," warns Philip Venning, SPAB's secretary. He adds that "a steadily increasing number of such buildings is likely to hit the market, as savage spending cuts mean their disposal becomes unavoidable".
Other conservationists fear that buildings not bought by professional developers may be given to charities and the voluntary sector as a Big Society initiative – with possibly disastrous results.
Ian Lush, chief executive of The Architectural Heritage Fund, says: "A community group may not have the experience or capacity to feel confident about such a challenge. The number of historic buildings being declared redundant by the public sector exceeds the number of community groups and commercial developers that will be able to take them on."
Despite such warnings, public bodies are still attempting to reduce their property portfolios in these straitened times. "There's a steady drip-drip of properties, often Victorian, coming on to the market," says Emma Cleugh, who works in a department of property consultancy Knight Frank that advises councils and developers on transforming institutional buildings.
"The sales actually started 20 years ago when authorities first realised that their older stock couldn't be modernised cost-effectively. Now the sales seem to be gathering pace."
The 2011 great sell-off may also produce some ironic situations, such as the one now occurring at Great Dunmow in Essex. A public sector property in the high street is on sale, complete with council consent for conversion of the grade II-listed structure into homes.
Prospective developers are said to be bidding against each other to buy the building, after years of being frustrated by planning officers who denied agreement for similar conversions.
The irony? The building used to be the local authority planning office.
Historic house conversions
* Enjoy the best of both worlds – old-style charm and period features, but converted properties should contain hi-spec, hi-tech contemporary fittings.
* Many older public sector buildings were built in centres of towns and cities.
* They are often spacious, thanks to high ceilings, irregular shapes and conservation area restrictions which limit the number of units that can be created within a converted building.
* Parking can be dire – a school may have employed 30 car-driving teachers, but won't have room for vehicles owned by 120 adults living in apartments,
* Large rooms and communal spaces can be expensive to run and heat, and listed and conservation restrictions can limit future scope for changes.
* Beware of expensive service charges from for both the buildings and their often-expansive grounds.