Birmingham City Council has paid nearly £4 million in empty rates and council tax since 2009 on the vacant buildings in its £5 billion property bank.

The council is sitting on a vast collection of commercial assets, which includes stakes in the NEC and Birmingham Airport as well as Perry Barr greyhound track and several pubs such as the White Horse in Harborne.

The local authority has shelled out £1.2 million this financial year alone on rates for the empty commercial buildings it owns, on top of the £1.1 million it paid in 2010/11 and £1.3 million in 2009/10.

See the data for yourself - http://videos.icnetwork.co.uk/birminghampost/BirminghamCityCouncilassets.xls      

The figures raise questions about whether the council should accelerate the sale of non-essential buildings at time when front-line services are coming under intense financial pressure.

But experts in the property market believe now may not be the best time to do so, and the council insists it will not embark on a sell-off of its “family silver”.

A Birmingham City Council spokesman said its commercial property portfolio generates a total income stream of around £25 million and it was in the best interests of the taxpayer to hold on to them.

“The council uses to the money to support its revenue spend and thereby keep its council tax down,” he said.

“The portfolio has been built up over 150 years largely from ad hoc purchases and the development of the council’s estate.

“The council’s strategy and objective is to retain a portfolio that produces a reliable income stream, contributing to the council’s challenging revenue budget and also providing long-term sustainable growth of the asset value.”

The figures have come out as Communities Secretary Eric Pickles urged all councils to publish lists of the land and property they own so local taxpayers and businesses can spot money-raising opportunities or identify potential sites to buy.

He has told local councils to take a “good hard look” at their assets, with the ultimate aim of finding new ways to use them, improve local services, keep council running costs down and save taxpayers’ money.

Prior to Mr Pickle’s remarks, the Birmingham Post had already obtained a list of Birmingham City Council assets and details of empty property rates using Freedom of Information requests.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the council’s assets – which totalled £5 billion in 2010 – consist of council housing and schools.

But the list also features some unusual properties, including Perry Barr greyhound racing club, The White Horse pubs in Harborne, the King Edward pub in the city centre and a Novotel.

The city’s council housing stock makes up by far the biggest portion of the council’s property assets at £2 billion.

Birmingham City Council’s most valuable individual asset is its stake in the National Exhibition Centre Phase 1 and 2, valued at £357 million.

Assets under construction, such as the new Library of Birmingham, are worth £210 million.

And Birmingham Town Hall, valued at £33 million, makes up the next biggest existing property asset.

Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby last year inadvertently kicked off a debate over the council’s involvement in commercial businesses such as the NEC and the airport, when a report by news agency Reuters appeared to suggest he was preparing to sell off some of Birmingham’s “crown jewel” assets to wealthy Arab investors.

He swiftly responded by denying that there were any plans exist to sell the NEC, ICC or the council’s share in Birmingham Airport, saying his remarks had been misinterpreted.

The reports nevertheless sparked a debate on the merits of council ownership of commercial assets, with some members of the council Conservative group openly questioning why the council was involved in operating businesses like the NEC.

But that fell on deaf ears, and the council has once again repeated it does not intend to embark on any large-scale asset sale programme.

The council spokesman added: “Selling off assets will release a one-off capital receipt, however once the assets are sold the revenue stream is lost for the long term and as this income is in excess of the current cost of borrowing.

“Holding these properties makes sound financial sense, as selling them will leave the authority having to find even more money to balance its budget in future years to pay for the frontline services currently funded by this income stream.

“While we are constantly looking at how to maximise income from the asset base, for some years we have also been identifying and delivering targeted rationalisation of the portfolio to improve the net income position and rate of return.

“We have at the same time maintained total rental income so that any rental loss is balanced by rental growth in the retained portfolio.”

See the data for yourself - http://videos.icnetwork.co.uk/birminghampost/BirminghamCityCouncilassets.xls