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PANORAMA: 1997

Treasury Publishes New "Doomsday Book"
by Sarah Schaefer

The United Kingdom Government has published a new ``Domesday Book'' laying out exactly what it owns. The 550-page National Asset Register revealed the full extent of government land, buildings, equipment and art holdings, including an array of valuable treasures, as well as more unlikely assets.

The document, which was ordered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown in a bid to show what belongs to the State, demonstrates the Government's greater openness and accountability to the public.

It is also intended to encourage government departments to make the best possible use of their assets and achieve value for money.

The original Domesday Book was a record or summary of King William I (William the Conqueror's 1066-1087) survey of England. The survey, compiled with great scope, detail and speed, was perhaps the most remarkable administrative accomplishment of the Middle Ages.

It was called the Domesday Book (that is: ``doomsday'') as a reference to the final reckoning from which there is no appeal.

Presenting the modern document, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Alistair Darling, explained that departments would, from April 1998 to April 2001, be able to retain any receipts from the sale of any assets.

However, to protect departments with fewer assets, the value of any individual sale should not exceed 100 million pounds sterling. Similarly, the value of the total sales for any financial year should not be more than three per cent of a department's overall spending.

The receipts can also only be used to finance a department's capital spending - such as investment in buildings - but not to boost its current running costs. Yet while departments are given incentives to maximise their assets and develop relationships with the private sector, the Treasury will keep an overall overview on their spending.

''Departments are, for the first time, been given an incentive to use their assets in a sensible way,'' Mr Darling told a press conference. ''But, as with all spending, the Treasury will keep an overall overview.''

The minister agreed that ``in the end'' it was for the Treasury and the Government to make objectives and priorities of spending. Mr Darling dismissed suggestions that the announcement might lead to ``an auction'' of Government assets.

''This is not a sales catalogue and there are no price tags on individual items. This is an attempt to make it easier for departments to deal with its assets more efficiently - just like businesses do,'' said Mr Darling.

There is no total figure for the overall value of the Government's assets but, for example, there are about 1,000 works in the Government's art collection that are not on view.

''One of the aims of this register has been to allow the public greater access to some of the treasures which the Government owns. And now that all the assets are out in the open, the public can put pressure on ministers to be able to view these assets,'' he said.

Mr Darling also insisted that the Government should, in cases of national treasures, be compared to a museum's trust.

''Any national treasures which have been bequeathed to a department will be exhibited so that the public can see them and there is no question of selling them off,'' Mr Darling said.

Departments holding rare and valuable pieces include the Cabinet Office, which houses a royal throne used by King George II (1727-1760). Curiously, the Inland Revenue owns a car park used by Ipswich Town Football Club, in eastern England.

The Ministry of Defence has 21,000 cars and vans, out of a total government vehicle stock of 80,000. It also owns more than 60 residences in up-market St John's Wood in London. And the ministry also owns six popular museums: the Fleet Air Army Museum, the National Army Museum, the Royal Air Force Museum, the Royal Marines Museum, the Royal Naval Museum and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.

The Scottish Office has 100,000 hectares in the Highlands and 1,300 crofts (small farms), while the Foreign Office has 1,400 properties abroad, mainly for staff accommodation. Locations for embassies and consulates range from Kathmandu in Nepal to Ho Chin Minh City in Vietnam. In Britain, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions owns Burlington House in Piccadilly, home to the Royal Academy - while the Department for Culture, Media and Sport owns Trafalgar Square, Marble Arch, Apsley House (see picture), the Wellington Arch and 54 statues.

Among the less glamorous items on the register, the Department of Trade and Industry said it owns 1,000 answerphones and 69 paper shredders.

  

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