Sold From Under You is a large-scale data-led collaborative investigation into the sell-off of public spaces by local authorities, which revealed, for the first time, the scale to which the local government funding crisis is affecting public services, public spaces, and public servants.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism led this ambitious investigation in collaboration with HuffPost UK, the Local Government Chronicle and 50 regional publications in the UK.
The Bureau managed more than 700 Freedom of Information requests. The data showed 12,000 buildings and pieces of land has been sold, transferred or otherwise relinquished by local authorities.
This was The Bureau’s biggest collaboration to-date, meaning we were able to engage a large number of people in the investigative process. In part we measure the success of the project by how many people took part in the collaboration. We held a hackday in Birmingham organised and run by our members and produced stories across many areas of the country.
Members of our network have done vital reporting with more than 50 stories published, energising a wave of local reporting at a time when scrutiny of local power most needs it. In Birmingham, Jane Hayes wrote for the Birmingham Mail about the heart of a local community being “ripped out” by council sell offs. In Lancashire, the council’s refusal to reveal key information under FOI led to an important article about transparency from Local Democracy Reporter Paul Faulkner. Writing for the Newham Recorder, reporter Hannah Somerville highlighted how the local council had sold off public assets to fund cost-cutting measures. Meanwhile, Adam Cantwell-Corn held Bristol Council to account, reporting how redundancies increased more than tenfold when asset sales were used to fund them. His story was published by The Bristol Cable.
The stories grabbed national attention throughout the week. A tweet by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn including a link to HuffPost UK’s lead story was shared more than 2,000 times. The story itself was read by 100,000 people.The investigation was mentioned on TalkRadio and BBC’s Today, London News, Politics Live, Look East and Cambridgeshire programmes.
Additionally, our analysis of financial data published by Peterborough Council found the authority, which provides services to 200,000 people, may have broken the law by using £23million of money raised by selling assets to plug gaps in its budget. The story prompted a government investigation.
Local authorities in England are required by the Local Government Transparency Code to publish annual lists of the land and buildings they own. Our research, however, found these lists could not be used as the basis for the investigation because the registers lack key details (who assets were sold to and for how much) and more than half are published in a way that makes tracking change over time impossible (councils are updating the same spreadsheet each year rather than publishing new ones).
As a result we decided that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) would be required. The Bureau submitted two separate FOIs to each of England’s 353 local authorities. The first sought details of every land or building asset disposed of since 2014/15, such as sale price and purchaser. The second asked what councils had done with the money when such assets were sold. From our research we were aware some had been using the money to pay for redundancies, and were keen to know how widespread this previously unreported practice was.
Managing more than 700 FOI requests was a huge task but over a period of months we were able to build a database. Robust knowledge of the FOIA meant we persuaded many councils which originally rejected the request to provide the information. This enabled us to build a comprehensive dataset showing which community spaces had been sold off, to whom and for how much.
We also created an interactive map which enables anyone to type in their postcode or the name of their local authority and see which public spaces have been lost where they live, a valuable open data resource.
We used Excel and Google Sheets to record the data. We used Python and other programming languages to create and maintain the interactive map.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The scale of Sold From Under You is one aspect that sets the investigation apart. One hundred and fifty people signed up to take part in the project via The Bureau’s network of members across the UK, making Sold From Under You the Bureau’s biggest collaboration to-date. The multi-tiered nature of the project is also unique. The Bureau collaborated with HuffPost UK, the Local Government Chronicle and 50 local and regional publications across the UK. This meant we had journalists at every level – local, regional and national – exploring and reporting on the data we had obtained. A requirement of taking part in the investigation was to share findings before publication, strengthening and enriching the resulting stories.
But the project was not limited to journalists. The Bureau’s network also involves technologists, academics, local politicians, campaigners and members of the public passionate about the loss of public spaces in their areas. Members’ involvement ranged from sharing lived experiences of community spaces being lost and others offering data analysis and visualisation expertise, to local and regional journalists investigating and reporting on the data in their area.
In Birmingham, network members organised a hack day to see whether they could find information the council had refused to release under FOI. This wide-scale and multi-tiered approach meant stories produced during the Sold From Under You project were not limited to only the most often reported-on areas of England, but instead led to coverage of an important topic in as broad and representative terms as possible.
What can others learn from this project?
The Bureau managed more than 700 Freedom of Information requests in the process of this story. Using this data, we revealed to the public for the first time the buildings and pieces of land sold or relinquished by local authorities. This enabled the public to see which community spaces had been sold off, to whom and for how much. Previously this information had either been spread across 353 local authority websites (held in countless more spreadsheets or PDFs) or not routinely published at all.
The Bureau made this data available in two key ways. Firstly, it shared the dataset a month before publication with its network along with a reporting recipe explaining its findings, the context and its methodology (this resource is now available for anyone to use as part of our commitment to being open about our methodology and the data we base our journalism on).
We also created an interactive map which enables anyone to type in their postcode or the name of their local authority and see which public spaces have been lost where they live. This made the key details mentioned above – what has been sold off, for how much and to whom – easily accessible, in an engaging way, for the first time.
On March 4, 2019 The Bureau and HuffPost UK launched a week-long series of stories under the Sold From Under You banner. We reported that thousands of public spaces had been lost to the local government funding crisis and that councils across the country were using money from selling community assets such as libraries, community centres and playgrounds to fund further cutbacks, including hundreds of redundancies.
The stories and the interactive map remain a valuable resource to other journalists, researchers and academics about the large scale loss of public spaces.