The government is spending £2.5m a year maintaining dozens of redundant courts across England and Wales, the Gazette can reveal.
A reply to a freedom of information request shows 69 former court buildings remain vacant, with no imminent chance of them being sold. Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly announced in December 2010 that 142 courts would close to save money. It is understood that 121 have since shut, most by April 2011. The FoI request confirmed that HM Courts and Tribunals Service is spending £206,000 a month maintaining them.
Commercial property experts warned that it will be difficult to sell many former court sites because of the cost of refurbishment and the stagnant market. Just five of the 121 have been sold, at sites in Witney in Oxfordshire, Blandford Forum in Dorset, Abertillery in Gwent, Llwynypia in the Rhondda Valley and Brentford in west London. Land Registry records show the closed magistrates’ court in Witney was sold for £330,000 to Abingdon and Witney College, but through money borrowed by another branch of government, the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Abertillery site sold for £80,000 to an accounting firm.
HMCTS confirmed that 19 former courts have had terms agreed, seven are subject to ‘serious negotiations’, seven have agreed to surrender leases and 14 have been retained as planned.
It is understood that some of the remaining 69 will prove more complex to dispose of as police or local authorities share ownership.
A spokesman for HMCTS said the closure was always intended to be on a ‘phased basis’ over four years to meet local needs. But Labour has accused the government of reneging on its promise to save money. Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said: ‘It is outrageous that more than a year later they are wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds every month by keeping the buildings empty and useless.
‘If the loss of local justice was controversial, the outcome - dozens of local buildings soaking up public money - is indefensible and incompetent.’ Nick Parker, senior analyst at commercial property agent CBRE, said the current market weakened in January and was one where ‘buyers currently hold the cards’.
John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said his own court in Sittingbourne, Kent, was one of the courts that closed and remains vacant. He said magistrates across the country are travelling much longer distances since the closure programme began and some had chosen to leave their roles. The situation will become more difficult when HMCTS imposes an annual allowance for mileage capped at 1,000 miles, he added.
The government has estimated that the closures will eventually save at least £15m a year in running costs, plus £22m in building maintenance.