As chancellor George Osborne prepares to announce further cuts as part of the comprehensive spending review, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by BuzzFeed News has uncovered one novel way local councils have responded to constrained budgets: by selling items on eBay.
Seventy-five of the 433 councils across the UK revealed they had an account on the website. Of those, 45 kept complete records of their sales, which came to a combined total of £229,826.
Items sold by councils include:
* An electric wheelchair, sold for £200
* A Technogym abdominal crunch machine, sold for £966
* A book on food and drug law, sold for 99p
* A set of theatrical floodlights, also sold for 99p
* A pinball machine, sold for £1,651
The Local Government Association claims that budgets have been cut by 40% since 2010, and the majority of the councils signed up to eBay after the late-'00s recession. More are still signing up – six councils opened their accounts this year.
Many councils use eBay to sell excess items they have accumulated and items seized as a result of revenue recovery. The north Welsh council of Denbighshire earned the most, according to sales reported to BuzzFeed News, receiving £67,515 of income from the website spread across four separate accounts. Most of the income came from an account selling off items seized by council bailiffs.
The councils who provided revenue from auctions reported an average income of just over £3,000, but some had only listed a few items, earning a few hundred pounds or less. Leicestershire county council for example, earned £20.94 from recorded sales, mostly of pre-loaded audiobooks.
The items listed by the councils range considerably in size and price. In the last month a 13-foot canoe – and oar – listed by Portsmouth city council was bought for £16.26, and a brown leather sofa from Marks & Spencer, seized by bailiffs at Aylesbury Vale District Council, was purchased for £112. Even a toilet was sold, by Taunton Deane Borough Council for £33.
Elsewhere, Stafford borough council listed a milk float dating from the 1960s, daubed with flowers and peace symbols, in June this year. It had been used in a performance of As You Like It and was sold for £400 after failing to reach its asking price of £500.
Other unexpected items placed on eBay include eight "Afro-Caribbean hair pieces" sold throughout 2010 by Aylesbury Vale District Council for £251.14; a "Westomatic snack time duo vending machine", sold by the London borough of Wandsworth for £360 in 2012; and 310 wooden pallets, sold by Maldon district council for £155 in 2012.
Nottingham city council, which was only able to provide income from the past three months of sales, earned £729 on 206 identical green felt "Robin Hood/Peter Pan" hats. It noted it had sold more than 2,000 items in total.
Some councils though are also using the site to bring new eyes to existing council services. North Somerset council sold rental rights to 24 beach huts along the Weston-super-Mare coastline on the auction site. Hire of one personal 47-square foot hut from May 2015 to February 2016 was sold for £2,650 earlier this year; 45 bids were lodged, starting at 99p.
A spokesperson for North Somerset council said: "We decided to use eBay to auction our beach huts in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. It proved very successful as the licence agreements for all 24 huts were sold at or above the reserve price."
The true figure raised from sales of unwanted items on eBay is likely to be significantly higher than £230,000, because some councils only keep partial records.
Also, new items will have been sold since the request was made, and other councils were unable to ascertain how much they have earned from auction listings.
For example, Newcastle city council sold off a number of "Lego Men", part of a £270,000 artwork installation at a city centre metro station, in 2011. At least one sold on eBay for £1,254 in September 2011, but it was not recorded in the FOI response. Some have now made their way into local gardens.
Not all councils are keen on eBay. Dundee city council said in response to the FOI request that "access to this website is blocked to all, other than selected staff for investigative purposes, as part of Dundee City Council's IT processes".
The items being sold by local councils on eBay are only making a small dent in attempts to claw back lost income from government cuts: In total, £20 billion worth of savings have been made by local authorities since 2010. The revenue recorded by councils from eBay sales accounts for 0.001% of the total cuts implemented to date.
The Local Government Association welcomed the use of online auctions to raise revenue. "Rather than throwing unwanted or obsolete items away," a spokesperson said, "selling goods on eBay actually provides value for money for residents while allowing councils to raise some cash for local services."
Chris is a freelance writer for BuzzFeed, The Economist, The Sunday Times and the BBC, based in the UK.
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