Taking inventory, subs to stallions Assets: The British government has counted everything it owns, made a list and published it all in a book.

November 26, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- It's amazing the stuff a government can collect over a few hundred years.

There are necessities, such as two lawn mowers for an agriculture department and 69 paper shredders for a trade and industry ministry.

There are luxuries, such as the Duke of Wellington's desk and a prime piece of London real estate called Trafalgar Square.

And there's the odd sporting indulgence of keeping eight stallions, all with a history of siring racing winners.

This array of British government wealth -- and trivia -- can be discovered in a 545-page book called "The National Asset Register."

Published this week, the book revealed the full extent of the British government's holdings in land, buildings, equipment and art.

It's a nuts-and-bolts list of forklifts, ships, cars, hospitals, court houses, highway service stations, forests, museums, even the country's main media outlet, the British Broadcasting Corp.

There is everything from 160 prisons throughout Britain to 330 historic sites across Scotland, including prehistoric dwellings, stone circles, abbeys, cathedrals, castles and palaces.

Some have dubbed it "Domesday II," a reference to the original "Domesday Book" compiled in 1086.

More than 900 years ago, commissioners scoured England to account for the wealth of William the Conqueror and his tenants in chief.

Back then, the king's clerks were compiling such things as landholders, land, peasants and livestock.

The new generation of government clerks ticked off modern items, listing 59,000 computers for the tax-collecting Inland Revenue and 1,104tanks, 620,069 small arms and two nuclear submarines for the Ministry of Defense.

Although no overall value was placed on the holdings, analysts claimed the government's assets topped more than $500 billion.

Britain's new Labor government has trumpeted the document as a demonstration of greater openness.

The government departments also have been given a green light to sell off some of their spare assets, though spokesmen stress Britain isn't about to unload the family silver.

"This is not a sales catalog and there are no price tags on individual items," said Alistair Darling, chief secretary to the treasury.

Much sold, much remains

What is captivating is that Britain's cupboard is far from bare, despite previous sales of railroads, steel mills, coal mines and water, telephone and power companies.

Some of the items remaining in Britain's cluttered attic are pretty exotic.

The frisky stallions are at the National Stud in Newmarket. The operation is owned by the Home Office, which normally administers such things as police and passports.

Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree, taken from a cutting from his mother's garden, is owned by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The Duke of Wellington's desk and a mahogany octagonal desk used by Winston Churchill when he was first lord of the admiralty are treasured items retained by the Ministry of Defense.

Arms and works of art

The defense department, which lists nearly 90,000 assets, owns 709 works of art, 505 horses and a church.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has 1,437 properties spread from Albania to Zimbabwe, including 21 properties in New York and 71 in Washington.

But some of the greatest treasures are owned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The ministry owns Trafalgar Square, major London parks, 58 London statues and Brompton Cemetery. It also owns some of the country's prized museums.

Although no price tag is placed on the treasures inside the British Museum, the building and land alone are valued at more than $650 million.

The National Gallery property and building are valued at more than $300 million.

The Culture ministry also holds the Government Art Collection, 11,400 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints held in more than 300 buildings worldwide.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair can also sample the delights inside the Cabinet Office.

He can read any of the nearly 750 priceless books in the prime minister's library, admire bronze busts of 19th-century statesmen William E. Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, and look at a royal throne used by King George II.

A red velvet rope reminds people not to sit on the royal chair.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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