Thursday 8 December 2016

Who owns what in Ireland and how much does it all add up to?

State silent on real value of its many possessions of which some are intangible while other are real, like private and public property

Published 06/10/2011 | 05:00

HOW much is Ireland worth? What would we get if we sold the country's entire physical assets from collectibles such as the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice to the house down the road and the Bog of Allen?

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With the IMF and ECB telling us to flog enough state assets to raise €5bn and German members of parliament telling the Greeks to sell off islands to raise funds, the question is not as absurd as it might seem.

This week, it was revealed that the former West Germany's cigar-smoking chancellor Ludwig Erhard tried to buy communist East Germany from the Soviet Union for $2bn a year for 10 years: a sum which then amounted to about a quarter of West Germany's GDP. The offer was rebuffed but it poses the interesting question of how much a country is worth.

Strangely, the State is remarkably coy about the total value of the nation's assets. We have a good idea of our liabilities -- the Central Bank regularly compiles lists of private and national debt -- but the value of our assets is not published anywhere.

Totting up your assets is a useful habit for individuals and companies to do but it remains taboo for countries.

No government department approached by this newspaper made any attempt to put a value on what they hold on behalf of the people. Department after department referred instead to Colm McCarthy's report on semi-state agencies, which tries to estimate the value of a few semi-state companies on the open market but gives no detailed breakdown of the value of each company's assets or the department's other assets which nobody anticipates selling yet.

Just as many citizens are determined to hide their assets from the State, the State itself appears hell bent on hiding the value of its assets from the citizens. Oddly, this is the case in most other countries as well.

Kevin Cahill, an Irishman who lives in the UK and has worked as a political researcher in the House of Commons as well as being a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, researched the topic extensively for his book 'Who Owns Britain and Ireland'.

Cahill concludes that the Irish government owns much less than governments in most other countries. The US and Russian governments own around a third of their country's landmass while Ireland owns a fraction of this for historical reasons. "The State's land ownership is not high by European standards either," Cahill adds. The churches, big landlords in many other countries, also have far less land than their counterparts elsewhere.

Most of their valuable land is concentrated in urban areas where schools were built rather than in the countryside.

Despite the collapse in property prices, land is still the largest repository of wealth in Ireland.

Private property, commercial property and government property make up the bulk of the wealth in this country.

Add in the value of the State's other assets such as equipment ranging from X-ray machines to naval vessels and the National Gallery's paintings, equipment belonging to industry and the public's cars and furniture and we can gather some idea of the value of the country's fixed assets.

Calculating the value of private property is probably the easiest of the three calculations.

With 547,000 homes in the country and an average price of €241,000, a back-of-the-envelope calculation values the country's housing stock at €132bn. That, incidentally, is about €200bn less than the estimated value of housing, pensions and other private assets.

Cahill notes that getting accurate details on farm holdings is almost impossible in any country.

But a rough calculation suggests the country's 128,200 farms are worth just shy of another €100bn if one assumes an average price per acre of €9,500 and uses Teagasc figures, which put the average size of a farm at 32.3 hectares.

It is much harder to place a value on the country's commercial property, machinery and fittings.

The Valuation Office, which sets rates for the nation's 170,000 commercial buildings from corner shops to office blocks, still uses figures which date back to the 19th Century.

In the absence of any figures from the one source that might be able to value the stock of commercial property, we will have to guess.

If commercial property and contents has an average value of €800,000, this would imply that the total value of commercial properties is around €140bn, bringing the total value of privately owned land in Ireland to €370bn.

The State's property holdings appear to be much smaller than this and much harder to calculate with any certainty. Local authorities, government department and semi-state companies all use so-called book value -- an accounting convention that has almost no meaning in the real world. Many institutions make no effort at all to place a value on what they own.

One example will have to stand for many. The country's biggest landowner, forestry company Coillte, owns more than a million acres of forest together with 11 windfarms, several timber companies and a power plant.

Despite these assets, the annual accounts value Coillte's assets at just €1.2bn. The real value of Coillte's assets must be at least three or four times this amount although pension deficits and the like mean that Coillte itself would be worth less than this if it were sold on the open market.

Again and again, semi-state companies dramatically undervalue their holdings. The Dublin Airport Authority, which spent €2bn on Terminal 2 in Dublin airport, values its entire holdings at almost half this amount despite the fact that airports regularly sell for several billion euros in large European cities.

With a book value of €8.2bn, it would seem safe to say that the real value of the semi-states is at least three times this amount at €24bn.

The 29 local authorities also use the book value convention, which means that there is no serious attempt to value the roads, water treatment plants, local authority housing and other buildings owned at local level.

But if we assume each county council owns land, roads and water plants worth €2bn each (which is maybe a little optimistic) we get a figure of €60bn for their holdings.

Calculate

The value of the big government departments' holdings are not impossible to calculate. The cost of building a hospital in Ireland these days is around €1.5m a bed so multiplying the country's 12,100 hospital beds by this sum suggests our hospitals are worth around €18bn.

The country's 4,000 schools, seven universities and numerous third level institutions must be good for another €8bn.

The schools (ranging from small national schools in Donegal to the rolling grounds of the nation's elite boarding schools) are probably worth a combined €4bn if we take an average of €1m each, while Trinity College, in a prime location with an excellent brand, must be worth at least another €2bn.

The other six universities and dozens of third-level colleges must be good for another €2bn at least, bringing the value of the educational establishments to €8bn.

This brings the running total to €480bn or just €20bn shy of half a trillion euros. Clearly there are many other assets which have not yet been counted; our natural resources, the seas, the artifacts and paintings in our museums and galleries.

James O'Halloran, the urbane managing director of Adams Auctioneers on St Stephen's Green in Dublin, says the Book of Kells alone could be worth €100m. "The Book of Kells is beyond any ordinary value," he says.

Still, pressed to give a value he muses that it would fetch somewhere between €50m and €100m on the open market.

The National Gallery of Ireland would never be vulgar enough to value its collections of 15,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures but we can try.

At a conservative €50,000 a pop for each painting and drawing, this single gallery owns art worth around €750m. The National Museum which owns more than two million artifacts (one for every two people in the country) must have a collection worth north of €2bn even if we assume that each artifact is worth no more than €1,000 each.

Throw in the contents of the country's two dozen other museums and galleries and a very conservative value of the State's holdings would be €4bn. Or double the estimate for the National Gallery and National Museums alone.

With so many odds and ends not counted; mineral deposits, the Cliffs of Moher, gas reserves, fishing rights, it would be very conservative to add another €16bn to the figure which would lead to a grand total of €500bn or roughly three times our gross national product.

It does not seem like a particularly big figure for a country which had a general government debt of €148.6bn last year but it also puts that figure into some sort of perspective; our debts are huge but still dwarfed by even the most conservative estimates of our assets.

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