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Hidden treasures
Local Government Chronicle – 21 August 2008

From bananas to piranhas, local authorities' inventories contain all sorts of weird and wonderful possessions alongside more conventional assets like buildings and land. Mark Smulian reports

What links several tonnes of bananas, a Saxon treasure hoard, a flying bridge, a shoal of piranhas, a triangular castle and three dead people in a boat?

The answer is that councils own them all. Officers who try to compile asset inventories know about public buildings, houses, vehicles, roads and land, but look further and there are some really weird things that councils have, for various reasons, ended up owning.

Britain's Largest Importer Of Bananas

This curious distinction belongs, rather surprisingly, to Portsmouth City Council. It bought fruit importer MMD in March to protect the 2m a year it earned from harbour and pilotage charges paid by the company to use the council-owned port.

MMD had got into difficulties and the council risked losing this income. Leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson (Lib Dem) says: "It had been profitable, but when it was taken over by a company whose main business was not running ports it started to lose money. We were concerned it would go bust and so we would lose income.

"I can't reveal how much was paid, but we are confident it will pay back its purchase price and be profitable."

In case anyone thought Cllr Vernon-Jackson had gone bananas, a council report found that the business could be profitable once again by 2010 and that the deal would save some 200 jobs. At its peak in 2006 MMD imported 750,000 tonnes of fruit, mainly bananas, but also kiwifruits and citrus onto its 8.9ha site.

This unusual use of the wellbeing power is one that others can share - MMD imports around 70% of all the bananas eaten in Great Britain.

The Bridge That Flies

There were once three transporter bridges in the UK, but Newport's is closed indefinitely for repairs and Warrington's is long derelict, which leaves Middlesbrough Council's as the only working example.

The bridge was opened in 1911 at an eventual cost of 84,000 against the 68,000 in the original bid, which suggests that tender inflation in public contracts is nothing new.

Transporter bridges carry a piece of roadway across a river on cables slung below the span. Vehicles park on the moving road for their journey and pedestrians are also carried.

Ian Stubbs, assistant curator with Middlesbrough's museums service, explains: "Our bridge is Grade II listed and is part of the public transport system. People use it every day to get across the river to and from Stockton, and it's particularly busy on football days."

The transporter featured in the film Billy Elliot - leading two fans from Los Angeles to holiday in the improbable environs of Teesside - and is the only UK bridge licensed for bungee jumping. It is also used for abseiling.

Mr Stubbs says: "It does not make a profit but there is no concern about its cost. The council runs a visitor centre and employs the drivers and fare collectors."

Visitors can ascend external stairs on the Middlesbrough side to admire the view to the mouth of the Tees and the Cleveland Hills, but the sight below of a piece of road appearing to cross a river must be even more striking.

A Shoal Of Piranhas

Not to mention the giant green electric knifefish, the Adonis catfish (which will "eat almost any type of food it comes across") and the spotted damba, which is near to extinction in its native Madagascan lakes, Bolton MBC's aquarium is unusual for being council-owned and for exhibiting only freshwater species.

It is not only an educational and tourist attraction, but plays a perhaps unexpected role in community cohesion.

Its senior manager, Matthew Constantine, explains: "The aquarium opened in 1941, and is one of only two free public aquariums in the country. They are all freshwater fish, which is also unusual, and although we are not sure why the original decision was made, freshwater-only is now established policy and gives an easier environment to maintain."

Almost every local resident has visited the aquarium, since it is a popular school trip. Mr Constantine says: "It's very much part of the identity of Bolton." Thus, when settlers arrive from other parts of the world, a visit both helps them to integrate and provides a memory of home.

"It is a useful point of familiarity seeing fish from home," he says. "For example, people from Eritrea and Ethiopia can see freshwater fish that they remember catching at home. It is an immensely powerful tool for beginning the process of social integration since everyone local knows the aquarium.

"Newcomers often find the concept of an aquarium a bit bizarre, but they enjoy it."

A Saxon King's Hoard

Treasure from a clearly rich, though sadly nameless, Saxon king was found when Southend-on Sea BC contractors were working on a road-widening scheme in 2004. The hoard included a rare folding seat of Mediterranean origin - possibly the prototype of the resort's modern deckchairs - plus wooden and glass vessels, a decorated flagon, two Merovingian gold coins from northern France and a sword.

Two gold foil crosses suggest the king, whose body had long since been dissolved by acidic soil, had converted to Christianity but hedged his bets by following the pagan practice of being buried with all he would need to keep up his lifestyle. The find has been compared in importance by archaeologists to that of Sutton Hoo, and is rare for being undisturbed.

Museum manager John Skinner says: "It's a very important find, discovered because the contractor had to make an archaeological survey and stumbled on it. The artefacts have been conserved by the Museum of London but will be returned here for permanent display."

Any council would be pleased to own such treasure, but what should be done with it? Happily for Southend, providing a permanent exhibition should also solve another problem.

The sodden autumn of 2002 caused a landslip on part of the sea front, and the area has been left fenced off as the council lacks the 35m needed for repairs. It now plans to clear the slope created by the landslip and build on the site a Saxon king museum. The new facility will also accommodate material held in the council's other museums, two of which, Mr Skinner says, are "no longer really fit for purpose and lack disabled access".

Southend will apply for lottery and other funding, and so should get a substantial new tourist attraction while also solving its landslip problem.

A Triangular Castle

Greenwich LBC is in the midst of negotiations to lease Grade II-listed Severndroog Castle for 30 years at a peppercorn rent to a community trust, which hopes to restore it and open it to the public.

This triangular structure was built in 1784 by Lady James to commemorate her husband Sir William James' capture of Severndroog fortress on the Indian coast in 1755. It was closed to the public in 1988, two years after Greenwich took it over from the former Greater London Council, and has since become derelict, ending up on English Heritage's at-risk register.

A proposal to convert it to offices in 2002 led to uproar as any prospect of public access would have been lost. In January 2004, Severndroog came to national prominence through inclusion in the BBC's Restoration series on heritage buildings, gaining second place in the south-east round.

A council report says: "Television exposure provided a catalyst in the campaign to restore the castle and recent open days have seen several hundred people visit to enjoy the roof-top view across the whole of London."

The trust hopes to open the castle to the public, and operate it as a weddings and meetings venue, but first it must find funds for 600,000 of restoration work.

Three Bodies In A Boat

The Viking boat burial was found on an Orkney beach in 1985 and is now the property of the Orkney Islands Council's museum.

Although the 6.5 metre long wooden rowing boat had rotted away, more than 300 rusted iron rivets marked out its shape. It had been buried in a pit lined with stone and divided into chambers, in one of which were the remains of a man, woman and child.

With these never-identified people were antiquities that included the best preserved decorated whalebone plaque in the UK, an iron sword and a quiver with eight arrows.

Peter Drummond, custodian of Orkney Museum, says: "It is one of the most important archaeological finds in the islands." The boat had been nested in by otters, which meant that the bodies - which the council does not put on display - "had undergone some rearrangement", he says.