Image: De Wit version of Gordon of Rothiemay’s original 1647 plan showing Parliament House seven years after construction. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the subject of common good land. This is land and property in the Burghs of Scotland that is the historic property of the burgh held on behalf of the citizens. (1) This blog has reported on many cases of maladministration of these assets where Councils have been sloppy in their record-keeping and where the interests of the citizen has been poorly served by the Councils that replaced the Town Councils in 1975.

But Scotland’s four ancient cities do not have any real excuse. Unlike Kirkcaldy or Hawick, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen have enjoyed continuity in having always had a council governing the affairs of the city. So one might expect them to have a good idea of what properties they hold as part of the common good. Which makes this tale of unmitigated incompetence just that little bit more shocking.

As revealed in the Evening News today, the City of Edinburgh Council has lost the ownership of one of the handful of the most historic properties in the City. It didn’t sell it by accident in some fearful and misguided property deal. It didn’t even know that it no longer owned it. It just realised one day that something had gone very horribly wrong. Quite why remains unclear since the history of the building is very well documented in the Council’s own records.

Parliament House

The building is Parliament House which sits largely hidden from view behind the High Kirk of St. Giles and can be glimpsed from George IV Bridge just north of the National Library of Scotland. The history of the building is recounted in great detail in “The Municipal Buildings of Edinburgh – A sketch of their history for seven hundred years written mainly from the original records”, a book commissioned by the Town Council in 1895 and written by Robert Miller, the Lord Dean of Guild. The actual construction is recounted over 79 pages in “The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club”, Volume 13, 1924. This is a building about which a great deal is known.

Image: Ordnance Survey 1852 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

In the 16th century the Scots Parliament had no fixed abode and sat in Perth, Linlithgow, Stirling and Aberdeen as well as in Edinburgh. (2) In 1632 Charles I requested the Town Council build a new home for the Parliament and construction extended from 6 April 1632 to 11 November 1640. (Update – see comment from Alan MacDonald to effect that this is not so and that the Town Council took their own initiative. My source for this was Historical Monuments Commission). The land upon which Parliament House sits was part of the old churchyard of St Giles which was gifted to the Town Council in a Charter by Queen Mary in 1566.

The total cost of construction was £10,554,17s,7d. with 64% of the funds paid out of the common good fund and the remainder raised by public subscription from the citizens of Edinburgh. (3) The buildings were to be occupied rent free by the parliament of Scotland and the College of Justice. The Town Council paid for the upkeep of the building and for nearly two centuries Parliament House was the public hall of the city hosting civic receptions and even musical festivals. The Edinburgh Festival of 1815, 1819 and 1824 witnessed concerts of Haydn’s Creation and Handel’s Messiah.

In 1816, the Town Council handed over responsibility for the upkeep of the building to the Exchequer since the Courts of Law made almost exclusive use of it. The most recent known civic use of the building was for a reception on the occasion of the state visit of the King of Norway in 1962.

City of Edinburgh Council loses ownership

In 2004, work began on a plan to redevelop the Court of Session including Parliament House which was by now under the day-to-day administration of the Scottish Courts Service. The £60 million project was completed in 2013. In order to expedite the project, Scottish Ministers decided to record a title to the complex of buildings by way of a voluntary registration in the Land Register.

In 2005, Scottish Government solicitors appear to have been under the impression that, since the Scottish Courts Service had occupation of Parliament House, it was owned by Scottish Ministers. My understanding of what follows is derived from a source within the Scottish Government.

The Keeper of the Register of Scotland was not satisfied that Scottish Ministers had any evidence of ownership and so advised them to contact Edinburgh Council who, it was thought, was the true owner. The question was put to the Council who apparently confirmed to the Scottish Government that the it had no right, title or interest in Parliament House. The title was then registered in the name of Scottish Ministers.

Scottish Ministers’ Title – MID83631 title and plan (1.2Mb pdf)

Thus did the Council lose ownership of one of the most historic buildings in the City – a national Parliament in the capital city of an ancient European nation and a building constructed on common good land and funded by the common good fund and members of the public.

But stranger things were then to follow. The Faculty of Advocates has for centuries regarded Parliament House as theirs. They had almost exclusive use of it and so, by means as yet unclear, within a month of Scottish Ministers taking ownership, the Faculty persuaded Scottish Ministers to convey to its ownership for no consideration the room known as the Laigh Hall within Parliament House. The subjects are a bit odd comprising “the room on the lower floor shown edged red on the title plan (said subjects extending only to the inner surfaces of the walls, floor and ceiling thereof)”. The use is restricted to a library and study area for members of the Faculty of Advocates and for associated seminars and exhibitions. Scottish Ministers retain a right of pre-emption should the Faculty ever choose to sell this historic block of fresh air.

Faculty of Advocates Title – MID86039 title and plan

Why did this happen?

On what basis did the Council claim to have no interest?

The Council’s records demonstrate quite clearly that Parliament House belongs to the City.

The Council has good records of ownership

As noted by Miller in 1895, the accounts of the city 1875-76 puts on record the City’s ownership of Parliament House which had been built by the City on land owned by the City and formed part of the common good of the City. It noted that, despite the day-to-day management being in the hands of the Courts, “ownership had never been forgotten but there had not arisen any necessity to assert it.”

In the famous Report of the Common Good of the City of Edinburgh by Thomas Hunter (Town Clerk) and Robert Paton (City Chamberlain) published along with a beautiful map in 1905, it is recorded that “The large hall with certain portions around it, still belongs in property to the Corporation. The rooms underneath the large hall appear to have been handed over by the Corporation for the use of the Advocates’ Library”.

Concerned about the state of the common good in the city, in April 2006, I wrote a Report on the Common Good of the City of Edinburgh and submitted it to the scrutiny committee of the council. In it, I noted a number of properties that had been missed from the 2005 list of common good assets that had been supplied to me by the Council. These included The Meadows and Parliament House.

The Council responded in October 2006 with a Review of the Common Good in Edinburgh. It appeared to confuse Parliament House with the Old Royal High School and, uniquely among the properties being discussed, failed to address the question of Parliament House’s history. (4) I now suspect why it did this. – it was aware of the  inadvertent ceding of ownership to Scottish Ministers.

What happens next?

The Council issued a terse statement to the Evening News in response to its enquiry.

We are aware of this issue and have raised it with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Court Service.”

The owner of Parliament House is now, in law, Scottish Ministers and the Faculty of Advocates. Under the law as it was in 2006, the Council has no legal means of recovering ownership. The best that can be hoped is that Scottish Ministers and the Faculty agree to return the property to the Council’s ownership. The full council should then pass a resolution to the effect that the building is owned by the Council and forms part of the common good of the City.

This is a shocking display of incompetence by the Council. It begs the question whether anyone noticed it since 2006. Perhaps the author of the October 2006 Report did and chose to conceal the fact. The fiasco underlines the need for a proper register of common good properties and for an open and freely available land register so that the citizen can spot land transfers like this. (5)

I await developments with interest.

NOTES

Blog Updated 1045hrs 16 February after realising that October 2006 report of Council referred exclusively to Old Royal High School.

(1) Read more here and under Blog Category/Common Good

(2) See http://www.rps.ac.uk/static/mapstext.html

(3) See Accounts of the Treasurer for full details.

(4) The report then proceeds to confuse matters by claiming that it had been sold in 1977 when in fact, this refers to the Old Royal High School. See extract below.

(5) The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill currently before Parliament contains a provision requiring a statutory register of common good assets.

“I’m deeply dismayed that this issue has been re-opened again. I can understand that there are always going to be some people who object to large-scale landownership but we felt that that was dealt with at the time of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

What is being done challenges the nature of the society we live in and property rights. It also, in practical terms creates deep uncertainty in planning for the future and I think that’s going to be the disadvantage of the rural economy……..”

Image: Steven Camley Cartoon, The Herald.

It’s been a remarkable few days.

Last Wednesday, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced a legislative programme that included a Land Reform Bill and other land policy measures on harbours, domestic property taxation and inheritance laws.

The following day the Smith Commission published its report on further devolution for Scotland. After decades of campaigning on the topic by many activists, the Crown Estate is to be devolved in its entirety together with other powers such as the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction.

Then, today, the Scottish Government published a consultation paper on land reform in Scotland which provides more detail on the measures that are to be incorporated in the Bill. This all amounts to the most significant political advance on the topic since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the series of reforms implemented in 1999-2003.

In the words of the Scottish Government,

The aim of this paper is … to ensure you and everyone in Scotland are given the chance to influence this debate, provide your thoughts and suggestions, and to shape both Scotland’s vision for the future of land rights and responsibilities policy and future land reform.”

The Paper begins by proposing a Land Rights and Responsibilities policy statement (page 7). This in itself is very significant. It provides a draft statement of principles that will inform the development of land policy for the years ahead. One would hope that the final version will be agreed and adopted by whatever political parties are in power in Holyrood. Such a statement puts Scottish land reform firmly in an international context where land rights are seen as an important means of strengthening communities and individuals. It opens the door to the Scottish Government adopting the UN Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure that have already been adopted by the UK government.

The paper then goes on to highlight some further detail on the eleven measures that are proposed to be included in the Land Reform Bill. Some of these were highlighted in the First Minister’s legislative programme last week – see previous blog  but some are new.

Here follows all eleven proposals.

1. A Scottish Land Reform Commission

Announced last week and implements a key recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group.

2. Limiting the Legal Entities that can own land in Scotland This is a new proposal and very welcome. Again it follows a recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group  and previous debates around the Land Registration Act (see my evidence here)  It also addresses the concerns of law enforcement and taxation authorities about money-laundering (1) There has been a long-standing problem of land owned by companies registered in offshore tax-havens. Some own large tracts of rural land and some own urban property – including quite a bit of Charlotte Square in Edinburgh near the First Minister’s official residence. It is quite ludicrous to permit this state of affairs to continue any longer.

3. Information on land, its value and ownership

Announced last week and implements a key recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group. We need to move towards a comprehensive and freely available system like the State of Montana.

4. Sustainable development test for land governance

Again, announced last week but this is the opportunity now to consider how this might be designed and implemented. As the Paper argues,

The vast majority of land in Scotland is owned by the private sector. Landowners are instrumental in promoting sustainable local development and supporting communities. However, in some instances the scale or pattern of land ownership, and the decisions of landowners, can be a barrier to sustainable development in an area. Providing mechanisms to address such situations could allow for potential barriers to sustainable local economic and social development to be overcome.”

5. A more proactive role for public sector land management

This is a new proposal and welcome. As the Paper notes,

It is clear public land should be managed for the greatest overall benefit, balancing a number of differing and sometimes conflicting public needs. … However, the legal framework for some public bodies can be a significant constraint on the range of operations that they can undertake to deliver these benefits.”

If the legal framework and governance of all public land can be modernised and made more flexible, it will help to deliver many of the objectives of land reform can be met.

6. Duty of community engagement on charitable trustees when taking decisions on land management.

This was highlighted last week. What the Government propose is a new duty on the trustees of charitable bodies to “engage with the local community and consider the potential impact on the local community before taking any decision” Such a power would be useful but it does not go far enough. Where charitable status is granted to private landowners who then restrict membership of the organisation to a tight group of family and friends, what is needed is not better engagement but better democracy.

7. Removal of the exemption from business rates for shooting and deerstalking

Announced last week, the Paper makes clear that the proposal relates to the so-called sporting rates abolished in 1995. It would be helpful if the term “business rates” was done away with. It has no legal meaning and is misleading. Such rates are not a tax on businesses (mainly concerned with income tax and corporation tax), they are a levy on the rental value of non-domestic property. The Scottish Parliament is assessed for non-domestic rates (NDR) as are bus stops. Neither is a business. Much though needs to be given to how such rates are to be assessed. I will be arguing strongly that it be done on the rental value of land – an approach that the Mirrlees Review (Chapter 16) recommended should be applied to all NDR.

8. Common Good

I particularly welcome the plans to reform the law around common good land. This is land owned by towns and cities across Scotland that is for the benefit of the residents and os often of great antiquity forming part of the original Royal Charter of the burgh. The legal framework around is complicated and out of date and leads to conflict between councils and communities. Common Good is the oldest form of community landownership and the vast majority of Scotland’s population who live in towns and cities deserve a better system of managing it.

9. Agricultural Holdings

Scottish Government confirms that the recommendations that will be made by the Agricultural Holdings Review Group (which is due to report later this month) will be incorporated into the Land Reform Bill.

10. Wild Deer

This is a new proposal to strengthen the powers of intervention of Scottish Natural Heritage over the management of wild deer. As the Paper notes, wild deer are a public resource but they are managed exclusively by landowning interests. I suspect many will be arguing that the proposals need to go further and introduce a modern system of wildlife management with proper democratic governance of this public resource.

11. Public Access

There are proposals here to make minor amendments to existing access legislation.

Conclusion

These proposals, together with the Community Empowerment Bill, reform of council tax, succession law reform, harbours reform and devolution of the Crown Estate and onshore oil and gas add up to a substantial package of powers that will reform land relations in Scotland. Reform is not going to happen quickly. This is the job of a decade or more but this is an important start

All of these proposals will be subject to extensive debate over the coming months and already there are powerful vested interests engaged in trying to derail them. Scottish Land and Estates issued a press release through Media House in which it expressed “disappointment that the Scottish Government continues to miss an opportunity to create modern and meaningful land reform.” I think modern and meaningful land reform is what is in fact beginning to take shape. There is a long way to go of course. But Scotland is changed now. Thousands of people were energised by the referendum campaign and now want to use the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament to secure a fairer and more prosperous country.

This blog is a brief overview of what is covered by the Consultation. I will be publishing further detailed blogs on individual topics as well as a series of briefing papers to assist people in responding to the consultation.

NOTES

(1) See Chapter 29 in The Poor Had No Lawyers