The Scottish Government has announced the remit and membership of the Commission on Local Tax reform. I am very pleased to have been nominated as a member of the Commission on Local Tax Reform and look forward to meeting the other Commissioners on Monday at our first meeting.

The Commission will be co-chaired by Local Government Minister Marco Biagi and President of COSLA Councillor David O’Neill. The Commission will meet for first time on February 23 and will report to the Scottish Government and COSLA in the autumn.

Marco Biagi said:

“The Scottish Government believes the current council tax system is unfair and we are acting on our manifesto commitment, and the recommendations of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, to look at alternative approaches to local taxation.

“The Commission on Local Tax Reform will consider progressive, workable and fair systems, taking into account domestic and international evidence on tax powers and wealth distribution, the autonomy and accountability of local government and the impact on individuals who pay the tax.

“The members bring a broad range of expertise and experience and I look forward to starting this important work.”

David O’Neill said: “A great deal of work lies ahead, but this Commission is a chance to take a step back and think about the best way to pay for the local services that communities rely on every day.

“Across Scotland people are looking for the debate to break new ground, and that’s why I am determined that this Commission will be listening to people and organisations from all parts of the country, and setting out what it would take to give our local communities a real say about what matters most to them, and the best way to pay for it.”

The Commission’s Remit is:

“To identify and examine alternative systems of local taxation that would deliver a fairer system of local taxation to support the funding of services delivered by local government. In doing so, the Commission will consider:

  • The impacts on individuals, households and inequalities in income and wealth;
  • The wider macro-economic, demographic and fiscal impacts, including housing market and land use;
  • The administrative and collection arrangements that apply, including the costs of transition and subsequent operation;
  • Potential timetables for transition, with due regard to the 2017 Local Government elections.
  • The impacts on supporting local democracy, including on the financial accountability and autonomy of Local Government;
  • The revenue raising capacity of the alternatives at both local authority and national levels.

In conducting its work, the Commission will engage with communities across Scotland to assess public perceptions of the emerging findings and to reflect this evidence in its final analysis and recommendations.

The Commission will be supported by an independent secretariat comprising staff seconded from COSLA and the Scottish Government.

The membership is as follows (the Scottish Conservative Party has declined to take part).

  • Councillor Susan Aitken, SNP Local Government Convenor and Leader of SNP Group, Glasgow City Council;
  • Councillor Catriona Bhatia, Leader of Liberal Democrat Group and Deputy Leader, Scottish Borders Council;
  • Marco Biagi MSP, Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment (Co-Chair);
  • Councillor Angus Campbell, Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Leader of the Independent Group at COSLA;
  • Councillor Rhondda Geekie, Leader Of East Dunbartonshire Council and Leader of Labour Group at COSLA;
  • Dr Angela O’Hagan, Research Fellow in the Institute for Society and Social Justice Research and Convenor of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group;
  • Isobel d’Inverno, Convenor of the Tax Committee of the Law Society of Scotland and Director of Corporate Tax at Brodies LLP;
  • Mary Kinnonmonth, Manager of Dundee Citizens Advice Bureau and Member of Citizens Advice Scotland Board of Directors;
  • Dr Jim McCormick, Scotland Advisor, Joseph Rowntree Foundation;
  • Councillor David O’Neill, President of COSLA (Co-Chair);
  • Don Peebles, Head of CIPFA Scotland;
  • Alex Rowley, MSP for Cowdenbeath and Shadow Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment;
  • Andy Wightman, Writer and Researcher, representing the Scottish Green Party.

 

I will be using this blog to explore in an open manner some of the issues to be resolved in devising an enduring and robust system of local taxation. The focus is very much on what to replace the Council Tax with but of course that replacement could involve not just a better system of domestic property taxation but the repatriation of non-domestic rating, sales taxes, local income taxes and other sources of local finance.

I am very clear that we need a new system of local government finance. Any new property tax should be designed in such a way as to endure over the long-term. It should be more reflective of land and/or property values, more transparent and be capable of contributing a greater proportion of autonomous local finance than is currently the case. Local finance and taxation is a vital part of rebuilding and strengthening local democracy.

Finally, this job is unpaid. On the face of it, this means that I will have to inevitably devote less time some of my other unpaid work on, for example, land reform. However, I plan to launch a crowd-funding appeal soon that will allow me to continue (and indeed increase) the time I can devote to that topic in what is a vital year ahead.

Later this afternoon I will publish a link to the Commission’s website. Meanwhile I welcome all views on the challenge that lies ahead.

The latest developments in the story of Parliament House (see previous blog) are as follows.

ONE

Scottish Green Party Councillor Gavin Corbett has had meetings with senior officials in the Council and shares his thoughts here.

TWO

The Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council (Andrew Burns and Steve Cardownie) have tabled an urgent motion for the Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee on 24 February 2015. It will require to be ruled urgent by the Convener if it is to be considered. The full text can be read here. it concludes by recommending that the Chief Executive of the COuncil writes to the Scottish Government Permanent Secretary to seek a voluntary resolution of the issue.

There is quite a bit of interest in this motion.

Under item 5, the Committee is invited to note that in June 2008 it was resolved that a review of common good would only be carried out if and when property was being sold. The motion omits to mention, however, that the question of Parliament House had already been raised in my report of April 2006 in which I asserted that Parliament House should have been included in a list of common good assets that had been supplied to me in 2005. The Council’s responded by preparing a Review of the Common Good for a meeting of the Resource Management and Audit Scrutiny Committee on 12 October 2006 in which, under the heading “Parliament House/The Old Royal High School”, it said nothing about Parliament House but narrated the history of the High School (click here for relevant extract).

I replied in a further paper here in which I argued that,

“It should be noted that Parliament House and the Old Royal High School, as listed on page 3 of my October Report are not the same. Parliament House is located off Parliament Square opposite the City Chambers. The Old Royal High School is on Regent Road.

Parliament House was ascertained by Hunter and Paton to form part of the Common Good in 1905 (p.31). I know of nothing that has happened since then that would have removed it from the Common Good but perhaps it has. If so, it would be useful to have the information.”

The 12 October 2006 Review, however, was withdrawn and never tabled. As I wrote at the time,

“Then I waited. I looked at the agenda for the 12 October meeting but there was no mention of the Common Good Review. Likewise, at the next meeting on 16 November, there was no mention of the issue. What had happened? Why had the Review of Common Good in Edinburgh not been tabled?

As of today (25 November 2006) I do not know the answer to this question. Hopefully I will know soon.”

I never did find out. But in December, a paper was tabled at the Executive of the Council which says nothing about the investigations reported in the October 2006 review. Then in January 2008, a further Review was published which this time contained exactly the same wording under the heading “Parliament House/The Old Royal High School” and said precisely nothing about Parliament House.

We now know from item 1 in the motion tabled today that the Council knew in April 2006 that Parliament House (in its mistaken view) did not form part of the common good and was not owned by the City. My report was tabled in April 2006 So why, in 2006 and 2008, did the Council not divulge that Parliament House was not (in its view) owned by the City and, instead, stay silent on the matter? DId they know and rather not admit it?

THREE

Given that Scottish Ministers had no prior title to Parliament House, it would have been normal practice for the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to have withheld indemnity for that part. In other words, the Keeper would say, “maybe you (Scottish Ministers) do indeed own it but I am not satisfied that there is sufficient evidence“. The state guarantee granted in the Land Register would have been withheld and the title would have been open to challenge by the true owner (City of Edinburgh Council) for ten years i.e. until November 2015.

Why did the Keeper not withhold indemnity? I asked the Registers of Scotland this question today and they provided the following statement.

“When the first registration application was presented the Keeper undertook a detailed examination of the prior titles. As one might expect with such property the Sasine titles were mostly old and contained fairly vague common law descriptions. Notwithstanding the evidence of title that was presented in support of Scottish Ministers, we sought additional assurances in respect of a small number of other bodies who may also have been able to demonstrate an interest to the area in question – this enquiry reflected the historic nature of the evidence of title that was presented. That included Edinburgh City Council. We asked Scottish Ministers, as applicant, to confirm the position in relation to these other bodies. All of the bodies identified confirmed they had no right title or interest to the area in question. Accordingly, we considered an exclusion of indemnity was not required.”

That’s all for now.

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.