In this Guest Blog, Bill Chisholm reveals the extraordinary story of how one former burgh in the Borders has outperformed all the rest in terms of its common good funds. That burgh is Berwick and it is now, of course, part of England.

Bill Chisholm was The Scotsman’s Borders correspondent from 1969 to 2005. He has taken a keen interest in the fate of the eight common good funds in the Borders burghs.

Scotland’s oldest and wealthiest burgh is thriving (in England)

Bill Chisholm 20 August 2013

Scotland has a very long history of community ownership of land and assets dating back to the founding of the Royal Burghs. The common good consisted originally of common land and grants of land by Royal Charter. Later in the 19th and 20th centuries additional land was acquired from neighbouring landowners and gifts of land were made by wealthy industrialists to form some of the famous parks in our towns and cities. In addition, a wide range of furnishings, paintings, regalia and other moveable property accumulated as part of the assets of the Common Good Fund.

The Common Good Act of 1491 remains on the statute book and states that the common good of all the Royal Burghs be observed and kept for the common good of the town and spent on the common and necessary things of the burgh.

Over hundreds of years, Scotland’s common good has been subject to poor management primarily due to the rampant municipal corruption and nepotism that prevailed as a consequence of town councils being responsible for electing their successors – a state of affairs that continued until the Burgh Reform Act of 1833. Genuine “local government” in Scotland was eventually abolished in Scotland in 1930 (parish councils) and 1975 (town councils) and responsibility for managing the common good passed first to District Councils in 1975 and then to the existing local authorities in 1996.

Scottish Borders Common Good Funds

Many people who take an interest in the status and performance of Scottish Borders Council Common Good Funds find it difficult to understand why an organisation with significant  land, investments and other assets consistently fails to achieve healthy annual profits. (1) This failure to secure a worthwhile financial return from the potentially lucrative commons means residents in the eight former burghs where the Common Good survives are missing out on their rightful inheritance. I thought it was perhaps a good time to take look at what has happened to these funds and as I did so, I made a remarkable discovery.

The unaudited accounts (1.3Mb pdf here) of the Council for 2012/13 reveal that the eight funds (Duns, Galashiels, Hawick, Jedburgh, Kelso, Lauder, Peebles and Selkirk) have combined net assets of £9.8 million and generated a collective deficit of £90,000. Of the eight, only Duns (£2000) and Lauder (£95,000) generated a positive return. By way of comparison, were the funds to generate a rate of return of 5%, this figure should be £490,000.

Burgh Income Expenditure Surplus/Deficit Net assets
Duns 2000 5000 -3000 30,000
Galashiels 2000 0  2000 26,000
Hawick 112,000 154,000 -42,000 3,032,000
Jedburgh 28,000 76,000 -48,000 1,371,000
Kelso 5000 35,000 -30,000 950,000
Lauder 269,000 174,000  95,000 1,031,000
Peebles 67,000 73,000 -6000 1,063,000
Selkirk 72,000 130,000 -58,000 2,336,000
TOTAL 557,000 647,000 -90,000 9,83,9000
No figures are reported by Scottish Borders Council for Coldstream, Eyemouth, Innerleithen and Melrose.
Income, Expenditure & Assets for 8 Border burghs
Source: Unaudited accounts 2012/13

It should be borne in mind that the sizeable areas of land held by the Borders Common Good Funds are, when taken together, equal in acreage to some of the larger privately owned estates in the region. Hawick has over 800 acres of farm land plus an unspecified acreage for the golf course and woodlands, Selkirk’s three farms alone cover 1300 acres while Lauder Common, one of the largest in Scotland, extends to some 1700 acres. The overall total possibly exceeds 5,000 acres.

Unfortunately, despite previous promises and pledges, there is still no sign of a public asset register clearly setting out everything that is included in the eight funds. However in February 2013 the council did, in response to a Freedom of Information request, provide details of the fixed assets (buildings and properties) and moveable assets (e.g. provost’s chains) in each of the funds. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this revelation was the fact that many of the items listed have been given no book value whatsoever, including Selkirk Town Clock, a number of common good open spaces, fishing rights on the Tweed at Peebles, and virtually all of the moveable assets.

Given the dearth of public information concerning millions of pounds worth of land holdings, investments and buildings, and the lack of detail of the charges levied on the funds by council officials, it is difficult to pinpoint what has gone wrong. But it would certainly seem elected councillors have played their part in allowing the Common Good estate to decline. It seems clear that the administration and development of Common Good assets is nowhere near the top of SBC’s list of priorities. That means the true potential of the multi-million pound operation will never be realised even at a time of austerity when every last penny is vital in sustaining local economies. Just this week, it was revealed that the £2 million cash balance was to be transferred to a “private firm of global fund managers.”

A similar regrettable pattern of Common Good neglect appears to have been developing right across Scotland ever since the abolition of town councils in 1975. A 2009 account of Common Good Funds in Scotland included some 1,600 assets in 144 separate funds with a reported value of £2.5 billion. Yet at national level too these huge assets failed to break even on the income and expenditure front. The Scottish Government’s official financial statistics for local government in 2011/12 showed gross expenditure on Common Good Funds to be £13,696,000 as against income totalling £11,540,000. That equates to an operating loss of £2,156,000.

Would these valuable assets have been better looked after had they remained in local control over the past 38 years? it is impossible to say for sure but it is fascinating to look at what has happened in one instance where that has happened.

Scotland’s first burghs four burghs – Roxburgh, Berwick, Stirling and Edinburgh – were established in 1125.

Roxburgh now lies in ruins.

Stirling and Edinburgh’s common good funds are, in the words of Thomas Johnston, “mere miserable starved caricatures of their former greatness.”

But Berwick is interesting and it is possible to compare the performance and fortunes of the region’s funds with a nearby charitable trust which administers the Common lands presented to this former Scottish burgh more than 600 years ago.

Berwick-upon-Tweed

The burgesses of Berwick-on-Tweed together with their contemporaries in Peebles, Hawick, Selkirk and the other Borders burghs received their Common lands from the Scottish king at around the same time. Today, the acreage under the control of the Berwick-upon-Tweed Freemen Trustees (Charity Commission No. 222154) is 2250 acres.

From the accounts (which can easily be downloaded from the Charity Commission’s website), we can see that the capital value of the investments at March 2011 stood at £4.896 million, and the total funds stood at £17,927,611. That’s almost double the £9.8 million valuation of the combined eight Borders Common Good funds.

Total income for 2010/11 was £437,448 (2009/10 £411,678). Rents yielded £280,853 while investments brought in £147,676. The Trustees generated a 2.4% return on capital

At the same time, the total income of the combined eight Scottish Borders funds in 2012/13 was £557,000 while expenditure totalled £647,000 – a deficit of £90,000.

As stated earlier, the common lands at Berwick-upon-Tweed were transferred to the burgesses and freemen of the then Scottish Royal Burgh at around the same time as the lands which now form part of the eight Borders common good funds.

The 3,280 acres of Common conveyed by a special Berwick Royal Charter of 1604 following the Union of the Crowns was vested with the freemen of the now English borough in perpetuity, although the acreage had gone down to 2,250 by the early years of the 20th century, thanks in part to the involvement of the town council which took control of the lands in 1843. The 1604 Charter had “granted to the burgesses the fee simple of certain lands over which the inhabitants had for centuries previously exercised rights of Common, grazing and other rights”.

But the introduction of statutory local government did nothing for the fortunes of the Berwick estate. The first elected town council melted down all of Berwick’s historic collection of silver, including the town mace…a sign of things to come.

During the 19th century the council often failed to pay the income from the estate to the freemen; financial accounts were not made available for public inspection; the town council attempted to alter some of the farm leases, and even leased farmland without advertising the leases.

By 1909 income was reduced and by now the local authority was spending all of the money it collected from the estate on council matters. The history of the estate also records that in 1916 the council wanted to lease the town’s ancient market rights to themselves at a rent of £5 per annum although the annual profit to the estate was £150. Such was the scale of council mismanagement that the estate fell into debt and by the 1950s the financial position was so dire one of the farms had to be sold for £9,000.

The local authority and the freemen were engaged in numerous legal disputes in the 20 years up to 1994 as the Borough Council attempted to plunder estate assets and proposed radical increases in annual administration fees from £5,000 to £18,000. Since 1994 the freemen Trustees and the Borough Council and Town Council have worked well together and as a result the estate has flourished. (2)

The retiring and new Town Mayor of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Note the “Scottish”purple ceremonial robes dating back to granting of Royal Charter by David I in contrast to English red robes.
© 
All rights reserved by Berwick-upon-Tweed Town Council

Map of Town Council of Berwick-upon-Tweed which includes the 2250 acres of land owned by the Freemen Trustees.

Concluding thoughts

What is fascinating about the above is the fact that one of Scotland’s oldest burghs survives today with a self-governing town council, £17 million of assets and an annual income of £437,000. At the same time, eight neighbouring burghs have half the assets and lost money last year.

The difference between this successful and relatively prosperous burgh (or borough) and the burghs of the Scottish Borders is that Berwick-upon-Tweed is in England. That simple fact raises all sorts of interesting questions about how local democracy and the commons have survived on both sides of the border.

So, perhaps as the Scottish Government holds one of its summer cabinets in Hawick, it might reflect on 900 years of Scottish history and ponder how to rebuild democracy in Scotland’s communities.

(1) All 8 Scottish Borders Common Good Funds are administered collectively as a charity No. SC031538

(2) Following the abolition of the Borough Council in 2009, a new Town Council was established.

 

[UPDATE 30 May 2013 This blog is an edited version of the one published yesterday (pdf copy here) in which I incorrectly argued that there was only one review promised in the SNP manifesto. There were in fact two as explained below. However, this fact does not change the substance of my argument. Why are farm tenancies being removed from the scope of land reform to be dealt with on their own?]

Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment for the past six years, told a conference yesterday that “the future of land tenure is one of the biggest issues facing the future development of rural Scotland“. Here is his speech in full. He was speaking at a National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) seminar entitled A Vision for Land Tenure: 2020. (1)

In his speech he announced a new review of farm tenancy legislation.

Now this is interesting because the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) has been given the task of coming up with radical proposals to take forward land reform but, in its Interim Report published last week, it said that it would be taking no further interest in land tenure as it affected Scotland’s tenant farmers (see my previous post for a fuller discussion). This was a shock to all those who had submitted evidence on the topic and particularly to tenant farmers some of whom, as the report noted, were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” They thus (mistakenly as it happens) placed some faith in this independent review of land reform to address their concerns. Yesterday, Mr Lochhead announced a separate review of agricultural tenancies.

All of which is rather confusing. The rationale for a separate review was that two separate reviews were promised in the SNP election manifesto in 2011. The relevant part of Lochhead’s speech is as follows.

11. This event is very timely, because we are at an important stage of the government’s work in this area.

12. That work includes two separate reviews, as set out in our election manifesto back in 2011.

13. The first review is the one being run by the Land Reform Review Group, who recently published their interim report.

14. That report set out a range of areas to be investigated more fully during the next phase. The group’s intention is to collect more evidence, by speaking to   those involved at the heart of those issues, before presenting recommendations to the Scottish Government.

15. Meanwhile, the government has also been committed to a separate review of farm tenancy legislation.

He then continues,

22. However there’s one thing I can make clear even today.

23. We were always committed to two separate reviews, and now the Land Reform Review Group has decided to focus on other issues for the remainder of their work.

24. So I want to confirm today that all the issues on farm tenancies raised during the Land Reform Review Group’s work will not be lost. They will be carried forward and looked at very carefully in the farm tenancies review.

I have read the SNP election manifesto carefully and the topic is covered on page 39. It states that,

We will amend the Agricultural Holdings Act to support tenant farmers and will work to encourage new entrants. We also believe that when a farm business is being passed from one generation to the next it should be easier for the successor to build a home on the farm where required.”

So no mention of a review there – simply a clear commitment to amend the legislation which most Governments do by holding a consultation, drafting legislation and introducing a Bill to Parliament.

On the same page, under the heading “Land Reform” it states that,

We believe it is time for a review of Scotland’s land reform legislation. For example, we believe the current period for three months for communities to take advantage of their right of first purchase is too short, and we would wish to see it extended to six months. We will establish a Land Reform Review Group to advise on this and other improvements which we will legislate on over the course of the next five years.”

Scotland’s land reform legislation is the body of statute that emerged from the work of the Land Reform Policy Group chaired by Lord Sewel from 1997-1999. it is all laid out on the Scottish Government’s website and it includes the question of agricultural holdings legislation which also formed an explicit part of the remit of the LRRG (Annex A here). The task of the LRRG is to “review Scotland’s land reform legislation“.

However, the SNP also published a farming manifesto which states that.

We will work with the sector to increase the amount of land available for rent and bring in the legislative changes already proposed and review the effectiveness of the amended act within 18 months.”

The legislative changes referred are now included in the Agricultural Holdings (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2012 which received Royal Assent on 12 July 2012. The review promised in the farming manifesto is only of this amended Act and does not address the many issues tenant farmers raised with the Land Reform Review Group.

All of which gives rise to a number of questions.

Given that the LRRG has dropped the issue, will the remit of this second review be broadened out beyond a simple review of the effectiveness of the 2012 Act?

Why exactly has the LRRG dropped this topic from the mainstream of land reform?

Why, if farm tenancies were indeed “always” to be the subject of a separate review, was this not made clear at the beginning of the LRRG process?

Why, if farm tenancies were “always” to be the subject of a separate review, were tenants led to believe that the LRRG would be considering these issues, were encouraged to provide evidence and indeed were involved in face to face meetings in the field?

Did Scottish Ministers exert any influence over the LRRG to drop any further consideration of farm tenancies?

Land reform is an integrated programme of work designed to do four things.

1.reform land tenure

2.redistribute land

3. provide a fiscal framework for land & property

4. establish appropriate governance arrangements for land relations

That, more or less, is what the Land Reform Policy Group did in 1977-1999.

Why is the Scottish Government messing around with this issue and passing one of the most pressing land reform issues to another as yet unknown review process to be announced “after the summer break“?

What on earth is going on?

 

(1) two of the presentations given at the seminar are available – Phil Thomas, Chair of Tenant Farming Form and Clive Phillips of Brodies, Solicitors.

UPDATE 30 MAY 2013 2115hrs

The Chair of the LRRG gave a speech to the AGM of Scottish Land and Estates on Tuesday 21 May. It was given from notes and no written speech was published but I understand that she said that the farm tenancy issues was dropped due to “timescales and lack of specialist knowledge”.

The timescale of the LRRG from July 2012 to April 2014 is a generous 20 months. Members & advisers were appointed by Scottish Ministers who presumably were fully aware of what specialist knowledge the members and advisers have. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that the lack of specialist knowledge was by design not accident. The Scottish Government press release of 24 July 2013 states clearly that advisers would be appointed “with expertise in areas such as property and land issues, economics, legal issues, community-led organisations, landownership, forestry and access“.

This guest blog is reproduced with the kind permission of the Daily Record.

This land is our land.. so let people have their say

Torcuil Crichton 27 May 2013

ON a rare, dry Friday on the Atlantic coast of Lewis the whole community of Bhaltos turned out to dedicate a monument to their shared past and future.

A brilliant stone sculpture, designed by Will MacLean and Marian Leven, commemorates land raids of a century ago and the recent community buyout of the island estate that will open a new door.

Places like Bhaltos, where the people own the land, are living proof that the land reform agenda is alive and matters.

Someone ought to nail to a fence the message that radical land politics can change people’s lives, over a “Yes Scotland” sign. The SNP government’s Land Reform Review Group was meant to re-engage lost momentum for change in a country where the most important resource, the land, is in the hands of the very few.

Their report is a disgrace from beginning to end. Instead of reigniting the debate, it tries to extinguish land reform. On community ownership it recommends some tinkering. On moving seabed rights from the remote Crown Estate Commission to local control, nothing. On tax avoidance, nothing. On absentee landlords, nothing. On land for housing, nothing.

There is a galling betrayal of tenant farmers across Scotland who put faith in the process. Some of their stories about treatment by modern lairds echo the days of Patrick Sellar.

Distinguished land campaigner Andy Wightman says the cause is effectively dead in the water, thanks to this government.

I understand the frustration.

Alex Salmond has squandered a parliamentary majority, which was a real chance to change the face of Scotland.

He threw the opportunity away to pursue independence, which, as he is at pains to assure us, would change “nothing”.

The SNP have talked constantly about getting control of the levers of power. So why don’t ministers give control of the land to the people who live on it in Scotland?