Scottish Land and Estates, the organisation that represents some landowners in Scotland, attracted a fair bit of press coverage last month for their claim that potential reforms to Scotland’s agricultural tenancy laws could leave the Scottish Government open to compensation claims of £600 million (see Telegraph, Press & Journal, Herald). (1)

The claim was made in written evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 25 March 2015. The £600 million figure was derived from a study undertaken for SLE by estate agents Smiths Gore which purports to calculate the potential loss faced by landowners were reforms to be enacted.

The heart of the matter, however, is not the quantum of any possible claim. Compensation would only be relevant if there is a breach of the rights to property enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 1 of Protocol 1). Moreover, such rights are not the only human rights that come into play when the Scottish Parliament enacts legislation.

As Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, noted in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 3 December 2014,

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment..” (2)

Professor Miller expanded on this point at a very well-attended Scottish Parliamentary meeting was last week hosted by Michael Russell MSP on the topic of land reform and human rights. In attendance were several MSPs, a Government Minister and more than six civil servants including one from the Crown Office.

The meeting was addressed by David Cameron from Community Land Scotland and Professor Miller. In their presentations and in the discussion that followed, it was evident that convention rights of the sort being deployed by SLE are only part of a much wider spectrum of human rights that Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament have to balance in framing legislation. Section 7(2)(a) of the Scotland Act 1998 obliges the Parliament to observe and implement all international obligations including a wide range of human rights that are not covered by the ECHR such as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This perspective is diligently and authoritatively explained in a paper by Dr Kirsteen Shields from Dundee University’s School of Law published in the current edition of the Scottish Human Rights Journal entitled “Tackling the Misuse of Rights Rhetoric in Land Reform Debate”. (download available here) All with an interest in the topic and, in particular, MSPs, would be well advised to read this carefully.

None of these arguments will be new to anyone with any experience of international development where, since 1997, the rights-based approach has been adopted not only by the UN but by Governments and NGOs around the world.

Indeed the UK Government is an enthusiastic advocate of such an approach in its overseas aid programme. The Scottish Government is also bound by the terms of the Scotland Act to do all in its power to further the realisation of international human rights obligations.

The claims by SLE that landowners could be entitled to £600m of compensation is predicated on there being a breach of ECHR. Crucially, SLE has not published the legal advice upon which the £600m claim is based. During the Parliamentary meeting, I called for the organisation to do so and share this with MSPs. I await developments with interest since only by understanding the legal basis upon which any claim rests, can we judge whether any financial consequences might flow. Moreover, as the above paper makes clear, there is more to human rights than the ECHR.

All of which led Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, to dismiss such claims at the Rural Affairs meeting on 1 April 2015. In response to suggestions that compensation claims might be as high as £1.78 billion, he said,

First, the cabinet secretary is too broke to afford £600 million, let alone £1.78 billion. It would be more constructive and helpful in moving the debate forward if we had fewer silly reports such as that. SLE’s intervention and the figures in its report – which came when we are supposed to be saying that there is unprecedented collaboration and understanding of some of the key issues facing tenant farming – were unconstructive and unhelpful. It escapes me how those figures were arrived at. Given that we have not even published the legislation yet, there is no way for those with a strong view on one side of the debate even remotely to begin to work out any potential figures.”

Now that Parliament has been made aware of the wider human rights context in which it is, by law, required to work, it is to be hoped that such speculative and outlandish claims can be put to rest.

NOTES

(1) SLE is the representative body of 1351 landowners in Scotland who own 29% of Scotland.

(2) A fuller extract of his evidence..

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment. I will just make a couple of points about the perception of human rights and its relevance to the committee’s consideration of the bill, because I am sure that others have more value to add.

The language that is being used – I heard the term “absolute right to buy” being used again this morning –  is very unhelpful, although I understand why people are using it. The European convention on human rights is not understood as providing a framework in which the legitimate rights of landowners and the public interest are reconciled and a balance is struck, with compensation being paid to the landowner if necessary. The right to buy is a qualified right: there has to be a competing public interest to override the right to peaceful enjoyment by the person who owns the land. Therefore, language such as “right to buy” or “absolute right” polarises the debate in an unhelpful way and does not reflect a clear understanding of what the ECHR contributes to the debate.

The bigger frustration that I have with the policy framework is this: human rights does not begin and end at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; there is a much broader framework of international human rights that are relevant to the Government and the Parliament, but which are largely invisible.

The Scotland Act 1998 calls on the Scottish ministers to observe and implement international obligations, of which one—but only one—is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which places a duty on the Scottish ministers to use the maximum available resources to ensure progressive realisation of the right to housing, employment, food and so on—that is, it sees land as a national asset, which is to be used for the progressive realisation of what we might call sustainable development.

Therefore, what human rights provides is a broader impetus for land reform, rather than an inhibition, as is suggested in the way that the issue is currently couched—that is, in questions about whether a landowner has a red card that can be used with reference to the ECHR to stifle discussion about different use of the land. That is what is missing from the policy framework.”

 

 

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.