CAMPAIGNERS were today expecting Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson to signal a change of heart over plans to force the city council to sell Princes Mall to business tycoon Sir David Murray for 40p.
Under new legislation, ownership of any property held on a long lease with more than 100 years to run would automatically be transferred to the leaseholder.
The former Rangers owner has a long-term lease on Princes Mall shopping centre, previously known as Waverley Market and estimated to be worth £50 million, through his property company Premier Property Group (PPG).
PPG bought the lease from a previous owner for £37m in 2004 and pays the council just 1p a year in rent under a £14m deal struck between council chiefs and the original developers in the 1980s.
The purchase price for the site under the new legislation would be based on the current rent. A Scottish Parliament committee last month failed to back calls for the site at the east end of Princes Street to be exempt from the new law.
But as MSPs prepared to debate the Long Leases (Scotland) Bill this afternoon, campaigners claimed there were signs that the Scottish Government was ready to make changes, which would allow Princes Mall to remain in council ownership.
It is understood one way to achieve that would be to rule that land or property covered by Acts of Parliament, which give local authorities specific powers over them, should be exempt from the Bill. Waverley Market is singled out in several Acts of Parliament, including legislation in 1991 giving the council power to erect and maintain new buildings on the site.
One source said: “The council has statutory powers to do things on that site and, if someone else were to own it, that could lead to all sorts of problems.”
When questioned by the committee on the issue, Mr Stevenson had said he was unclear why Waverley Market was different from any other building, but added: “I await further information on what the distinct difference might be.”
The committee’s report on the Bill said the case for exempting Waverley Market “has still to be made” and said it would consider any further information at the next stage of parliamentary scrutiny.
Lothians Green MSP Alison Johnstone, who has campaigned for an exemption, said: “I’m hopeful that we will see a last-minute reprieve for this historic council-owned site.
“The SNP must realise that this is a highly valuable bit of public land that is worth saving, not handing to a business tycoon for next to nothing. I urge ministers to look creatively at all options to prevent the unintended loss of a multi-million-pound Edinburgh asset.”