Bid to stop legal blunder as buildings given away

Andy Wightman outside Parliament House. Picture: Jon Savage
Andy Wightman outside Parliament House. Picture: Jon Savage
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A BID to prevent a repeat of a legal blunder which saw Britain’s oldest parliamentary building “given away” amid confusion over ownership will cost the city council £250,000 a year.

Officials have warned the revamp of the common good register will be a complex process which could take “several years”.

A probe into costs and timescales was launched after we revealed how Parliament House, near St Giles’ Cathedral, was in part “gifted” to the Faculty of Advocates after council officers told the Scottish Government they did not know who owned it.

But the 17th century building – which includes Parliament Hall and the Laigh Hall underneath – was always part of the city’s common good fund and has since undergone a 
£58 million refurbishment by the Scottish Court Service.

The fund covers property and land, such as Princes Street Gardens, which is administered by the council “in the best interests of the people of Edinburgh”.

Following an emergency motion lodged by city leader Andrew Burns, officials have also proposed a test – 
covering issues such as whether a site was dedicated to public use – that would help establish if assets should appear on the register.

But land reform campaigner Andy Wightman – who discovered the Parliament House blunder – criticised the criteria and said spending £250,000 a year was not necessary.

He said: “Their definition is wrong – those are not common good criteria. Those are tests for inalienable status [where court approval is required before an asset can be used for a certain purpose].

“And on the budget, I have always argued that this is the kind of exercise where we can engage local history and community groups, and schools, to begin mapping the 
common good. If this is a legal-led programme, it’s expensive. In actual fact, the best place to start is not with dusty title deeds but maps.

“Between 1910 and 1915, Inland Revenue produced maps which documented ownership of all land in Great Britain and Ireland. This is the sort of historical source that needs to be utilised.”

After revelations about the Parliament House error, it emerged city officials had initiated secret talks with ministers in a bid to win back the site.

But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insisted it was acquired “in good faith”.

Alastair Maclean, the council’s director of corporate governance, said: “There is a register of the common good and the worry is – for us and others – that it’s not entirely accurate.

“The right thing to do is get the right definition that deals with both inalienable and alienable common good, bring it back for approval, and then show that register as it stands and what we need to do to comply with the new definition we’re going to be imposing.”