I have a long-standing interest in the history of Scotland’s common lands – land held in common for the people instead of being appropriated for private gain. In Scotland’s towns and cities we still have the remnants of what were once extensive commons.
West Princes Street Gardens are part of the common good of the city, owned for centuries by the common good fund and held for the common good of the residents of the city.
In 2016, the council agreed to enter an agreement with a benefactor, Mr Norman Springford, the majority owner of Apex Hotels, through a charity to be set up to redevelop the Gardens and, in particular the Ross Bandstand. The Ross Development Trust aims to raise £25 million to “redevelop” the gardens. A public consultation on its future closes this Friday.
It is a mark of the state of local government finance that in one of Europe’s oldest capital cities, the city council has to rely on private benefactors to invest in and maintain its oldest and most iconic public space.
Historically, of course, private benefactors have played an important role in financing public buildings such as the Usher Hall and the city’s Carnegie library.
So, whilst private benefactors are to be welcomed, there has never been any need for them to take control of any of these buildings. Their reward was the pride it gave to them to have contributed to the city and, in some cases (such as the Usher Hall), their name remains recorded for posterity.
But I can’t think of any instance where, in addition to their generous gifts, they have also sought to gain long-term control of any land or building. To this day the Usher Hall and Central Library are owned and managed by the city council.
It is highly unusual for a private organisation such as the Ross Development Trust to directly take over the long-term management of public land, and especially to seek control of land held for centuries by the common good.
The redevelopment of West Princes Street Gardens will require both an Act of Parliament and the approval of the courts. Both are expensive and time-consuming processes.
Which begs the question why Mr Springford and other potential funders don’t do what previous benefactors have done, namely donate their money to the City of Edinburgh Common Good Fund and the council can take forward the project under full democratic accountability.
Andy Wightman is a Green MSP for Lothian.