Gina Davidson: Reap the rewards of common good land

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A QUESTION sprang to mind the other day when reading about the plans for an over-the-top glass monolith of a “luxury hotel” which is being planned for the roundabout site of Picardy Place as part of the St James Quarter development: just what good is our “common good” land and properties actually doing us?

Common good land is, as Scottish land rights campaigner and author Andy Wightman puts it, “a potential source of wealth and investment for the public good”. Which is why he believes that such land at Picardy Place could be worth in the region of £2 million to the city – if it’s sold to developers at market value.

Indeed, you would think that in Edinburgh, a city where land values are never less than enormous (which of course means housing costs are increasingly extortionate) that the local authority, which manages the Common Good Fund (CGF), would be as happy as a family of leprechauns who’d just discovered Fort Knox at the end of the rainbow.

And yet, the CGF – which in the 18th century was large enough to purchase the entire site of the New Town so it could be built – currently sits at . . . who knows? The head of finance wasn’t able to release the information. But in 1904 its annual income was around £2m at today’s prices, but in 2009 it made a loss of £510,000. A boost of £2m or so from the sale of Picardy Place would be more than welcome, especially as it is used to maintain other common good land and buildings such as Calton Hill and South Queensferry harbour.

But will we – as in the Edinburgh public who own the land, which the council manages on our behalf – ever see that money paid to the CGF?

The land at Picardy Place is “inalienable” common good land, which will force the council to request permission from the Court of Session to sell it off. Independent valuation of the land is to be carried out, and there will be public consultation in advance of going to court, apparently in the same way as the East Market Street land sell off was handled – and we all know how well that went.

When the Caltongate plans were first mooted, the fact that land in East Market Street, which the developers needed, was common good land was never mentioned. It took a lot of campaigning by members of SOOT (Save Our Old Town) to discover that was the case. And they rightly kicked up a major fuss that sale of this land was at an off-the-market price – which meant the CGF didn’t get what the land would have been worth on the open market.

Furthermore it transpired that the £4.5m the council received actually went to offset the rental costs on its new HQ Waverley Court rather than into the CGF itself. In a similar fashion, the sale of common good land at 7 Merchiston Park for £1m never went into the CGF until the discrepancy was pointed out (by Mr Wightman). Yet programmes which the CGF funded, such as disability grants to make public buildings more accessible, were cancelled or delayed because of its diminishing cashflow.

And then there’s the Princes Mall, or Waverley Market as I still like to think of it. It was apparently transferred out of the CGF back in 1982, without it seems so much as a by-your-leave to the public, and leased out. Most recently it was Sir David Murray who was paying the peppercorn rent of one pence a year and long-lease legislation could have allowed him to buy the whole site for just 40p – until laws changed. Yet if it had remained as common good land, then it could have earned millions in rent for the city and still be an asset of around £20m.

So is it any wonder then that there are fears that Picardy Place land could be sold on the cheap and whatever money raised lost in the black hole of the council’s deficit?

And do the Edinburgh public want a hotel to be built on Picardy roundabout at all? While the whole development of that area of town would be incredibly beneficial to the city’s economy, perhaps that’s the question that should be asked first? After all, the council is just looking after the land for us.

The answer to that might well be yes. But I would suspect only if it can be proved, beyond doubt, that it is sold for a price it would gain on the open market, and that the money is used for the common good.

Golden goodbye is another disgrace

MARK Turley has become the fall guy for the Mortonhall babies ashes scandal. Yes, it’s true that he knew nothing of the practices of the council crema-torium, but who did outwith the staff?

As the director of a depart-ment that includes everything from housing to bin collections and bereavement services should he have known? I can’t quite bring myself to say yes.

It was always my belief that his suspension was more to do with the impending disasters which will come with the fall-out from the statutory repairs scandal and the tragic death of Keane Wallis-Bennett at Liberton High School.

And so it has proved with council sources suggesting that an internal inquiry into Mr Turley which was to take place – until he resigned – would have focused on these areas. He’s gone, probably for the wrong reason, and no doubt with a healthy handshake for doing so quietly. Although details of a pay-off have not been revealed. That is another cover-up which is just as unacceptable.

I hope regiment links to Capital are retained

MY grandfather was a Royal Scot, 1st battalion. He was sent off to fight just days after my father was born in 1940 and didn’t return until he was five years old, by which time he’d seen the horrors of the war in Burma, and in particular Kohima.

The sepia-toned photos of him in uniform, the Glengarry perched on his head at a rather irregular angle, the grin on his face – sent home from abroad – are a vibrant memory of a man who did his duty and wanted to forget it on his return and live a happy life in Edinburgh.

Of course he was a Royal Scot because that is Edinburgh’s regiment – there would have been no other even considered. Now though the battalion is leaving home for Belfast (although it’s changed beyond all recognition after amalgamations and is now 1Scots). For me, with even such a tiny link to the regiment, it feels a great pity. The soldiers say it’s just the way of army life. But I do hope that the desire by 1Scots to retain as close links as possible proves possible.