Sunday, 8 June 2014

Who bagged Scotland's missing millions?

The recently published report by the Scottish Government's Land Reform Review Group received relatively little attention from press and broadcast media even though it carried evidence of the puzzling absence of any record of common good lands and properties for more than 50 of Scotland's burghs, including four towns in the Borders.

The 197 town councils which ceased to exist when local government reforms swept them into the history books in 1975 should have had Common Good assets transferred to their successors. But almost 40 years on, according to the review group's report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good:"there are still 54 burghs for which no assets are reported".

That all adds up to a sizeable collection of missing or misappropriated real estate, buildings and provosts'chains, the value of which is difficult to calculate. It will certainly exceed the combined proceeds from the 1963 Great Train Robbery and the Brinks-MAT raid on a warehouse at Heathrow Airport twenty years later by a country mile. They netted a mere £28.6 million between them, or £61 million in today's equivalents.

Despite the magnitude of the potential value of the missing items from Scotland's bygone Rich List I can find no trace of an investigation, either civil or criminal, to locate the whereabouts of the "misplaced" Royal bequests.

However, I doubt whether even Hercule Poirot or Inspector Clouseau of the Surete could solve the Case of the Lost Common Good. For it seems bits and pieces from the collections of assets gifted to the burghs by various Kings of Scotland more than 600 years ago were being stolen, misappropriated or sold off almost from day one.

Never mind an oil fund. Had the 197 Scottish Common Good Funds remained intact from their foundation, and had they been properly monitored and administered by whoever was in charge at any given time then many communities would now be enjoying extra facilities and amenities as well as sitting on a hoard of cash.

The £300 million in the existing 143 Common Good Funds identified in the review group's report represents a tiny fraction of the original estates bequeathed by Royal Charter. For even in the Fifteenth Century the Scottish Parliament was moved to pass the Common Good Act 1491 in response to allegations of corruption and maladministration. It was ever thus.

But the legislation did little to prevent the plunder and pillage of the Commons with vast acreages of land being used to earn unscrupulous burghers a fast buck. The depredations and neglect continued through a succession of local government reorganisations with poor record keeping blamed for a multitude of sins.

Research published in 2005 by Andy Wightman and James Perman, two extremely knowledgeable individuals when it comes to matters of Common Good, concluded: "the estimated value of the common good assets that should be held on behalf of communities to generate wealth and community benefit might easily stand at around £1.8 billion." The total value they could identify from Scottish council figures was one tenth of that estimate.

A quick calculation using statistics from the review group report suggests the average value of each Scottish common good fund is slightly more than £2 million (£300.081 million divided by 143). On that basis 54 Scottish towns without any recorded assets have been and continue to be deprived of £113.317 million in community assets.

Here in sheep and rugby country the eight named Common Good funds are currently worth a surprisingly modest £9.849 million. But the Borders had twelve burghs prior to the 1975 reforms. So are the citizens of Eyemouth, Coldstream, Melrose and Innerleithen missing out on funds which should - according to the Scottish average - be valued at up to £8.392 million?

Were these four tracts of common land seized by robber barons in medieval times or did they cease to be community owned due to dodgy transactions or forgetful book-keeping at some point since?

Whatever their fate, the subject would certainly provide an interesting and entertaining research project for a sharp-witted history student with time to plough through archives of town council minutes and other ancient documents. Perhaps councillors and officials currently looking after our Common Good would be prepared to offer a 10 per cent reward on the value of any recovery of stolen or missing properties. Anyone tempted?

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