Monday, 8 January 2018

Threat of Hawick riots didn't even make the papers!


An influential committee of the Scottish Parliament was warned just before Christmas that any moves to "abolish" common good funds and transfer their assets to local authorities could spark a riot in Hawick.

The dramatic exchanges between a panel of witnesses called to give evidence to the Local Government & Communities Committee - currently investigating common good property and funds - have not been reported in press or media.

But the publication yesterday (Monday) of the official report of proceedings shows how lively the debate became while at the same time illustrating the clash of attitudes towards the issue of common good across Scotland.

The "riot warning" was flagged up by retired Selkirk general practitioner Dr Lindsay Neil, a dedicated campaigner for the protection of his town's centuries old common good assets. Not Just Sheep & Rugby believes the good doctor deserves a much wider audience!

Other witnesses included Paul Nevin, senior solicitor at Moray Council, lawyer Craig Veitch from Aberdeen City Council, and Andrew Ferguson, of the Society of Local Authority Lawyers..

Mr Nevin told the committee: "Common good should absolutely be abolished; parity should be created with ordinary council assets; and the normal democratic process that all of us in unitary authorities work within should be used to call councils to account in selling or not selling—or in leasing or not leasing—land. It is a hangover from the past, and it is archaic. It is historically interesting—I love working with it and indeed have enjoyed doing so for the past 10 years—but it is really not a modern form of government."

But Dr Neil retorted: "All I want to say is that, if you abolished common good, you would immediately face a riot in Hawick, and I do not think that that would be a very good thing."

Earlier, in an opening statement to the committee, Dr Neil said he hoped to be able to illuminate further the question of ownership of common good, and to suggest practical measures whereby that could be achieved easily. Secondly, He have always wanted to democratise the common good and restore to the community some control over its common good.

But Mr Nevin - clearly not a fan of the current arrangements - declared: " The current legal framework creates a special status for this small area of property and funds, which represents less than one per cent, loosely speaking, of council assets. The legal framework has led to a disproportionately complicated process of administration of common good assets, which means that the cost of administrating them generally far outweighs the value of the asset that is being dealt with." 

Dr Neil proposed having greater involvement of local people in the management of a local common good. That way, such questions could be argued over, discussed and decided at a much lower level without having to involve the entire council and all its staff in the expensive chasing of documents.

A proposal for a 'national' register of common good assets, to be compiled over, say, the next ten years, also seemed to pose potential administrative difficulties for Mr Veitch.

He told the committee: "What is difficult, especially for the larger local authorities such as Aberdeen City Council, is the number of titles to be examined—we have several thousand individual titles that would have to be examined.

"Some will be obviously common good but, with others, we will have to delve into not only the title deeds but council minutes from the 1800s and 1900s, and check with archivists. If we are to do that with a relatively slim legal team, in the face of the current budget restrictions and the resource and cost cutting that is going on in all the local authorities, setting an early target date [for the register] will make it extremely difficult for a number of authorities to achieve that target."

Witnesses were asked by Andy Wightman, MSP, a leading authority on common good and land ownership if there was a case for allowing local communities to regain ownership of the assets if they so wished.

In Dr Neil's opinion: " If the matter is devolved to a local area, people will volunteer to help the established councillors. Between them, they will be able to sort out what is common good property and what is not. 

"If they do not agree, I presume that it would fall back into the council’s hands. That way, with a cut-off date, we will get a register. If people do not make a case for an asset to be common good before that date, with the input of equal numbers of elected councillors and local people so that nobody can bulldoze anybody else, that will be it: the register will be done—end of story."

However, Mr Nevin and Mr Veitch appeared to take a different view.

Mr Nevin said:"I would point out that we have had common good registers before—the burgh councils had them. Just because something is on an old burgh council common good register does not mean that it is common good. This is the 21st century, and we are creating registers again. They were not definitive in the past, and they are not going to be definitive today."

And Mr Veitch: "We have to remember that the law protecting common good was put in place generally to stop the misappropriation of funds by councils, but time has moved on and we now have a lot of legislation and financial regulation controlling councils, which have to get the best value for all their assets. I might not be moving towards suggesting the abolition of common good, but we must look at the issue as soon as possible.

It was back to the issue of the "Hawick riots" near the end of the evidence session.

Paul Nevin -Short of abolishing common good, which I agree  might not get you votes—

The committee convener (Bob Doris MSP): Not in Hawick, apparently.

Paul Nevin: I fully agree that we must avoid riots at all costs, convener.

Dr Neil: Never mind abolition—I think that you should bring in... (the relevant sections of the Community Empowerment Act)... as soon as possible and, if possible, extend (the legislation) to include more people who could act locally in the management of local common good.

For those who value their common good funds here in the Borders - between them worth many millions of pounds - there may be concerns over the apparent desire in some quarters to abolish the system altogether. Time, perhaps, to man the barricades before the rioting begins!

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