For the common good

Common good continues with its cinderella status, argues Gavin Corbett

I’ll concede that I am unusual in that I worry about the common good. Okay, lots of progressively-minded people worry about the common good in a general sense; but a lot more should worry about the common good in its Scottish legal sense – that is the land and buildings and other assets which belong to citizens as a whole and are entrusted to local government to look after. For Edinburgh that means places like the Meadows, Calton Hill and much of Princes Street Gardens.

Common good is unique. It is looked after by the city council but belongs to us all. So its status is quite different in law to, say, a local school or a football pitch which is owned directly by the city council as a body.

The unique status is why councils have to account separately for common good assets; and this week at Finance and Resources Committee (30 July) councillors get the annual report on the common good.

Do councils generally act as good stewards of common good? Not according to a report by Andy Wightman and James Penman almost a decade ago. And, here in Edinburgh, common good land has been, to the say the least, problematic: with the sorry saga of Waverley Market, championed by then Green councillor and now MSP, Alison Johnstone; and the trials of the new Portobello High School.

That is presumably why the Scottish Government, in its current Community Empowerment Bill, is introducing new duties to require councils to publish public lists of common good assets, with community consultation on those lists; and also to require community consultation on disposal of assets. This second point is particularly relevant to my concerns on securing the best deal from the sale of common good assets in the new St James Centre.

So how well, does the city council match up to good standards of stewardship? Not very well, I believe. It might be acting as the best possible manager of common good assets but I defy anyone to have confidence in concluding that from the information available.

First of all, you have to read across two separate, quite technical reports – one the report to Finance Committee this week; the other buried at page 129 of the unaudited financial accounts which went to the full meeting of the city council on 26 June. Best practice in transparency? I think not.

Secondly, in neither report, will you find basic information like a list of all current common good assets and their value. As a councillor I had to ask for that separately, prompted by a constituent query.

And, thirdly, even when you have that list of assets, it simply begs more questions – most obviously the odd values attached to some well-known city landmarks. For example, is the Scott Monument really only worth £9,960?  And why do the Meadows have a value of £1.6 million while next-door Bruntsfield Links comes in at £26,000 (to put that in context, the small brownfield site on which the new Boroughmuir High School is being built has a value of around £3 million)?

Part of the rationale for the overall common good value of £24 million (more than half of which is the City Chambers) is that common good is “inalienable” and therefore does not have alternative value. That status is an important protection but the valuing process then leaves us in an uncomfortable halfway house which does put a monetary value on the land, but one which, in no way, reflects its enormous amenity, community or historical importance to the city.

And, finally, how can citizens of Edinburgh be sure that common good is being used to best effect? Are we charging commercial users of land proper commercial rents? On those rare occasions where common good is sold is best value being secured and are both rents and receipts being allocated in full to the common good account? How is income being used to improve the asset base, to fund new activities in the name of the common good; even to add to the common good portfolio? The current reporting systems offer, at best, only very partial answers to these basic questions and the fact that, stripped of asset sales, the common good account made a small loss in 2013-14 is not very encouraging.

I cannot help but feel that if we were overseeing an arms-length company or a social enterprise called “Common Good Edinburgh”, we’d expect an awful lot better of the annual reporting. If that is true, why should it not also be the case for the city council?

So that is why I’ve pressed and will continue to press for the city council to revamp the way it reports on how it manages the common good portfolio – so the people of Edinburgh, to whom it belongs, can be confident that only the best is being done in their name.