Regaining Parliament House for the citizens of Edinburgh

Gavin Corbett calls for an end to common good property being treated as an afterthought.

I have been a councillor for less than three years and I have seen a lot of committed staff delivering good services in sometimes difficult circumstances.

But occasionally there are examples of breathtaking folly. This week’s saga on the loss to the city’s common good of Parliament House is one such example.

Having reviewed paperwork going back nine years I can see that reports, knowingly or otherwise, confuse two quite separate properties – one, the old Royal High School next to Calton Hill which was going to be the Scottish Parliament in the 1970s and two, Parliament House, next to St Giles Cathedral , which was used for the old parliament in the seventeen century.

Whether a result of this confusion or not, Parliament House was wrongly declared not to be part of the common good of Edinburgh in 2006, with title then being taken up by the Scottish Government, now the Scottish Courts Service.

That’s the nub of it. What do we do now?

Thumb Gavin-at-City-Chambers-close-815x1024Firstly, let’s re-affirm that Parliament House belongs to the people of Edinburgh, through the common good. It should take more than an administrative foul-up to change that especially when an act of parliament is required for the National Galleries to extend 5 metres east into common good land of Princes Street Gardens.

I’m sure that the Scottish Government will want to be seen to play fair, not least because the minister in whose portfolio common good lies, Marco Biagi, is also local MSP for Edinburgh Central where Parliament House sits.

I imagine that would mean its current use by the Scottish Courts Service and the Faculty of Advocates continues as it is, on the basis that the occupiers have been maintaining and improving the property. However, it would also mean that they leased the property from the common good account with any surplus income received going towards upkeep of other common good assets like the Meadows or Calton Hill. It would also be valuable to see this historic building more fully enlisted in the civic life of the city.

So my Green councillor colleague Steve Burgess will argue just such a case at the council’s overarching policy and strategy committee next week as well as demanding greater clarity as to how long this monumental foul-up has been known about.  And my Green MSP colleague Alison Johnstone has already sought such assurances from government ministers.

But there are also lessons to be learned about the overall stewardship of common good assets and not just in Edinburgh. Every year, it seems, centuries-old assets are being eroded because the law of the land and shoddy administration has treated them like afterthoughts. It should not need to rely on committed campaigners like Andy Wightman or the investigative journalism of the Evening News to point out failures.

The Community Empowerment Bill, currently going through parliament, needs to be strengthened to require councils to be much more proactive in establishing land and property which is common good and in taking good care of it.

So I look forward to the day when there is a proper modern system for dealing with common good assets – and I’ll maybe even try to book Parliament Hall to mark the occasion.