Our constitution, July 2012: Rights to the Commons

Today, Andy Wightman reports, the Scottish Government announced

the establishment of a “Land Reform Review Group” that will oversee a “wide ranging review of land reform in Scotland”. If this happens it will be very worthwhile.

However, the remit and membership of this group are yet to be agreed with Scottish Ministers and it is unclear how wide the remit will be. If it is simply to undertake a technical review of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, it will be of very limited value when the real issues concern inflated land values, affordability of housing, succession law, tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, theft of common land, land registration laws, common good etc. etc. etc.

So Andy is crowdsourcing definitions of “land reform” and outlines of the remit of this Land Reform Review group in the comments at his blog – go, read, join in.

1. Enhanced constitutional rights (e) Rights to the Commons (eg water, access to countryside)

You may remember, before the council elections earlier this year, an Aberdonian pensioner, Renee Slater, registered a mannequin, whom she named Helena Torry, to stand in the Hazlehead, Ashley and Queens Cross ward. When it was discovered that Helena Torry was not entitled to be a council candidate, the notice of poll for that ward was republished, deleting Helena Torry, and Grampian Police charged Slater with an offence under the Representation of the People Act 1983.

What you may not remember, unless you live in Aberdeen, was that this wasn’t just a silly joke or a satiric commentary on the quality of council candidates these days.

Union Terrace Gardens are a public park opened in 1879: part of the park is planted with elms that are about 200 years old, about two and a half acres of sunken gardens, planted with elms that are nearly 200 years old. From early in the 21st century onwards, there had been plans to develop a centre for contemporary arts in Aberdeen, in partnership between Peacock Visual Arts and Aberdeen Council. The development had been designed by Brisac Gonzales, had been budgeted at £13.5 million, and would have included a restaurant and a gallery. Full planning permission and £9.5 million of public funding from various sources had been secured.

Then unexpectedly in November 2009 Aberdeen City Council rejected the project and later made the project’s director (Elly Rothnie) redundant. Instead, Aberdeen City Council favoured an entirely new proposal from billionaire Sir Ian Wood (chair of the oil services company Wood Group): to sell the Gardens to ACSEF, which would raise the level of the gardens, entirely changing their character and getting rid of the trees, creating a “City Square” development, described as a cross between an “Italian Piazza and Central Park”.

Sir Ian Wood had, it is reported, agreed to invest £50M in city centre development if the ACSEF scheme was accepted and the long-standing Peacock plan was rejected. A public consultation carried out by Peacock Visual Arts found 55% of residents opposed Sir Ian Wood’s City Square plan, with 44% supporting the visual arts centre proposal: a referendum found 52% in favour, and Aberdeen Council voted for the sale.

In May 2010 Renee Slater had donated £10,000 of her redundancy money (she had lost her job at the council in 2009) to Peacock Visual Arts, saying:

“Sir Ian Wood has a nice big park out his back door, but my park is Union Terrace Gardens. “There is a plan for Peacock that will keep the gardens, but there is no clear plan for what Acsef want to do. I’m just an ordinary pensioner and I will not get my money back, that’s how much I believe in it.”

Two years after giving nearly half her redundancy money to Peacock Visual Arts, and very much in the great tradition of electoral mockery, Renee Slater stood a tailor’s dummy in the May 2012 elections. You can see from the slideshow at Huffington Post that Slater made no effort to conceal Helena Torry’s identity.

Helena Torry

Because, as Friends of Union Square Gardens summarised the situation:

Aberdeen City Council and an un-elected quango, ACSEF, want to pass ownership of the gardens to a private company and replace them with a large concrete structure.

ACSEF alone has cost over half a million pounds of public money so far, despite claiming to be funded by both the public and private sector.

[Update, 16th August: Mark McDonald, SNP MSP for North East Scotland, claims in his column in STV Aberdeen that unless the ACSEF project wins and the Friends of Union Square Gardens lose, this would be the end of Aberdeen's hopes for a City of Culture bid. The project comes up for a vote at Aberdeen City Council on 22nd August: the Friends of Union Square Gardens present their continued opposition to the loss of their public green space.

Update, 22nd August: At the Aberdeen council meeting today Sir Ian Wood's plans were turned down.]

Andy Wightman is the author of The Poor Had No Lawyers – Who Owns Scotland (and how they stole it). In a review of this book in the Sunday Herald, October 2010, Harry Reid notes:

In one section Wightman analyses the loss of a particular part of Scotland’s common land, and concludes that we have a system of land registration that allows the rich and powerful to grab what they want, leaving ordinary folk in effect disenfranchised.”

And if disenfranchised, why not stand a tailor’s dummy as a protest candidate?

Moving back to Edinburgh, Shrubhill House on Leith Walk has stood derelict for years. The site is dangerous to trespassers: it is not secure and probably cannot be made secure. The site is huge, ugly, a waste of space, a grey hole in Leith Walk that does much to bring it down.

Shrubhill site, Leith Walk

(For a while there was a sign pasted on the All Enquiries board that identified the building as BIG SOCIETY HEADQUARTERS. Gone now, sadly.)

Because a private company owns this site (UNITE groupread about the ownership changes here), and they don’t intend to do anything to develop it until it seems profitable to them to do so, the building and site will stand empty, an eyesore, and a public health and safety hazard.

In effect, UNITE Group have banked the land: the people of Leith can do nothing. (Edinburgh Council have made a number of proposals to UNITE Group, I heard at the Vision for Leith Walk feedback meeting at McDonald Road Library last week: they’ve suggested demolition and a temporary green space, or wrapping the building to make it a work of art, but none of these projects interested UNITE Group at all. No profit in it for them to keep silly kids and homeless people from hurting themselves, or to take away the greyfield eyesore for the rest of us.)

What if Rights to the Commons in the Scottish Constitution allowed Edinburgh council to issue an order to sell to the UNITE Group? They are not using the land under that grey building: they just want to own it for its future possibilities of profit, after the council have invested enough of our money in Leith Walk to make the site valuable to the UNITE Group again. What if their not-using it triggered higher and higher land value taxes? What if a local consortium of Leith organisations and businesses could force a sale? What if a housing association could require a sale to build affordable housing? What if something other than blandly endorsing the rights of the landowner were on the agenda?

The effect of selfish landowners on urban areas is something I have more direct experience of, but via Andy Wightman I was linked to the Gentle Otter blog, which made clear to me the inhuman powers of rural landowners on tenant farmers.

It turns out there is no legal obligation on the landowner to make sure all the tenant farmers on their land have access to clean tap water. In November 2011, the Gentle Otter’s son developed “an alarmingly high temperature, upset stomach and vomiting which lasted two days”. He said, when asked if he had eaten or drunk anything he knew he shouldn’t:

“I drank the water from the tap although I am not supposed to”.

As the boy’s mother said:

He did so because he was thirsty and at the age of four, is independent enough to turn on a tap and pour himself a drink. He was thirsty and it only took less than a minute.
He had not asked me to open the bottle of water beside the sink because he wanted water *immediately* with all the impatience of a thirsty four year old.

The water from the tap in the kitchen comes via a cast iron pipe interred through the farm fields more than a century ago. Tests done on the tap water a month before the blogger’s son took ill showed:

unacceptably high readings of presumptive coliforms, presumptive E coli, presumptive Enterococci and very high levels of manganese.

The water was not tested for cryptosporidium as it costs approx. £250- 350 per test. This is why Environmental Health do not test for crypto.

Ditto Legionella, too costly to test for but someone must have as we received a ‘Boil water’ notice in July to safeguard against Legionella. The entire community received such a notice yet, to my knowledge, no further mention was given that the issue was resolved.

At work I advocated years ago that if we were to keep having a water cooler we should switch to AquAid, so that our luxurious preference for drinking clean-tasting chilled water from the cooler instead of the slightly fusty water out of the bathroom sink, would at least do some good in the wider world: a bit like buying a clean water jar from Oxfam Unwrapped.

One billion people in the world don’t have access to safe, clean water to drink. Some of them live in Scotland.

Environmental Health will sometimes offer a grant towards filtration systems so a lot of public money paying for private water which is not fit for purpose yet the bill for £164.27 has arrived today. Payable to the Estate.
We are charged £5 per annum rent for the water pipe we supplied to the cottage and which runs through our field. The pipe is a proper plastic water pipe.
We supplied a filter system to the cottage once we realised the extent of the water pollution after consulting independent water testing companies.
Sadly, it was too late for my father who lived there and who died of renal failure. Or the visitor who contracted cryptosporidium.

The estimate for a system robust enough to clean our supply has come in around £3,500 plus a recommendation that the filters are changed once a year. We find that they need changing once a month otherwise the filter becomes so clogged with solids that the flow stops.

Land reform.

Access to clean, potable water to every dwelling place in Scotland: if the landowner did not care enough to provide it, the landowner loses their “right” to the water supply. The idea that tenant farmers have to pay water rates to a private landowner who then simply does not trouble to ensure that the water is potable, is appalling.

This aspect of a Scottish Constitution would have to wait on independence and would undoubtedly be contested by some of the wealthiest people in Scotland (and some of the most influential – take a look at the owners of 12% of the land of Scotland, outlined by Andy Wightman).

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Filed under Corruption, Elections, Housing, Poverty, Scottish Constitution, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

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