Common Good Funds
Common Good Funds are accrued from a special type of property legally distinct from all other holdings, comprising property that previously belonged to one of Scotland’s burghs. It includes moveable property (for example, cash, securities, civic regalia) and heritable property (land and buildings). By far the largest component of Common Good Funds is heritable property and while this mainly consists of public buildings and public spaces, such as parks, it also includes in some cases farm land and other heritable property, such as salmon fishing.
Ownership of Common Good Funds underwent a number of changes as a result of local government reorganisations and one such change, the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947, transferred the duties and responsibilities of 196 burghs to the Town Councils. In a further change, the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, abolished Scotland’s Town Councils and legal title to Common Good Funds was transferred to the newly created District Councils and then, in 1996, to Scotland’s current local authorities under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1993. At 2012, the combined value of the Common Good Funds was considered to be over £300 million.
The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015
The act states that Local government Councillors have a fiduciary duty to the electorate that in holding title to Common Good land they have responsibilities similar to that of Trustees. The land is owned by the community and the town council or other local authority is regarded in law as simply the manager of the property, as representing the community. Local authorities are duty bound to “have regard to the interests of the inhabitants to which the common good related”. However, the duty gives Councils considerable discretion as to how they fulfil this duty and the standards of direct engagement with the local communities involved is very limited. At the date of this article local authorities throughout Scotland have failed to comply with the guidance.
Councils misuse of Common Good Funds
The value of Common Good funds has seen much change over the past 10 years and although the total value of all council Common Good assets has risen many councils funds are worth much less, in real terms. Highland Council, which has one of the country’s largest Common Good funds, has declined by £2.5m. Records show that it used its fund to subsidise extensive civic hospitality costs including private car hire for the Provost, flights for council staff, and purchases on the online music application, iTunes. Aberdeenshire Council’s common good fund was worth £9.5m in 2012-13, but in 2017-18 the fund was worth just £2.8m – a drop of 275 per cent after adjustment for inflation. At Inverclyde, the local Common Good funds were worth £2.1m in 2007-08. The most recent accounts reveal the fund is now worth just half of that, after adjustment for inflation. Other councils which have seen significant declines in the values of their Common Good funds include Stirling, South Lanarkshire, Falkirk, Midlothian and Dundee councils.
The Way Ahead
Common Good land should be recognised more clearly as one of Scotland’s oldest and most enduring forms of community land ownership, and something which plays an important part in the historic, cultural and economic heritage of Scotland’s towns and cities. Returning control of Common Good Funds to local communities would safeguard that heritage, while enabling Common Good lands to play a more progressive role in the public interest in urban areas and as part of that, become a valuable part of revitalising community land ownership in urban Scotland. Associated duties would include the provision of audited accounts, involvement in management decisions and direct benefit from any net income generated by the Common Good land within the area. The modernised statutory framework would also clarify the status of Common Good land as a distinct form of land tenure opening up the scope for it to become used by local communities and protected from disposal by party politically minded District Councillors.