With the SNP’s land reform committee gathering evidence in the highlands recently, it is easy to think of land reform as just a rural issue; absentee landlords and their hunting estates, crofters pushed off their land; these are what immediately come to mind when you think about land reform. But it has ramifications for the millions that live in Scotland’s urban centres. A prime example of this is the case of Edinburgh’s Princes Mall.
Princes Mall is located on Edinburgh’s main shopping area, Princes Street. It is home to a number of fashionable clothes shops, aimed at a young clientele. Its customers, generally, are too young to remember that Princes Mall stands on the site of the old Waverly Market. This market was built on land owned by Edinburgh’s common good fund.
A common good fund exists to provide for a community’s needs. Whilst this includes areas designed to be used by the public, such as The Meadows, it also includes assets that are leased out, in order to provide revenue back to the fund. This was what motivated Edinburgh’s common good fund to lease out the Waverly Market and develop the Princes Mall.
This seems like an excellent idea. After all, the land itself is on Princes Street, making it one of the most valuable pieces of land, not only in Edinburgh, but also in Scotland. It should be one of the most lucrative money spinners for a fund designed to look after Edinburgh’s common people. It isn’t. In its lifetime, it hasn’t so much as earned a third of a pound. It pays, or rather, is supposed to pay a rent of one penny a year.
The lease itself was originally signed for a period of 125 years, in 1982. In 1989, the lease was extended to 206 years. Once the lease is up, in 2188, Princes Mall will have provided Edinburgh’s common good fund with just over £2. This is a far cry from what was expected. Edinburgh Council, which is in charge of the Common Good Fund, produced a financial report in 1981 assessing that 50% of the Princes Mall’s value was derived from the value of the land. Since the land is owned by the Common Good Fund, it is entitled to half the rent, more than £1 million at this point.
So then the question is, why has this happened? It is a difficult question, one made harder by the number different leasing and rental agreements the Princes Mall has gone through over the years, along with the fact that the council frequently denies even owning the land, as if such a valuable asset could just be discarded. The best I can do is find allegations of dodgy deals and favourable relationships between politicians and business people, along with implications that the Princes Mall may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Sadly, a lot of what I have found comes from when the story broke, more than seven years ago, in 2006. It seems that very little has been done since then. But it shows up just how important it is that land reform is to Scotland’s future economic success.