Published: 22/05/2011 23:59 - Updated: 22/05/2011 23:58

Inverness Common Good Fund is envy of the Highlands

Written bySounding Off by Bill McAllister

The city centre streetscape paid for by the Common Good Fund.
The city centre streetscape paid for by the Common Good Fund.

INVERNESS Common Good Fund is a huge success story these days and is being eyed with envy by elected members in other parts of the Highlands who feel, totally wrongly, that they are thus receiving a raw deal.

Exactly 420 years ago it was a happy story as Inverness burgh owned "the lands of Drakes and forest of the same; Markhinch, with common pasturage called the Burgh haugh, Woodpark, Burnhills, Claypots, Milnefield, the Carse, Corn Lands, the Common Muir, the water of Ness both sides of Clachnahagyag to the sea with fishings."

But in his book "A History of the Working Classes of Scotland" published in 1920, Tom Johnston, later the first Labour secretary of state for Scotland and founder of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, which he superbly modelled on Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority, is coruscating on the looting of local common land.

On Inverness, Johnston wrote: "In 1617 we find the then Lord Lovat driving the townsmen of Inverness off their peat mosses and with a

pretty taste in invective, describing the magistrates as 'lownes, lowsie knaves, villanes and beboshed doggis.'"

I'm not sure about "beboshed" though I think "doggis" might refer to dogs, but clearly the noble Lord had a nice personality though not for a human being.

Johnston continued: "Many of the (Inverness) lands were privately acquired by the magistrates; in 1783 and 1785 the provost secured for himself some portion of the Town common and in 1789 one of the councillors bought land which, with but slight improvement, returned him yearly almost the capital sum he had expanded at purchase from the council".

Such blatant theft in high places has seen much of Scotland's common land, so carefully compiled, lost to a nasty mix of corruption, nepotism and criminality. A cynic might say no change there, then. As well as falling victims to greed, common land has also been lost, quite simply, by poor book-keeping and records in the old burghs, plus memories being lost as to which was common good property and which was council owned. There is a good case for the next Scottish Government to compile a public register of common good assets.

When the Royal Burghs were abolished in 1975 under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, the new district and regional councils often had neither the time nor information needed to fully assess its common good inheritance and some slipped through the net.

But Inverness Burgh handed over a commanding portfolio of lands and monies. Then, in 1996, when the district and regional councils were scrapped in favour of all-purpose authorities, there was a tendency to splash the cash and spend common good money rather than let it be inherited by the new councils.

That was certainly the case in some parts of the Highlands, where some district councils, driven by pique and short-sightedness, were determined to let as little cash as possible fall into the hands of Inverness, as they viewed the incoming Highland Council.

There has never been such a colourful profusion of flower pots hanging from lamp posts as there was in those dying days when it was a case of emptying the purse on whatever possible.

Inverness, on the other hand, did not join this excess of largesse which lacked as much vision as the guy who was so cross-eyed he went south east to join the North West Mounted Police.

Inverness's sensible stance was in no small part due to Alan Imlach, who died last year. He was former finance director of Inverness District Council and briefly its last chief executive before amalgamation.

Alan was a decent man but he wouldn't spend tuppence of council cash when a penny would do. He reminded me of the guy who was so stingy he wouldn't buy a round of drinks at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When Alan was in charge of council expenditure, the wine flowed like glue. And he wasn't ?for emptying the fund coffers willy-nilly.

For 19 years until it shuffled off its mortal coil, I was a member of Inverness District Council and it made many mistakes. But handing over the Common Good Fund intact was not one of them. Neither was handing over cash for an access road to the new Caley Thistle Stadium.

That was controversial at the time but the new road, in turn, opened up Longman land owned by the fund, increasing its value by millions of pounds. That must have been one of the best value for money investments the council ever made.

Today the fund stands at the thick end of 30 million. Some 20 million is in land and property, where an annual rental swells the pot. The rest is invested in stocks and shares.

Some 1.8 million is allocated every year from the Fund to good causes in the Inverness area without detracting from the total pot. Cash goes to funding events and festivals and assisting projects deemed to be "in the common good" such as the city centre Streetscape project, thus leveraging government partnership funding.

Fund money also pays for all civic receptions to honour visitors and local organisations so that not one penny of council taxpayers money is expended for this purpose.

Other parts of the Highlands glare balefully at Inverness's ability to hold civic receptions and the like. But it was decisions in their own areas to run down, or cease, their local funds which has caused the disparity.

The definition of Common Good Fund use was tighter than the elastic on Bernard Manning's underpants. Basically, nothing could be spent on what the council should normally provide. In my day we got into bother when we built The Haugh senior citizens housing and used fund cash to instal safety handrails. The council got its knuckles rapped because although this benefited many senior citizens, it did not benefit them all.

Tain still has a Common Good Fund, its most lucrative asset being the renting out of its mussel beds, but its balance of some 800,000 is nothing like the scale of ours.

Nairn has one but it is around 3 million in debt and the lucrative sale of 86 acres of Common Good land at Sandown, on the A96 on the Inverness side, appears to have fallen through. The land's value, which was 14 million four years ago, has nosedived.

Inverness stands proud with its Common Good Fund, which is often the last brick in the wall to make multi-partner projects become reality. It must continue to ward off jealous advances from within Highland Council, or any approaches by latter day versions of the odious 17th century Lord Lovat.

Manglers united

I LIKE the quote that German supermarkets are taking over the Scottish retail scene. Lidl by Lidl.

And TV footy critic Charlie Nicholas, arch mangler of sentences, when he said last week: "You always never know when you'll be beaten."

And ex-Newcastle striker Micky Quinn on the benefits of being in a horse racing syndicate: "There are loads of people who have horses that they socialise with."

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