City chiefs play down hopes of keeping hold of £50m site

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HOPES of blocking the transfer of a council-owned £50 million city-centre site to Rangers tycoon Sir David Murray for just £;2.60 appear to have been reduced after council chiefs said they did not believe the land was part of Edinburgh's "common good".

The Evening News revealed last month how new legislation on long-term leases could mean the area formerly known as Waverley Market - now Princes Mall shopping centre - is automatically handed over to Sir David's Premier Property Group for a nominal sum.

Under the legislation, anyone with a lease of more than 175 years which still has 100 years to go will have the land transferred to their ownership, subject only to a payment based on the current rent.

Waverley Market was originally leased to developers in 1982 on a 206-year lease. PPG bought out the lease for 37m in 2004 and only pays the council 1p a year in rent.

One way of preventing the loss of publicly-owned sites could be if MSPs currently considering the new law agreed to a proposed exemption for "common good" land - assets, often donated to the people or formerly owned by royal burghs, which are held by councils on behalf of the public.

The council has backed such an exemption but insisted Waverley Market is not common good land, despite claims by respected land researcher Andy Wightman that it is.

Green councillor Alison Johnstone has asked to see the documents on which the council's assertion is based.

She said she hoped, even if the site did not qualify as common good, MSPs would "look at this as sensibly as possible".

She said: "Whether or not it's common good land, it belongs to the city and it cannot be allowed just to disappear into someone else's list of assets.

"If this was reversed and it was a private company about to lose a prime piece of land to the council, I'm sure they would be doing everything they possibly could to hang on to it."

It is still possible Waverley Market could be saved under another proposed change to the legislation, which the council supports, exempting land where a large up-front payment was made, even if the continuing rental is only nominal.

Under the original 1982 deal, the leaseholder paid 14.25m for development of the site in return for the 1p annual rent.

In its submission to the Scottish Parliament's justice committee, the council said the Waverley Market site ceased to be part of Edinburgh's common good in 1938 when the city's fruit and vegetable market was switched to Cranston Street and East Market Street. "This transfer included the transfer of the common good status," it added.

However, Mr Wightman, who was giving evidence to the committee today, said common good status could not be removed in that way except by court order or sale of the land. He also pointed out numerous council documents over the years referring to Waverley Market as part of the common good.