Historic landmark ‘lost’ by council blunder

Parliament Hall. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Parliament Hall. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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A MAJOR legal blunder by ­Edinburgh council has seen the oldest parliamentary building in Britain, Parliament House, lost to the city.

Council officials failed to alert the Scottish Government that the city owned the historic building near St Giles’ Cathedral. As a result it was taken into ownership by the government and then in part “gifted” to the Faculty of Advocates.

An investigation by land reform campaigner Andy Wightman has discovered that in 2006 the Scottish Government asked the council to confirm the ownership of Parliament House – which includes Parliament Hall and the Laigh Hall which lies beneath – before a £58 million refurbishment project of the court building complex by Scottish Court Services took place.

For years Parliament House – built in 1640 with money raised through subscription from Edinburgh residents – had been used as a meeting place by lawyers. But it was always part of the city’s Common Good Fund – property and land, such as Princes Street Gardens, which is administered by the council “in the best interests of the people of Edinburgh”.

Despite inquiries by government lawyers the local authority declared it did not know who owned the building and so the Scottish Government took ownership, then allowed the Faculty of Advocates to register the title deeds to the interior of the building in its name.

Today Mr Wightman said: “This is a shocking display of incompetence by the council and the fiasco underlines the need for a proper register of common good properties and for an open and freely available land register so that the citizen can spot land transfers like this.

“This is one of Edinburgh’s, indeed Scotland’s, most historic buildings. The construction was financed by the Common Good Fund and from voluntary subscriptions from the citizens of Edinburgh. It belongs to us, the citizens of Edinburgh.”

Mr Wightman, who has been investigating the building’s status since 2013, said he had originally received a call from “a source in the Scottish Courts Service who raised questions about who owned Parliament House.

“My reply was unequivocal, that it was owned by the City of Edinburgh Council. I knew this because in 2006 I had submitted a report to the council suggesting that the property formed part of the common good. In its response the council admitted that it belonged to the city.”

He added: “Someone in the council appears to have been contacted by the Scottish Government in 2006 to check that the city had no interest in the property. Astonishingly, the answer was that it hadn’t. Parliament House is now in the ownership of Scottish ministers and the Faculty of Advocates. The council should now urgently pursue these two ­parties. This is our land. We want it back.”

Parliament House – sometimes referred to as Parliament Hall – was completed in 1639 to the design of James Murray, architect to King James VI and Charles I. It was built to ensure a permanent home of the Scottish Parliament but after the 1707 Act of Union it became a meeting place for city lawyers, given its proximity to the courts.

The title deeds now state that the interior of the building is owned by the Faculty of Advocates while the exterior comes under the government’s ownership as part of the Scottish Courts Service.

In response to questions about the situation of Parliament House, a council spokesman said: “We are aware of this issue and have raised it with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Court Service.”

Councillor Lindsay Paterson, Tory culture spokeswoman, said: “If the council had decided it no longer wanted to own this building then it should have gone through various channels, but just letting it slip through because of some kind of technical or administrative error is just not acceptable. It belongs to the people of Edinburgh.”

gina.davidson@edinburghnews.com