Land expert slams ‘nonsense’ of Portobello High argument

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A RESPECTED land researcher has joined the Portobello High School row, branding claims made by a group opposed to the new school being built on a community park “nonsense”.

Andy Wightman, a well-known campaigner for land reform and an expert on the common good in Scotland, criticised claims made by Portobello Park Action Group (PPAG) about the implications of a recent court ruling.

The protest group is opposed to the new school being built on Portobello Park and had taken a legal challenge to the Court of Session to determine whether the city council had the right to build a replacement school on the park.

Judge Lady Dorrian upheld the council’s appropriation of part of the park last month, which prompted PPAG to lodge an 11th-hour appeal which could delay the new Portobello High School by up to two years.

PPAG has argued that Lady Dorrian’s judgement could lead to common good assets being sold across Scotland but Mr Wightman, author of Common Good Land in Scotland, and Who Owns Scotland, said: “It is nonsense to suggest that the ruling provides a green light for selling off common good assets.

“Sales will be governed by existing legal precedent and the Portobello case has no bearing on them.”

PPAG had also stated that the ruling meant “no-one will be able to challenge decisions to appropriate or alienate common good land in law”, but Mr Wightman said decisions would still be open to challenge, that the ruling had clarified the legal situation regarding the appropriation of common good land, and that “the Portobello decision has no bearing whatsoever on alienations”.

Alienations are the removal of land from the control of the council via sale or lease.

Mr Wightman also said that the appeal “would turn on grounds that are extremely narrow and would be unlikely to succeed”.

He has now signed a petition calling for PPAG to withdraw its appeal and allow work on the new school to begin.

The online petition has reached 1164 signatures in less than a fortnight, with a further 200 signatures collected in Portobello at the weekend.

An emergency meeting of Portobello Community Council has been requested by Portobello for a New School (PFANS), which is due to be held next week, to ask PPAG to drop its appeal and remove “misleading claims” from its website.

Chair of PFANS Sean Watters said: “PPAG’s statements about the recent court case are simply wrong. They need to stop making these claims.

“Most importantly, they need to recognise that their appeal has little hope of success. It will only cause more delay and expense, as well as anger within the local community.

“We desperately need a new high school.”

However, PPAG hit back at Mr Wightman’s claims.

In a statement issued by chair Ros Sutherland, it said: “The issues involved in the appropriation of common good land are complex and what Andy Wightman is saying is not consistent with advice from elsewhere. In particular, he fails to distinguish between common good land where there is a right to alienate, and common good land where there is no right to alienate.

“Both Andrew Ferguson, a very experienced local authority solicitor who specialises in this area, and Professor Robert Rennie, also a specialist in this area, have expressed views with which PPAG’s senior counsel, Roy Martin QC, agrees. These views do not support those expressed by Mr Wightman.”