Fund that’s for good of our city
Published on 12 February 2013
COUNCILLORS used to be jailed for squandering Glasgow’s Common Good Fund.
One provost, John Barnes, spent 10 weeks in Edinburgh’s Tolbooth for “maladministering” the historic kitty – designed, as its name suggest, to support citizens and not politicians.
That was back in 1690. Since then generations of provosts, baillies and councillors have escaped such punishment, despite losing far more cash than Mr Barnes could even have dreamed of.
And that’s because Glasgow’s Common Good Fund – campaigners argue –has been plundered over the last century.
In 1911, the Edwardian rulers of Glasgow boasted a Common Good Fund that generated £1.1million a year in interest, bankrolling the city’s then extensive tramways and funding schools, churches and even policing.
The fund – made up of landholdings and buildings acquired over centuries by the burghs that made up the modern city – was specifically for the “commoune gud” under a Scots law of 1491.
It was not, proudly declared one of its more careful custodians, Councillor Walter Nelson, in 1912, to subsidise ratepayers or normal council budgets.
Allowing for inflation, common good income back in 1911 was around £100m in today’s money – enough to, say, pay for a new Yorkhill Children’s Hospital every single year.
So how much did the fund generate in 2012?
About £1m, almost all of which was spent on civic receptions and running a subsidised dining room for city councillors.
Campaigner Bill Fraser said: “Over the years the Common Good Fund has been robbed by the council of both its assets and its income.
“As a result the original role of the fund, to help citizens and neighbourhoods, has been lost. It is time the fund was put back together again.”
Yesterday we revealed that Glasgow is to scrap its councillors’ dining room – the last institution of its kind in Scotland – and the £122,000 annual subsidy from the Common Good Fund that keeps it afloat.
Less controversially the city still spends some £750,000 a year from the fund to provide civic receptions – drinks parties for visiting dignitaries and community groups.
But campaigners like Mr Fraser, journalist Andy Wightman and Green councillor Nina Baker believe the fund could – and should – be put back to work for the people of Glasgow.
They believe whole swathes of Glasgow have been quietly transferred from the books of the fund to the general accounts of the city.
And they also question why a fund specifically set up for common good is now exclusively used for civic purposes.
Mr Wightman dug out the balance of the fund for 1948.
It was £952,728 – more than £29m in today’s money.
The current value of the fund, reported last month, is £15.6m.
That is an improvement: the Common Good Fund was worth as little as £13.4m in March 2009.
But it still means half the value of the ‘people’s kitty’ has been lost since the war.
Some of the assets will simply have been muddled with those of the council itself, insiders reckon.
Watchdog Audit Scotland has previously called on Scottish local authorities to check what should be in their common good funds. Glasgow has refused, citing expense.
A spokesman said: “Current council policy is to preserve the value of the Common Good Fund – and our investment managers aim to make a positive annual return after all expenses.
“The council also maintains a register of common good assets. New items are added to the register as they are identified.”
The city’s fund is itself an amalgamation of lots of local burgh funds – from places such as Govan and Partick.
Mr Wightman said: “Wouldn’t it be great if local communities could decide what to do with their own common good funds?”
In fact, money historically would have been used for many of the things ordinary council budgets cover now, such as schooling and parks.
Ms Baker, who has been campaigning on the issue from inside the council, said: “As the principle criterion is that the income is spent for the benefit of the residents in the relevant area, you could theoretically spend it on just about everything that the council’s general fund is spent on.
“It is my view that this is why we have arrived at where we are now – in Glasgow it was seen as essentially the same as the general fund and assets seem to have been freely transferred between the two and then lost or sold.”
Mr Wightman and Mr Fraser, however, would like to see a law in the Scottish Parliament that forces councils to distinguish between common good and ordinary budgets.
The Common Good Fund –legal historians argue over this – may still be subject to the 1491 Act that created them.
And that means councillors still have a duty to maintain them, or end up in the Tolbooth.
COUNCILLORS have promised to stop using the Common Good Fund to subsidise their dinners, as the Evening Times exclusively revealed.
DAVID LEASK looked at how the fund started and what will now become of it