Continuing the record of the questions asked of Tom Heggie at the Nairn West and Suburban Zoom meeting last Monday night. Brian Stewart asked the second question:
“Thank you chair and it does connect very much with the discussion or the dialogue that has just happened because I think, of the point about the whole debate right now, as Sheena said, is why now? I welcome the fact that Councillor Heggie has said there is no firm proposal on the table, that there is no developer about to start, that there is nothing immediately in prospect. That actually reinforces the question of why in that case proceed now. As he has rightly said the question of the possible sale of Sandown has been ebbing and flowing for nearly a decade. Moving it forward at this point when we are all facing these kind of dire difficulties in virtual meetings is almost the most difficult time to get a collective collaborative consensus agreed. We could hit something very difficult to manage.
My other point is this, I note what Councllor Heggie says about putting submissions into the consultation and the view expressed this evening can be conveyed to officials. There is a very important point here, the responsibility does not rest with officials, this is a matter where Common Good Trustees are fully bound, as trustees, to take decisions which are in the public interest of the borough they serve. This leads into my second question which is this one: We know this Sandown saga has been running for years. Years ago Highland Council officials provided formal written evidence about the idea of selling off Sandown then – this is 2013. They said, [and I quote]
“....Current market conditions would not attract a fair value for the land, and sale proceeds, if a sale was achieved, would be significantly lower than previously anticipated.....A sale at significantly below previous estimates of market value would not be acting in the interests of the Common Good Fund, and the Council could be deemed to be breaching its legal and feduciary responsibilities.”
The point about that is that timing matters. Market conditions matter. There is now no argument that our local and economy is on its knees. There is no argument that land prices are depressed. It therefore follows that this is not the appropriate time to be trying to sell the land. So I welcome Cllr Heggie's comment that there is no real prospect. Then it does raise the fundamental question, in that case why are you asking the question?
|The Sandown Common Good Land|
Ally MadDonald then spoke: “I noticed though that in the paper there were quotes from yourself and Cllr Saggers about that, it would realise x amount of money, there would be a certain amount of money that would then go into the Common Good Fund and all that sort of stuff, but again, it doesn't appear to me that not only have you not taken into account the low value of the land currently but also the fact that the stock market has collapsed or crashed – it's not doing very,very well so any kind of investments of the Common Good Fund are not going to be useful. So that is again another reason for not proceeding with this at this time.”
Tom Heggie intervened: “We are not proceeding with a sale, that is the point, there is no imperative for a sale. What we are doing is clearing the groundworks so, if and when, if and when, it is appropriate then a sale can go ahead reasonably effectively. At the moment it would take, well this process would probably take at least 12 months I would imagine before we are at a point before there is any real clarification of all the issues once we have gone through the consultation, once we have gone to court, all the rest of it. So at the moment there is no immediate sale being thought about.”
Ally returned to the discussion: “So can I ask why that wasn't made clearer in the newspaper article?”
Tom responded: “Well in the article people ask questions, we've had all kinds of things said in newspaper articles in the last few months, some of which have not been based on facts and some of which have been interpreted and so on. The imperative is not for a sale at the moment, all we are doing is clarifying if a sale would be possible and there are all kinds of factors in the value of land, particularly for development at the moment. There are various things that are being thought about through Her Majesty's Scottish Government as it is, which would affect the price of development land going forward. So it would be then for a judgement – you are referring to Cllr Saggers, he's more than aware, in fact he is more than aware of all these investment things than I am and guides us very well and asks the correct questions on our behalf. So at the moment we are simply asking for a first step along the road, that is all that we are asking for.”
Ally thanked Tom.
Sheena Baker then spoke: “Well now I'm really confused. Really, really confused because the document that I have been given is headed up “proposal to sell for development Common Good Property”, proposal to sell the Common Good property and then it moves on, further on to say, well lots of things but, all the things I highlighted. It would provide significant funds for fresh investment in the town, for potential development of existing Common Good assets. Well I heard what you said and I also heard what you said about Peter Saggers. All I can say is I hope nothing goes wrong because pour old Peter is going to have this hanging round his head forever and a day.”
Tom Heggie was very quick to respond: “Not at all, not at all, the proposal to sell doesn't mean we are selling tomorrow. It could mean we could be selling in five years time...”
Sheena intervened: “We know that, we know that Tom. We do realise that it is not tommorrow but the principle is that you want agreement to sell and it could be that as soon as that came through you could do it or you could leave it a year or two years. It's a lot more than....”
She was cut out by Tom who said: “There are still significant, there are significant steps to be taken and there has to be judgements made.”
Sheena responded: “Well how about the judgement and I just throw this in because there are people that do believe in this. We have had this land for 420 years and your forefathers (not my forefathers because I am Welsh) but forefathers from Scotland in this area all thought it quite wise to hold onto it as an asset, as the family silver and then suddenly Highland Council is very short of cash and it seems to be more important for us to consider getting rid of it. Now, all I can say is we are already through Covid and all other things not leaving an awful lot to the children who are coming up and are going to be coming up in the future and we are also now talking about selling off the family silver. I hope...I have not seen or heard anything said to me or in the papers that have been distributed that have persuaded me that this is a good idea.”
Tom continued: “Well, I repeat what I have said, it is up to people to make their views known in an appropriate manner.”
Brian Stewart drew attention to the Chair that he wished to contribute further. He said: “I want to just to pick up the point that Cllr Heggie made here. I quite understand the point that he, he the council, are seeking permission to sell. What I find disturbing or worrying is that, in effect, what he is saying is that we want carte blanche, we want a blank cheque. Part of the point of the Community Empowerment Act is that the Community needs to be consulted on the proposal for change of use or disposal and that requires that there be clarity over exactly what for and why. And the difficulty at the moment that I have is that if the request is “will the community give consent to an unspecified proposal for unspecified development at an unspecified time, then I think that that is not acceptable. That reinforces our key argument which is that this debate should not happen until we are in a position where we can have free, open and comprehensive discussions on exactly what, how and why. At the moment, there is in effect, Hobson's choice on the table: “Can we sell the land for development? - fullstop. There is no business case set out, there are no alternatives explained or evaluated. There are no options set out. This request and this consultation is for, crudely, a blank cheque and like Sheena I feel that we as a community have a responsibility to our fellow residents and to future residents of this town to not to acquiesce to a pig in a poke. Thank you chair.”
The meeting then heard the third question to Cllr Heggie. (more on that later this weekend if time permits).