Judicial Review of the City of Edinburgh Council’s decision to appropriate part of Portobello Park to build a new Portobello High School.

In the Outer House Lady Dorrian had dismissed a petition for Judicial Review by the Portobello Park Action Group Association. The Action Group argued that it was unlawful for the Council to appropriate the park land which is common good land. Lady Dorrian dismissed the petition on the basis it was barred by mora, taciturnity and acquiescence (i.e. the Action Group had delayed their action, failed to speak out and impliedly accepted the position.) As the petition had been barred, Lady Dorrian did not have to decide on the lawfulness of the Council’s decision, however, she indicated that, if she had been required to do so, she would have found in favour of the Council. Her reasoning was that, whilst the Council’s power to alienate common good land is limited, its power to appropriate such land is unfettered, meaning that its Children and Families Department  could appropriate the park land from its Services for the Community department.

The Inner House has now allowed an appeal of the Outer House decision.

Mora, taciturnity and acquiescence

Lady Dorrian had found that (although it was unclear exactly when the decision to appropriate the park had been reached) “at the very latest” the decision had been made in March 2010. As the Action Group did not bring the case until July 2011 there had been considerable delay which was indicative of taciturnity and acquiescence. On the other hand, the Inner House held that the Action Group was, at the very least, entitled to wait until planning permission had been granted (which occurred in February 2011) before resorting to litigation. It was observed that, if planning permission had been refused, the dispute would have been at best premature and at worst academic and pointless. The Inner House also considered the Action Group’s statements and conduct (including letters emails and deputations) over the years indicated neither taciturnity nor acquiescence.

Appropriation and alienation

After considering the Council’s powers of appropriation and disposal of land contained in sections 73 to 75 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, the Inner House found that it could not support Lady Dorrian’s reasoning. A local authority’s right to appropriate inalienable common good land is not unfettered. On the contrary, for so long as inalienable common good land remains within the ownership of a local authority, Parliament must be taken to have intended all pre-existing fiduciary obligations, and corresponding community rights, to remain extant and enforceable.

“It would indeed be an extraordinary situation if, by the mere expedient of appropriating inalienable common good land to some function other than parks and recreation, a local authority could at a stroke free itself from all common law restraints and, having done so, perhaps also facilitate onward disposal without any need to obtain the sanction of the court”.

The full judgement is available from Scottish Courts here.