Common Good and the reform of local government: Edinburgh 1820-56
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/12/2100
Noble, Malcolm Joseph
The Common Good was the ancient patrimony of a Scottish burgh, and the central resource of urban government before local rates. By the early nineteenth century this revenue was under considerable strain due to rapid population growth and urban expansion. As pressure on urban institutions and resources increased, so did debts secured against the revenue stream from Common Good assets, anxieties about which triggered the campaign for burgh reform. In 1833, as the Burgh Reform Act changed the electoral basis of burgh government, Edinburgh was declared bankrupt due to levels of borrowing incurred to build and extend the New Town and to expand Leith harbour. This thesis uses Common Good accounts as its quantitative basis. The disbursements of extant accounts for the period 1820-56 were recorded and assigned analytical categories in order to compare expenditure of different types over time. Such detailed analysis constitutes a major contribution to the existing historiography of Scottish cities and local government, providing insight into changing spending and priorities, and the effects on the unravelling of the old political order. It also facilitates discussion of the changing nature of corruption and probity in public life during a period when expectations of those holding office changed substantially. In the 1820s burgh reform seemed likely, yet in responding to the challenges of urban government, the unreformed Council was innovative. Two case studies illustrate the contingency function of the Common Good. Whilst George IV’s visit is well-known, that the Council used Common Good money to provide civic hospitality and promotion is not. The Great Fires of Edinburgh of 1824 were very damaging, especially around Parliament Square, and the Council offered a sophisticated response using the resources of the Common Good which included emergency aid to those in need, and the establishment of the first municipal fire brigade. In 1833 Edinburgh was declared bankrupt, and the City’s assets were transferred to trustees appointed for the Creditors. Without control of its finances during protracted negotiations, the new, elected Council suffered from a ‘legitimacy deficit.’ The Settlement Act 1838 served to ‘translate’ the Burgh Reform Act, 1833 to Edinburgh’s needs, as it restructured municipal debt and gave Leith a portion of Edinburgh’s Common Good, which meant Leith could make use of its police burgh status gained in 1833. This case shows the higher importance of local legislation to a major city rather than general acts. With the problems of the former political system resolved, Edinburgh’s 1856 Extension Act expanded municipal boundaries and transferred police powers to the Council, so moving towards a unitary authority. Neither burgh reform nor the restructuring of local government can be understood without first analysing how the Common Good was used, and this thesis takes important strides in that direction.