Madras College land deal up against new obstacle

Madras College South Street viewed through Blackfriars Chapel.
Madras College South Street viewed through Blackfriars Chapel.
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NEW doubts have been cast over the multi-million pound deal to build a single-site Madras College - because of a centuries-old Charter which gifted the present town centre site to the people of St Andrews.

St Andrews University and Fife Council have been locked in talks for months over a land exchange contract which would see the former acquire the South Street site in a straight swop for land at Langlands where the local authority wants to build the £40 million school.

The negotiations have stalled because of an inability to close the gap between the valuation placed on the Madras building, together with the rest of the site, and the land offered in exchange by the university.

However, the emergence of the near 450-year-old Charter signed by Mary Queen of Scots only a matter of hours before her abdication in 1567, in favour of her infant son King James VI, has cast doubt on whether the council actually owns the prime site.

The Charter - a copy of which has been seen by the Citizen - is dated April 17, 1567, and gifts the church lands in St Andrews, specifically those of the Greyfriars and Blackfriars orders, to the Provost, baillies, councillors and community of St Andrews, in perpetuity.

While frustration continues to mount over the failure to resolve the land deal, this latest issue is likely to muddy the waters even further and result in more delays to the signing of the deal.

Fife Council has stated that it has the title deeds, but the university has requested that officials also provide expert legal opinion that it is entitled to sell the land - a view also held by St Andrews Preservation Trust.

The university has admitted it has been sufficiently concerned by local rumours of the existence of the Charter that it has asked the council for reassurances and proof of title to the South Street site.

A spokesman said: ”We have been aware of this speculation for some time and wrote to Fife Council several weeks ago to ask them for reassurance and an expert legal opinion that would confirm that it is legally entitled to sell or dispose of the land.

“We have just this week received bundles of copies of historical legal papers, but the council has not provided expert legal opinion which would confirm its right to dispose of the land, although we have asked for this now on two occasions.

“A legal opinion which establishes the council’s entitlements in this matter and whether or not this is common good land is, we believe, vital. The university and the council clearly have an interest in a definitive answer to this question, as do many people in St Andrews.

“We hope this matter can be addressed urgently to prevent any further delays to the critically-important project to provide a new secondary school for this community.”

St Andrews Preservation Trust has also highlighted the discovery of the Charter.

David Middleton, planning policy convener, told the Citizen: ”A new issue emerging is whether the council can legitimately dispose of Madras College without due legal process and a community consultation as it may well be common good land.

“It is understood that the school was gifted to the burgh by its founder, but the common good designation may go back even further to the Charter of Mary Stuart, which bestowed former church lands to the community of St Andrews on the day of her abdication in 1567.”

The trust has pointed out that it is clear from the Geddy Map of 1580 that Madras occupies the former land of the Blackfriars Dominican Order.

It would be possible for Fife Council to hold title deeds and for the Madras College land still to be common good and the trust has asked for the narrative of when and how the land ceased to be common good - something that could only happen if there was an application to the court.

The alternative scenarios are that either Fife Council takes the position that the Charter is invalid, or that they hold a record of the court proceedings - whether in their time, or that of a predecessor authority - at which the common good status of the land was extinguished.

Mr Middleton added: ”The trust strongly supports the establishment of a new school to improve the learning environment for the secondary-age pupils of St Andrews. Its interest in the common good status of Madras College stems from its objectives to preserve and enhance the historic assets and amenities of the town.

“So far we have not received verification that the South Street site ceased to form part of the St Andrews Common Good Land. This requires a formal legal process.

“It is considered that the common good status of the Madras ground should be established early on in any proposal to dispose of the school, rather than allowed to create possible complications in the future.”

Since its formation in 1937, the object of the trust has been to secure the preservation of the amenities and historic character of St Andrews and its neighbourhood.

Alan Paul, senior manager of property services with the local authority, said: ”There is no question that the land at South Street belongs to Fife Council and title deeds have been produced.”