When a stone wall in Wellington Brae started to crumble, Aberdeen City Council decided to arrange the repair work.
Rather than identifying the property owner and troubling them with a repairs notice, the cash-strapped city mysteriously decided to look to its own maintenance budget, and decided somehow that there were no funds.
Did those involved approach anyone connected with Finance to ask for emergency funding? Apparently not. Did they decide to determine who owned the land at that point and issue a repairs notice? Suzanne Kelly presents part one of a two part investigation.
As many Aberdeen homeowners can attest (including the writer), even a few slates falling off a roof or a damaged front garden wall can result in a warning letter from the city that repairs must be done.
The wall in question sat on privately-owned land and the stone wall collapse spilled over onto Wellington Brae cycle path: all the more reason why, some might think, a repairs notice should have been swiftly sent to the owners, who should have been identifiable from the Land Registry records.
This is the origin of ‘Wallgate’, a tale of council procedures being ignored, a simple matter of land ownership being hopelessly (unnecessarily) confused, leaked emails and more.
ACC officers first tried to identify and contact the property owners AFTER the money was sought from SUSTRANS the cycling/walking charity, on 3 February 2016.
Why didn’t ACC do what they have often done – identify the owners and hit them with a repairs notice?
The email author asserted that the cause of the wall crumbling was Storm Gertrude; others claim that the wall was in bad repair before then (Aberdeen Voice will try to find out whether any repair notices were served on the property, or whether any complaints had been made prior to the storm).
As it transpired, then Finance Chief Councillor William Young apparently owned the wall – or maybe his dad – or maybe his wife – or maybe someone else.
For reasons hard to fathom, ‘Wall I Am’ was uncertain who owned the wall despite telling the press on 3 May 2017 he had sold property at Wellington Brae to his father in 1992, and despite apparently giving verbal permission for the repairs.
All will become clear – or not – shortly.
Whose Wall is It Anyway? – A time line.
Mr Young is adamant that he acted properly throughout. Would a lawyer and Councillor acting as Finance Chief/convener be expected to know whether or not he owns a property – or to act swiftly to find out whether he did if asked for permission to do with it?
If you sold your father land, would it slip your mind?
Here is a partial timeline showing dates of statements, sources, and who is apparently being treated as the landowner.
Much of this information has been published before, such as the leaked emails, but assembling this timeline illustrates how problematic all the conflicting ownership claims are, and the issues arising.
|Date||Quote||Who is said |
to be the landowner?
|03/02/2016||‘WE have a problem’||EMAIL WORDED AS IF ABERDEEN CITY COUNCIL WERE RESPONSIBLE||Someone at ACC writes to SUSTRANS to ask for £250,000, wording the email as if the responsibility for repair had already been determined to be Aberdeen’s. The city’s later report does not appear to address this misrepresentation – a serious failing one might think.||FOI-released email from ACC to SUSTRANS.|
|28/10/2016||“Following your conversation with our XX yesterday (27th October) re your verbal instruction to proceed with the works at Wellington Brae.”||WILLIAM YOUNG ||Why did Willie give verbal instructions to proceed if he was as he said in 2017 unsure who owned it? Would a lawyer remotely risk acting like this? If he knew he was the landowner and was free to give these instructions, then he ‘misspoke’ in 2017 when he said officers ‘mistakenly believed’ he was the landowner.||28/10/2016 Leaked Email 1.|
|00/00/00||“A couple of months ago XX and myself [came] to see you about Wellington Brae. Please find attached. These show the extent of the works to be undertaken. My understanding from our meeting was that you would forward the plans to your solicitor to confirm whether you owned the area?”||UNSURE||Willie was to have checked with his solicitor and knew about the scheme ‘months ago’. If he acted promptly – and who wouldn’t to find out if they owned land or not? – then why is there still uncertainty to ownership implied in this email?||Leaked Email 2.|
|00/00/00||“…we are looking for written confirmation that the works can proceed – can you reply with this confirmation?||WILLIAM YOUNG||How is the public supposed to know for certain which hat Young is wearing here, not least as he is taking meetings about privately-held land in his office by now according to the ACC report – land he is at points denying ownership of or expressing uncertainty whether he owns it?||Leaked email 3. (To Cllr Young)|
|00/00/00||“… you would continue to be the legal landowner…”||WILLIAM YOUNG||AV has to ask why aren’t all the involved parties asking for complete cessation of negotiations until the question of ownership is 100% settled? If Mrs Young is also an owner as was claimed in the press subsequently, there is scarce evidence to show her approval was ever sought.||Leaked email 3. (to Cllr Young)|
|26/04/2017||“The Land Register for Scotland lists William Young and his wife as landowners of the site.|
Cllr Young said he was unsure who owned the land despite council officers telling him he was the land owner.
|MR & MRS W YOUNG||Willie says he’s not sure who is the landowner; Land Register apparently says he and his wife are. Was Land Registry advised of the sale Willie made to his dad in 1992? What was the sale price? Were there any tax/stamp duty implications from the sale? Why was the Council not able to get this information?||Probe into £200,000 of public cash used ‘to fix Willie Young’s boundary wall’ – Evening Express|
|03/05/2017||“The land in question does not belong to me. I sold land at Wellington Brae to my father, David Young, in 1992, and land in this area remains in his ownership.|
“Late last year, I was approached by officers of the council, who mistakenly believed that land at Wellington Brae belonged to me.”
|DAVID YOUNG||This sale does not appear to be reflected in Land Registry records. We are meant to believe a man with a law degree did not know he owned the land and/or somehow the title transfer was not made.|
Why would council officers have approached Young – through his councillor email/office – as being the owner?
Why didn’t Young immediately tell the officers he either wasn’t the owner or was unsure who was?
|Willie Young confirms land at centre of row belongs to his dad|
– Press and Journal
|03/05/2017||“I told them I would ask my solicitor to check the title… and I have since confirmed that none of this land belongs either to Deeview Homes or to me personally.|
“All I actually did was to respond to council officers who mistakenly believed I owned land there, to say that I was not sure of the position, and that I would ask my solicitor’s advice on the matter.
|UNSURE||While stating he sold land at Wellington Brae to his father in 1992, Young is simultaneously unsure about the title. ‘All he actually did’ also includes (according to ACC emails) giving verbal permission for work.||Willie Young confirms land at centre of row belongs to his dad |
– Press and Journal
|24/05/2017||“The Council is in the process|
of contacting the landowner to discuss the necessary agreements to access
and facilitate the works.”
|UNSPECIFIED||Eric Owens, Fraser Bell and Stephen Whyte reported to councillors requesting scheme approval. Councillors were presented with their report – without the ownership issue or Cllr Young’s potential ownership getting a mention. In private institutions this omission might be taken extremely seriously. As an aside, it is likely now a new fiscal year for ACC: would Maintenance still have had no budget? Why didn’t the report authors suggest getting the landowner to pay as an option? Councillors are often slated by the public, but they are only allowed to vote on what officers put before them.||Wellington Brae – report to Communities, Housing & Infrastructure.|
|26/09/2017||“Councillor Young did not require to declare a conflict of interest because he had not been asked to make a decision as a Councillor on the works or the grant, but rather to provide his consent as a landowner”||WILLIAM YOUNG|
Willie Young referred to as landowner in this Audit Risk & Scrutiny report
|Back to Square One: NB Willie had told the P&J on 3 May “Late last year, I was approached by officers of the council, who mistakenly believed that land at Wellington Brae belonged to me.”|
Some would say the conflict arises precisely because Young is both a councillor and a private landowner, benefitting from council help with the estimate and securing finance as meetings were held in his council office and correspondence conducted through his council email. His title of Finance Convener, his position as a councillor all carried weight.
|Aberdeen City Council ARS report|
|14/10/2020||“You ask when I disclosed to SUSTRANS that my family owned the wall, the answer to that is I never disclosed that my family owned the wall to SUSTRANS indeed this was not a matter for a Councillor it is a matter for the Council Officer. As the FOI shows the officer moved forward with discussions with SUSTRANS without involving Councillors.”||UNSURE||If we accept the ARS finding that Willie was being contacted via his council email as the private landowner, it is unnecessary to talk about what his role was as a councillor. As a private landowner whose permission was required for the scheme (perfect word for it) went ahead, at some point SUSTRANS must have been made aware whose land it was they were putting c£250k of their money to work on and whether via intermediaries or not, Young must have been in the loop. Willie is right – councillors were not involved – but the landowner was – whoever that actually was. The landowner is mentioned in the 26 September email as having given verbal consent. The leaked emails show that Young was in the loop; the ARS report says he was giving his consent as landowner. If he never disclosed that ‘my family owned the wall to SUSTRANS’ it was nevertheless disclosed to the staff within ACC that ‘his family’ owned the land or they would not have sought his permission – permission which perhaps should have come from his father.||Email to Suzanne Kelly from Willie Young 14 October 2020 (re-sent Nov 2020)|
Mr Young told AV:
“As the FOI (the most recent answered by ACC) shows the officer moved forward with discussions with SUSTRANS without involving Councillors.”
AV accepts this: what we have been questioning is who owned the land, why ACC was not pursuing the land owner to pay for the repairs, why Young was uncertain whether or not he owned land, and why he was being contacted as a private landowner (mistakenly or not) via his official ACC councillor email rather than a private one.
Aberdeen Voice continues this story in Part II – examining recently-released emails and leaked emails in further detail.
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