Is A Community Land Buyout The Way Forward For Tiree?

how can you make progress if you cannot control the assets around you?

My intention when I began researching this piece was to simply report the facts and present some of the opinions of experts, politicians, lobbyists, and community members that have been directly involved in community land ownership. Half way through this process The Trust held their Community Open Day, at which they posed the question of a community land buy-out for Tiree. This has somewhat changed the approach of my article and so I now intend to give a relatively brief introduction to the concept by reporting on the recent Community Land Scotland conference.

Articles in the coming weeks will inform the readership of the history of community land ownership, the whys and wherefores, the pros and cons, and the successes and failures.I intend these articles to be thought-provoking and without bias or agenda.

According to Alex Salmond, the First Minister, one million acres of land could be owned by communities by 2020, He unveiled the ambitious target at the conference of Community Land Scotland, the body that represents community landowners such as Eigg, Assynt and Gigha, who now control more than 500,000 acres.

Mr Salmond said improvements to the right-to-buy scheme, which would be set out in a Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill later this year, would make community ownership easier to achieve. Speaking at Skye’s Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig, he said:

“We are committed, like no other administration, to land reform and as a powerful symbol of that commitment, I am delighted to announce today that we will set a target of a million acres of land in Scotland to be under local control by 2020.This is a deliberately ambitious target that can be achieved through a radical reshaping of the right-to- buy landscape that has the potential to transform the fortunes of communities across the country.”

Mr Salmond said the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group was investigating how community ownership could be improved, while the Government will consult on a draft Bill later this year. He added:

“We have the opportunity to shape a stronger and better relationship between our land and people. Community Land Scotland will be an important voice in that land reform process, together with many other individuals and organisations. We have an opportunity to ensure more local areas are able to take their future into their own hands.”

The First Minister also announced that the Scottish government will extend the Scottish Land Fund by an extra £3 million in the financial year 2015-16. The fund was launched in 2012 with £6 million – which was to be given in three tranches:

  • £1 million for Year 1 – 2012-13
  • £2 million for Year 2 – 2013-14
  • £3 million for Year 3 – 2014-15
  • £3 million for Year 4 – 2015-16

The original Scottish Land Fund – from Lottery funds – granted a total of just under £14 million in its five year lifespan. That fund closed in 2006 with the Lottery funds then going to other good causes.

The Scottish Government then, in 2012, started the current fund with the pot of £6 million to be spread over three years, now topped up to a fourth year with £3 million which will not be accessed until 2015. Community Land Scotland Chair, David Cameron, said:

‘It was a great pleasure to welcome the First Minister to our conference and I welcome the announcement that the Scottish Land fund is to be extended. This gives some greater certainty to groups seeking to buy their land, which can be a lengthy process, that there will be money available for them. It was also good to hear the First Minister spell out that land reform is an important issue for his government, that he wants to see one million acres in community ownership by 2020, and that he still wants to be able to consider radical proposals for reform. That is important because it is radical reform that is necessary, underpinned by stronger legislation. We also noted the announcement of the next phase of the Land Reform Review Group’s work looking at the issues of land taxation and the Crown Estate, as well on the community right to buy.’

Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell said

“I recognise the argument in Scotland for community control of their own assets. The question has existed in the Highlands for many generations – how can you make progress if you cannot control the assets around you?”

Mr Russell said successful buy-outs such as of the island of Gigha in 2002 and of South Uist Estates in 2006 were good examples of what communities could do. He said:

“It is quite difficult to do and is a lot of hard work, but it is something that is available and there is a renewed interest in it because additional resources have been put on the table by the Scottish government.”

Land ownership in Scotland has a long and difficult history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the clearances saw families moved off estates to make way for large-scale agricultural businesses, such as sheep production. Landowners had the legal right to do so, but incidents where people were forced from homes that were then destroyed before their eyes attracted notoriety. The Crofters’ War of the 1880s was a period of protests and sometimes violent clashes over land rights. David Cameron, of Community Land Scotland, said it was difficult to escape the past when discussing land ownership today. He said:

“I am aware not just of the clearances and the Crofters’ War but even further back to post-Culloden when there were attempts to smash Gaelic culture and language and houses were burned. We are often accused of living in the past, but you cannot help but be aware of it in the background. We have always thought that four things were needed to be in place for community land ownership to really happen. You have got to have political will and government putting the legal framework into place. You need the funding to purchase land. Technical support for communities lacking expertise to purchase land and develop it. Lastly, but not least, you need the community desire itself. I really believe we are seeing the start of long, long story.”

Under existing legislation, for rural communities of less than 10,000 residents there is a process they can follow to try to buy land. Crofting townships have greater powers. They can exercise a right to purchase the croft land where they live and work at any time. The land does not have to be on the market, and a landowner can be forced to sell.

The aim of the Community Land Buy-out process is to help communities to acquire land or land assets which can contribute to the overall sustainability and resilience of that community. The intended outcome would be that the community has increased sustainable economic, social and environmental development through acquiring, owning and managing their land.

At last week’s Tiree Community Development Trust Open Day the question of a community buy-out for Tiree was raised. The results of the consultation were that 66 supported it (73.5%) and 24 opposed it (26.5%).

The next steps for The Trust will be:

1. To form a steering group.

2. Form a brief for a feasibility study, with support from the Trust.

3. Present the key findings to the community.

4. Organise a ballot for the community to decide whether or not to proceed.

In the next An Tirisdeach I will explore the history of land ownership in Scotland and particularly on Tiree, the island where in August 1886 250 Marines from the warship HMS Ajax and troop ship HMS Assistance landed to tackle locals who had risen up against their landlord and called for an area of the island to be broken up into crofts.

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