Community ownership boost to rural Scotland
David Ross, The Herald
They range from populations of just 23 to 11,000 and together they own 500,000 acres of Scotland’s land.
The changing map of rural Scotland has been unveiled in a new report into community land ownership, which described buyouts as a resounding success and reignited calls for the development of new projects to be encouraged across the country.
A total of 13 of Scotland’s community land trusts that have bought their own land – from Assynt, Eigg and Knoydart to Gigha – and four communities currently looking to follow in their footsteps were included in the study by the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC).
Dr Sarah Skerratt, of SAC, said community ownership was contributing to the repopulation of rural Scotland by enabling residents to remain in remote areas and encouraging people to move to the countryside.
Owning their own land gave residents the opportunity to increase local employment and develop revenue streams through the creation of new business, build affordable housing, sustain rural schools and deliver basic infrastructure such as roads and electricity.
David Cameron, chairman of Community Land Scotland, called for more communities to consider community land ownership as a viable option. He said: “SAC has undertaken the most comprehensive study yet that provides independently evaluated proof that community landownership is working successfully in Scotland.
“On the basis of the evidence provided in the report, I am confident it will encourage other communities to consider whether landownership could be an option for them. This applies not only to areas in the Highlands and Islands – I believe there are absolutely no barriers to it happening right across Scotland.”
Highland historian Professor Jim Hunter said: “What it shows is that community land ownership is not about public subsidy being thrown at rural communities, but about fostering an entrepreneurial spirit as well as local people’s commitment to their place. If Prime Minister David Cameron wants to see his Big Society idea working on the ground, he should visit some of these communities.”
Funding for community buy-outs has come from a variety of sources, with lottery money adding to grants from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and loans or grants from the Scottish Land Fund. In 2002, residents on the tiny island of Gigha paid £4 million to buy out their land, raising money in part by selling Achamore House, the traditional laird’s home.
The SAC report highlighted a range of achievements made by local residents – from a green elec- tricity, a sewage treatment works, wind turbines, hydro schemes, new businesses to the restoration of an historic golf course.
Researchers found the community landowners demonstrated an extraordinary level of commitment with volunteers meeting once a week, sometimes for years, before actually buying their land, and while they also found great pride in the progress they made, there was also hope in communities of greater recognition by government.
Dr Skerratt said: “It is evident community land ownership is one clear way of achieving a more vibrant rural Scotland. While communities may not all have the range of skills and capacity needed for the task of purchasing and developing their land, they are overcoming the challenges by ‘importing’ training, guidance and support to complement what they have locally.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scottish ministers are committed to land reform and recognise the importance of empowering communities: giving them control of assets in their communities which enable them to realise their aspirations.”
Community land trusts are the Big Society in action
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society, except the implication that he had somehow freshly minted the idea himself.
Many of Scotland’s more remote rural communities, with few public services, would never have survived at all without local residents prepared to go the extra mile for each another. This brand of community spirit is exemplified by Scotland’s 13 community land trusts, which now own nearly half a million acres between them. As crofting historian Professor Jim Hunter puts it: “If the Prime Minister wants to see his Big Society idea working on the ground, he should visit some of these communities.”
Today’s report on community land ownership from Dr Sarah Skerratt of the Scottish Agricultural College hails the buy-outs as a resounding success. Communities visited included Assynt, Knoydart and the island of Gigha. In each case social and economic decline has been dramatically reversed and community groups remained as active as before. Four other communities are currently attempting to follow their example, though one, the 286,800 acre Pairc Estate on Lewis, has been delayed by a legal wrangle between the owner and local crofters.
Margins of success may vary but the main lesson learned to date is that this is a process that tends to generate a virtuous circle: new jobs, justifying the construction of affordable housing that attracts new families, sustaining rural schools. Several have undertaken infrastructure projects such as roads and renewable energy schemes. These thriving communities produce more jobs and the cycle continues. Scotland’s experience suggests pump-priming community projects that foster entrepreneurialism are more effective than massive public subsidies delivered through top-down initiatives. It is a notion that chimes well with the findings of the Christie Commission on the future of public services.
The Scottish Land Fund, which backed several of the buy-outs with grants and soft loans, has now been superseded by the Big Lottery Fund, which lacks the same focus on rural projects. The Scottish Government has made a commitment to sustain Scotland’s far-flung communities. The Land Fund should be reinstated if it is to meet that commitment.