Islanders halt £4.25m Ulva sale with community buyout plan
Herald Scotland, by David Ross
The £4.25 million sale of the island of Ulva has been put on hold while islanders bid to pursue a community buyout.
With only six people living there permanently, it is likely to be viewed as the one of the most important community bids for a long time, with the return of people its priority.
Turning round Ulva’s fortunes would show the momentum of the land reform movement can be renewed, according to campaigners.
While the 4,600 acre island may have inspired Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lord Of The Isles , as well as Beatrix Potter, who regularly visited, Ulva has suffered a remorseless loss of people with over 500 cleared in the four decades after 1841 alone.
The community body based nearby on the neighbouring island of Mull hopes to reverse the decline.
The North West Mull Community Woodland Company Ltd (NWMCWC) has applied to the Scottish Government to exercise the community right to buy created by the land reform legislation.
But Roseanna Cunningham, the Land Reform Secretary, will have to consider whether she can treat this as a late application, as an interest in the island was not registered before it was put on the market.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said ministers had received an application, adding: “As part of the legislative process a prohibition was issued on the landowner on the 18 July 2017 inviting them to provide any comments on the application.
"Ministers will make a decision on the case upon receipt of all relevant information.”
Ulva has been in the ownership of Jamie Howard’s family for almost a century.
But if Ms Cunningham accepts the late community registration, any sale will be suspended for eight months to allow the community to raise the money and complete the process laid down in the legislation.
The NWMCWC has a track record of achievement. It was set up in 2006 to take over forests in the north west of Mull, from Forestry Commission Scotland with the assistance of the Scottish Land Fund, and others.
To bring the timber to market it had to construct a haul route over 10 miles. To date the company has also successfully set up nine forest crofts, which are all now let as well as facilitating a forest school.
It has put housing at the heart of its plan to regenerate Ulva: bringing existing housing stock, whether occupied or not, up to modern standards; bringing derelict structures into use including existing farm buildings; creating plots for affordable housing for rent and/or self-build; creating crofts/small holdings.
The NWMCWC also has a range of plans for economic development from green energy to tourism, fishing and agriculture to forestry.
Ian Hepburn, a director, said they had already been talking to the land fund and other bodies about funding.
Giving people security of tenure is seen as absolutely vital. Rebecca Munro moved to Mull from Dumfries in May 2005 to live with her husband, Rhuri Munro, a creel fisherman from Ulva.
With their two children, they account for two-thirds of Ulva’s year-round permanent population. She runs the Boathouse Restaurant as a joint business with her sister-in-law, Emma, and said she is fully behind the community bid.
“It is our only chance to build a future for the island," she said. "But the absolute priority is to get houses up to standard to rent, with security.
"We don’t have security of tenure for our house or our business, so we obviously we are very concerned about a new owner coming in. But there is great potential. With around 5,000 visitors arriving every year.”
Asked how he felt about the government’s intervention and the prospect of a community bid, Mr Howard said he was talking to his advisers.
“We are still consulting and looking at the legislation," he said. "There has been talk of it (a community buyout), but it is early days.
"Ulva has been my home for the last 30 years, so obviously have a personal attachment to it. Whether a community buyout is practicable, remains to be seen. There are huge challenges.”
Linsay Chalmers, development manager of Community Land Scotland, umbrella organisation for community buyouts such as Gigha and Eigg, said; “The island of Ulva has a long history and was once home to hundreds of people.
"The planned community buyout is an opportunity to bring the island back to life; realising its potential to both become a home to more people and to generate benefits to the community through the development of tourism and other economic activity”.