Justified on any grounds
The Herald, by David Ross
A leading expert has called for the extension of a controversial initiative to bring Scottish land under community control.
In a new book Highland historian Jim Hunter, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, makes the case not just on social but also on cost grounds.
He says the limited amount of public money invested in schemes to buy up land for communities has been well spent, particularly compared with the outlay on major public infrastructure projects, and concludes the initiative is providing a solution to the age-old Scottish problem of chronic depopulation in the hinterlands.
He challenges First Minister Alex Salmond to demonstrate the SNP Government’s commitment to community ownership by visiting an area where the initiative is thriving and taking advice from local people.
He also throws down the gauntlet to Highland Liberal Democrat MP and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander to make it easier for communities to buy land by relaxing Treasury rules on public land disposals.
He reveals all of the public money spent on helping take over half-a-million acres of land into community control was equivalent to the bill for only 600 yards of Edinburgh’s trams.
Also, the £30 million total, from public and lottery sources over two decades, that went to help communities buy their land from Assynt to Eigg and Knoydart to Gigha and South Uist, amounts to less than 7% of the cost of the five-mile M74 completion stretch of motorway in Glasgow.
The £30m investment matches the subsidy farmers and landowners receive in Britain every three or four days.
Mr Hunter says: "Community ownership’s price-tag is by no means excessive [and] at least as justifiable, on any cost-benefit basis, as other forms of state spending."
He tells persistent critics of Eigg, which now enjoys virtually full employment and boasts a nationally acclaimed green energy grid that, of the £1.5m purchase price, only £17,000 came from public funds.
Community buyouts have been described by critics as waste of public money, serving only to increase subsidy dependence. To Mr Hunter, however, they are vitally important and have already achieved much, critically in job creation and halting, or in some areas reversing, the chronic rural depopulation which has blighted the Highlands and Islands for generations.
Knoydart, where there has been a 60% rise in population since the buyout in 1999, is a case in point. Taking account of these successes, he says he is perplexed by the minimal engagement of by the four men who have held the office of First Minister since 1999. He calls on Mr Salmond to put that right.
Mr Hunter believes a full First Ministerial visit would send out a positive message: "People on the community ownership front line would be given a chance to explain to the man in charge of Scotland’s Government just what is needed by way of policy initiatives if the community land sector is to grow further."
He wants Mr Alexander to find a way of relaxing the Treasury rules on publicly owned land disposals which mean communities have to pay the market value for the likes of parcels of Forestry Commission woodland.
The historian recognises that one or more of the local land trusts in the Highlands and Islands could face financial difficulty, or even go under.
"If or when this happens, critics and opponents of community ownership will insist the community ownership concept has thereby been invalidated. They will be wrong," he said.
"If the record of private land ownership in the Highlands and Islands was to be judged by the number of landlords who have gone spectacularly bust … then time would have been called on such ownership very many years ago."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Community land ownership can bring tremendous benefits both to communities themselves and Scotland as a whole.
"Land ownership is key to building independent, resilient rural communities and creating a sense of confidence and community empowerment.
"That’s why the First Minister and other Scottish Government Ministers continue to fully support buyouts and are committed to providing opportunities for rural communities to acquire land.
"The £6m Scottish Land Fund launched by the Scottish Government last month is designed to give more rural communities these opportunities."
The Carnegie UK Trust commissioned Mr Hunter to write the story of community buyouts over the past 20 years. He tells it in The Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops, to be published by the Islands Book Trust next week on Mull at the annual conference of Community Land Scotland.