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January 14, 2009

Improvements to Right to Buy legislation

Recent outburst of enthusiasm from Environment Minister Michael Russell about Scotland’s Land Reform Act. He was speaking as a community woodland group near Dingwall became the 100th to launch a community buy-out bid. The minister promised that 2009 would see improvements in the ‘community right to buy’ arrangements.

RESIDENTS of a small Highland community have become the 100th group to launch a community buy-out bid, the government announced yesterday, revealing the extent to which land reform legisla tion has shaken up the traditional model of land ownership.

Environment Minister Michael Russell promised that 2009 would see improvements in the groundbreaking land reform system, paving the way for other rural communities to take control of their local areas.

Evanton Wood Community Company, based near Dingwall, has registered to buy 64 acres of woodland on the Novar Estate, Ross-shire. The company plans to maintain the wood and improve the road and path system. The creation of a shelter, toilets and information will boost the amenity for visitors, the proposal states.

Russell Morrison, the group’s chairman, said: “At the moment, children are bused to various places for nature studies when we have a wonderful facility right on our doorstep.”

The buy-out plan follows a number of high-profile local takeovers, and comes less than a month after the 30 residents of Rum backed a scheme to take control of their island’s key assets .

Supporters of the Rossshire bid are hoping for Big Lottery backing for their buyout, which is expected to cost several hundred thousand pounds at least.

Announcing the landmark community plan, Mr Russell stressed the importance of the Land Reform Act 2003, brought in under the previous Holyrood administration.

He said: “The community right to buy is incredibly important, particularly to rural Scotland. Giving communities control over the way their land is managed inspires greater power to shape their own futures, creates a strong sense of ownership and provides rights and opportunities to help realise local ambitions.

“Rural communities throughout Scotland are continuing to recognise the real benefits of the community right to buy legislation. As a result registrations have been made on a wide range of assets including churches, woods, fields, estates, a golf course, a youth hostel and even an avenue of trees.

“The legislation has been very popular. However, more can be done to assist community bodies in working their way through the processes and we’ll be providing further help for them in 2009.”

Though initially viewed as a controversial idea, unpopular with many land owners, the act has allowed a number of small rural communities to gain unprecedented control over their local affairs.

With first-refusal buying rights for successful applications, many communities have been able to emulate the experience of the small group Assynt which, in the early 1990s, launched the modern land reform movement when it bought a large North Lochinver estate from a bankrupt Swedish property company.

Funding for community buy-out projects has come from a variety of sources, with lottery money adding to grants from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. In 2006 islanders on South Uist, Eriskay and Benbecula benefited from a GBP2m lottery grant to buy their islands from a consortium of absentee landlords, though they did so without using the Land Reform legislation.

Community buy-outs have been held up as a key force in bringing economic recovery to outlying areas.

After the South Uist, buyout, a GBP12m pier regeneration project was unveiled, which islanders said would not have happened if the land remained under private ownership.

Landing parties

2002 – Residents on the tiny island of Gigha paid GBP4m to buy out their land, raising money in part by selling Achamore House, the traditional laird’s home. The flag of the community trust was hoisted to fly between the Union Flag and the Saltire above the island’s hotel.

2005 – Crossgate Community Woodland became the first group to secure land under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. The former mining community of Crossgate, Fife, raised GBP150,000 to buy land from the Coal Authority.

2006 – South Uist residents undertook the biggest “friendly” land buy-out to date, spending GBP4.5m to take over South Uist, Eriskay and most of Benbecula from the South Uist Estate company, a consortium of absentee landlords and property owners.

2006 – Residents of Neilston, East Renfrewshire, became the first in Scotland to use the Land Reform legislation in an urban location. Concerned that a former Clydesdale Bank would be turned into flats, they bought it to provide opportunities for self-development, training and employment.

July 2008 – An Aberdeenshire community won the right to buy its local pub, the Midmar Inn.

Locals feared the loss of the inn would tear the heart out of the village’s social life, and hundreds of names were gathered on a campaign petition backed by government ministers.

Dec 2008 – The 30 islanders of Rum looked set to take over their island’s key assets in the smallest community buyout to date. The 23 residents on the electoral register are due to vote on a transfer this month.

Credit: Newsquest Media Group