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September 9, 2009

Put up the cash or right to buy becomes meaningless

A recent article in the Scotsman argues that current Scottish Government policy in relation to rural development and community empowerment is laudable and very much in tune with the OECD’s international approach to ensuring the sustainability of local communities.  However the authors point out that these progressive policies are being completely undermined by an absence of funding for community land buy-outs

Calum Macleod and Nicole Busby, The Scotsman

CREATION of a legislative and public funding framework to enable the transfer of land into community ownership in Scotland is arguably the defining achievement of the first decade of devolution.
The “community right to buy” provisions contained in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, coupled with financial support from the Scottish Land Fund and, latterly, the Growing Community Assets Fund, have given rural communities the means and confidence to purchase the land they inhabit, thereby securing control of the prime asset with which to shape their futures.

In the Western Isles, no stranger to ill- conceived, supersized development “opportunities” – of which a proposed superquarry was surely the most misguided – the North Harris Trust is a notable example of the economic, environmental and social benefits that can flow from collective ownership of land.

It is scarcely alone in that regard.

By the time of its demise in 2006, the Scottish Land Fund had distributed a total of £13.9 million to 188 rural communities.

This amount included a grant of £3.5m to help the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust – headed by Willie McSporran – to purchase its island in 2001 and £1.5m to help the Assynt Foundation buy the Glencanisp and Drumrunie estates in Sutherland and Ross-shire.

Yet much of the impetus that enabled community land ownership to make such impressive strides over the past decade is threatening to drain away as the financial tap of public funds is gradually turned off.

The omens were not encouraging when the Big Lottery’s Growing Community Assets Fund failed to ring-fence money for land purchase.

Last October’s announcement that the fund was to close, when the remaining £15m of its original £50m pot was allocated, confirmed that community land ownership was slipping down the political agenda.

Of course, sceptics may argue that none of this matters a great deal.

There are grumblings in some quarters that the community land movement has largely been the preserve of the Highlands and Islands with comparatively little investment in lowland Scotland.

Others argue that, in a climate of economic uncertainty, the financial case for supporting community buy-outs cannot be reconciled with other competing demands on the public purse.

All of which rather misses the point. The current international direction of travel in rural policy is towards ensuring the sustainability of local communities within the framework of what the OECD somewhat grandly calls “the new rural paradigm”.

What this boils down to is an approach to rural development in which competitiveness is driven by local assets and resources; broadly based rural economies; investment rather than subsidy; and the involvement of local stakeholders.

The OECD’s approach is one that the Scottish Government, with some justification, can claim to be already informing aspects of what still remains a frustratingly disconnected rural development strategy for Scotland.

Key proposals contained in the draft crofting reform bill, for example, are aimed squarely at empowering communities to take decisions at the local level.

And a constant refrain from government concerns the need to utilise Scotland’s natural resources to simultaneously promote the green agenda and generate sustainable economic growth.

So, it’s particularly surprising that a Scottish Government that appears to talk the language of community empowerment and sustainability hasn’t yet seen fit to safeguard dedicated funding for future community land buyouts.

Indeed, if anything, significant cuts to the budget of Highlands and Islands Enterprise in particular, do little to instil confidence that an imminent funding black hole is likely to be plugged any time soon.

Community land ownership doesn’t offer a “one-size fits all” antidote to the economic and social disparities that continue to bedevil rural Scotland.

And there is an important seam of longer term research to be mined regarding the contribution of “buy-outs” to the sustainability of communities in which they occur.

Yet what does seem clear, even at this stage, is that the Scottish Land Fund, (and to a lesser degree, the Growing Community Assets Fund) was instrumental in giving a succession of rural communities a shot at determining their own destinies. They did this by helping local communities in Scotland turn local assets and resources to their collective advantage.

There is a clear and compelling argument for re-establishing a Scottish Land Fund given the appetite that still exists among rural communities to take responsibility for the land they inhabit.

Amid the stampede to pull Scotland out of the current economic downturn, the Scottish Government would do well to ensure that the benefits of community ownership are safeguarded rather than trampled underfoot.

• Dr Calum Macleod is senior research fellow at the UHI Centre for Remote and Rural Studies in Inverness.

• Dr Nicole Busby is senior lecturer in law at the University of Stirling.