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November 24, 2010

Right to buy thwarted

When the hotel in the village of Lairg closed down, it was a big loss for the community. The building became derelict and was eventually demolished by a new owner.  The community recognised that the site could be an important community asset and used the land reform legislation to register interest in it. When the site recently came onto the market, the community right to buy was triggered but despite a successful ballot in favour of the buy-out, the community are no nearer their goal

Duncan Ross, Northern times

HOPES for a community buy-out of a prime site in the centre of Lairg were dashed this week – at least for the time being – when the owner suddenly declared he is no longer willing to sell.

Solicitors acting for Irish tour operator Terry Flynn have written to the Lairg and District Community Initiative saying he has withdrawn the land from the market.

The community group is currently in the process of balloting local people to see if they support a community buy-out of the 4.4 acre site on which the Sutherland Arms Hotel once stood.

The group’s plans for the site include a £3m eco-friendly hotel and leisure complex, although these sparked some controversy at a stormy public meeting in the village last week.

The site has been independently valued at £75,000 for the purposes of the community buy-out under land reform legislation.

In a letter to this week’s NT the chairman of LDCI, retired Church of Scotland minister the Rev Leslie Goskirk, said Mr Flynn’s decision meant they could not proceed with their plans meantime.

“We understand, however, that our application to buy is still registered and would be re-activated should the land come on the market at a future date.”

Asked if he knew why Mr Flynn had taken the site off the market, Mr Goskirk added: “No idea at all. All we got was a one-line letter from his solicitors saying he had withdrawn it.

“We have never had any direct contact with Mr Flynn. Everything has been done through his solicitors.”

Mr Goskirk said that the local ballot was already under way when the letter was received, so they would continue with it.

“At least it will give us an indication of the views of the community,” he said.

“By the time we heard the news, people would have had their ballot papers and some will have sent them back already.”

The closing date for return of ballot papers is Monday of next week, and the count takes place in Lairg Community Centre on Tuesday evening at 7.30pm.

Asked if he and his fellow directors were surprised to hear the site had been taken off the market, Mr Goskirk said: “I don’t think we’re surprised. There have been so many turns and twists in this story right from the beginning.

“I think we have reached the stage where we just take things as they come.”

In his letter, Mr Goskirk also attempted to answer critics who at last week’s public meeting accused LDCI of proceeding too far with the hotel plans without a proper mandate.

“The terms of the relevant legislation are very clear – and strict,” he writes.

“In order to succeed with an application to buy land on behalf of the community, the applicants must produce proposals for the future development of the land.

“LDCI, in good faith, believing that the community of Lairg had expressed at public meetings between November 2007 and January 2008 its desire to see a hotel once again occupying the site, proceeded on that basis.

“Other suggested options, having been carefully researched, were considered to be impracticable.”

Mr Flynn’s announcement is the latest twist in a long and convoluted saga. He bought the derelict hotel in 2000 and had it demolished, but then failed to find funding to redevelop the site himself.

Attempts to sell it to another company fell through in 2008 when the prospective purchasers went into liquidation following a police investigation for alleged fraud.

It finally came on the open market this summer, and the community group were able to take their plans forward – until now.

Mr Flynn was unavailable for comment this week and did not return the NT’s calls.

North, West and Central Sutherland Councillor Robbie Rowantree yesterday (Thursday) accused Mr Flynn of frustrating the community’s efforts to revive the local economy and called on him to give them an explanation.

“Mr Flynn’s intransigence has been at the root of the problems the community has faced,” he said.

“We don’t know enough about Mr Flynn’s financial affairs to understand why he has changed his mind.

“I can only assume he doesn’t think the price is good enough.

“What Mr Flynn should do now is release a statement saying why he has done what he has done, and I would call on him to be honest with the community.”