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July 27, 2011

Take the debate to the next level

A report by Scottish Agricultural College confirms what we already (anecdotally) knew – that community land ownership strengthens communities and in many cases has the key to reversing serious decline.  Lesley Riddoch argues that this debate now needs to move on. If we know what works then surely it is time for the model to be developed and extended.  She argues for self – governing communities to receive a share of council tax receipts in return for delivering local services.  Why not?

Lesley Riddoch, Scotsman

What do Ryanair and community land buy-outs like Eigg have in common? Different as they are, Ireland’s cut-price airline and Scotland’s first island community buy-out prove the same thing. 

Relatively remote places can be viable and popular once there is leadership and belief, a small investment and an end to restrictive practices. Scotland’s 17 community land buy-out trusts, however, may be able to go one step further than Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, and offer a new model for public service delivery across rural and urban Scotland. And to realise that potential they may need a share of council tax.

Last week’s report by Dr Sarah Skerratt at the Scottish Agricultural College possibly surprised no-one by showing Eigg, Assynt, Gigha, Knoydart and the rest have become demonstrably more resilient since communities took control over the last 20 years. School rolls have almost doubled in the oldest buy-out areas. Population has increased, energy supply systems have improved and local land ownership has prompted the construction of new affordable and sheltered homes. Now elderly members of buy-out communities don’t face the unpalatable choice of life in a local house with cold water and no heating or life in a lonely, heated room in some distant town. 

On Eigg, seasonally unemployed islanders set up a building co-operative to tackle the backlog in housing improvements – they are now sought after island-building experts. On Gigha a canny partnership saw locals offer community-owned land to Loch Fyne Housing Association who built new private and publicly owned homes. The result has been ground-breaking and high quality – winning the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Excellence in Regeneration Award 2011. Life is better now. But many would ask, why should it not be? 

Private landowners of these west-coast estates varied from the well-meaning but incompetent, to the absent and the hostile. One man’s absolute control once stifled all appetite for growth or improvement. And almost all hope. The first members of the Isle of Eigg Trust were non-islanders – like myself. That way no locals could be evicted from houses or sacked from island jobs for any perceived act of defiance. 

How things have changed. Folk once too wary to attend a public meeting now cheerfully manage accounts containing millions of pounds. Confidence and capacity have been demonstrated by securing hard-to-win European funding for projects like Eiggtricity – the renewables-based local electricity grid. The mixed solar, hydro and wind energy system removed dependence on expensive, polluting, diesel generators without increasing long-suppressed energy demand. Homes trip if usage exceeds a modest 5KW and small business has a 10KW limit.

Such laudable and sustainable self restraint could only be community-regulated – Eiggtricity now acts as a model (and a magnet) for communities across Europe. 

But how much did it cost the public purse? The purchase of Eigg in 1997 was made almost

entirely through public donations – the largest was a £900,000 from an anonymous female benefactor in the North of England. The 100 people of Gigha paid back £1m of their Scottish Land Fund purchase grant by hundreds of small fundraising efforts and selling Achamore House.

The National Lottery Heritage Memorial Fund offered Eigg islanders a million pounds- as long as public bodies had 51 per cent ownership of Eigg. The islanders politely declined. The upside is that communities continue to do the heavy lifting habit themselves. The downside is that some politicians have been motivated to fund other community buy-outs through guilt (over earlier inaction) not belief (in the capacity of communities to transform themselves). This has to change.

Despite the Land Reform Act Scotland still has one of the most concentrated patterns of landownership in Europe. The force of history has not been undone and the legacy of paternalism lives on in the hearts and minds of hesitant Scots.

People in similarly battered communities survey the dauntingly successful and “solid” looking community buy-outs of Eigg, Assynt and Gigha and conclude they must be a different set of people. Others could never achieve that degree of cohesion and familiar but focused community rule. The Eiggachs would be the first to say – it wasn’t always so. It’s taken a decade for the power base of competence and mutual trust to reach its current high.

But if anyone suggested that a distant formal body like a council could run almost any service better than they could a loud collective snort would echo across the Minch. That is the sound of a real, full-blooded, empowered community. And these days the sound would not echo emptily across the glens. As councils face the grim task of saving millions from budgets, hundreds of land and wind-energy rich community development trusts are planning how to spend their investment dividends. Should they treat the cash like “pin money” – providing window boxes, traffic-calming or other marginal improvements when roads are pot-holed, energy costs are through the roof, old folk need carers and young parents need affordable child-care? Or, if they spend on badly-run council services instead, will they prompt a local authority pull-out? The solution might be to re-open the Scottish Land Fund to pump-prime new land buy-outs and transfer some council tax receipts to self governing communities once they get up and running. I can hear the howls of protest already. 

But what’s the alternative? Do we just pat successful communities on the head and continue to fund municipal failure? Real control over real assets allows communities to transform themselves.

A thought Scottish Government ministers might consider as they tuck the Christie report on public service delivery into suitcases for light holiday reading