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November 16, 2011

Buy-outs slow to a halt

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of Scotland’s largest community land buy out to date – South Uist and neighbouring Benbecula and Eriskay. Writing in the West Highland Free Press, Brian Wilson heaps praise on Storas Uibhist for its many achievements often in the face of local opposition, while at the same time he bemoans the absence of more community buy outs elsewhere. He’s unequivocal as to why the momentum of the community land movement has stalled so badly

Storas Uibhist will be marking its fifth anniversary as elected, community owners of South Uist Estate with a seminar which, characteristically, is more interested in looking forward to the next five years than basking in the successes that have already been achieved. Mind you, there are plenty of these to bask in — a fact that has sometimes got lost in the war of attrition (and worse) waged against the organisation by a small number of detractors. Fortunately, the votes of the great majority have at each crucial point acted as a necessary bulwark, which is the great safeguard inherent in community ownership. Nobody gets a vote on private landlordism.

So Storas Uibhist overcame attempts to block the Askernish project. They have taken the Loch Carnan windfarm to the point of development, having faced down the attempt from within their own community to hijack the essential grid connection. They have put together a formidable funding package for the transformational developments at Lochboisdale, in spite of attempts to dissuade key funders from supporting it — again from within South Uist itself.

There is a great deal else besides. Storas Uibhist is a substantial, multi-faceted enterprise. A vast amount of work has been put in by the elected directors, past and present. Sometimes they have had to take decisions which, by their nature, could not be universally popular. Like any such organisation, they will have got most right and a few wrong. Throughout the five years, they have had to suffer attempts to undermine the whole concept of community ownership, eagerly abetted by the media connections of the disgruntled.

But they have come through it all with flying colours, building the potential for economic progress which could only have been dreamt of and spoken about, but never brought to fruition, while the land was under private ownership. They deserve a lot of respect. The next five years will see the groundwork being turned into solid achievement. With the wind farm in operation — complete with grid connection — there will also be a steady revenue source to support more ideas, more enterprises, more jobs.

It is worth noting that all the external bodies which helped bring the biggest buy-out in the short history of this movement to fruition five years ago have maintained their commitment to it, one hundred per cent. The Big Lottery and HIE have been constantly harassed by those whose mission is to wreck the whole thing. It would have been easy to hedge bets or put their money elsewhere. Instead, they have looked for themselves then remained constant in their support.

Storas Uibhist has a lot to celebrate as the five-year landmark approaches and also a lot of work in progress. It is a good moment to pause and take stock not only of the specifics in South Uist, Eriskay and Benbecula but also of the wider state of the land reform movement and what needs to be done in order to revive it. And that is not too difficult to define.

There will be no fifth birthday celebrations of buy-outs over the next few years because there haven’t been any recently. Indeed, the movement just about ground to a halt after Storas Uibhist got across the line. That was certainly the last big buy-out to be supported by the Scottish Land Fund for the simple reason that the Scottish Land Fund ceased to exist, subsumed into the generality of lottery funding.

Political support for community buy-outs also seemed to evaporate. By that I mean more than the ritual of elected politicians nodding sagely and saying that community ownership is a good thing. Someone needs to drive the process, make demands, cajole for funding and also the legislative changes that would make the process easier and open it up to more communities, both crofting and non-crofting. None of that has happened. There is now an organisation, Community Land Scotland, which is setting the agenda, but it needs political support There is certainly no shortage of demand for the Gigha/North Harris/South Uist etc etc experience to be repeated elsewhere. There are dozens of communities, particularly in the West Highlands and Islands,which are anxious to promote community buy-outs. But without access to the funding which is necessary to support their ambitions in the early stages, then these initiatives will inevitably fade away and whatever momentum remains in this movement will be lost. This is now an urgent danger.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise continues to do excellent work in supporting buy-out organisations wherever possible. But there is only so much they can do on severely limited funds. HIE has faced serious budget cuts over the past few years and we are now told that the budgets  of both it and Scottish Enterprise are to be further raided by the Scottish Government to pay for its own priorities.

That makes it all the more necessary for a distinct Scottish Land Fund, with its own budget line, to be created. When the last one was established more than a decade ago, the chosen route for funding was through the National Lottery — a pragmatic solution at the time but always, as events proved, one which was vulnerable to competition from other demands upon Lottery resources, particularly those from Scotland’s urban communities. Once the Scottish Land Fund ceased to be ring-fenced, it was a dead duck.

Land reform is too important to rural communities to be left to any Lottery. It needs to reflect a sincerely-held sense of political priority. And in order to justify and sustain that status, it also needs to be capable of demonstrating economic and social returns. That is why the achievements of community-owned estates over the past dozen years need to be trumpeted a lot more loudly.

Quite simply, none of the exciting, positive inititiatives which are now being pressed ahead with — from Galson in the north down to Gigha in the south — could have happened without the change in ownership which underpins them and the democratic involvement that has driven them forward. Of course there will be people who retain a vested interest in the old order and have no wish to acknowledge what the new one is capable of delivering.

Just as has happened in South Uist, such views must be resisted by those who currently have political responsibility in Scotland. There needs to be some positive signs of support for the expansion of community land ownership and by far the most effective way of demonstrating it would be the early announcement of a new Scottish Land Fund. Where better than in South Uist on Friday?