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November 30, 2011

A Community Right to Compulsory Purchase?

Big disappointment last week for the folk of Achiltibuie in Wester Ross. This is an area that is desperately short of affordable housing and workspace for small businesses. The community were hoping to use the right to buy legislation to acquire the disused hydroponicum and surrounding land. When it came on the market, the community had everything in place to proceed with the purchase. At which point, the owner got cold feet and pulled out. Makes you wonder whether the community right to buy should be, in certain circumstances, a community right to compulsory purchase


The people of Achiltibuie and its neighbouring villages on the peninsula of Coigach in Wester Ross should have been celebrating a major step towards a brighter, sustainable future over the weekend. Instead they are coming to terms with the news that their hopes for affordable housing and workshop units in Achiltibuie have been dashed.  The villagers had hoped to take ownership of the former Achiltibuie Hydroponicum and surrounding land through the Scottish Government’s community buy-out scheme and things were going well for the ceremony on Friday when the sellers pulled out at the last minute.  

Iain Muir, Chairman of the local Coigach Community Development Company said, “We’re really disappointed and it’s a big blow to our hopes and aspirations. The community desperately needs housing and workshops and this looked like a real opportunity for us to help secure our future.  Everywhere we turned we got support for our plans to buy the site. Our community ballot showed 93% support for our idea, and the Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Highland Council were all very helpful and encouraging with advice and funding”. 

The small community rallied its resources and drew up a detailed business plan to secure the go-ahead from the Scottish Government and financial assistance from HIE and a loan from Highland Opportunity Ltd. This money along with local fundraising was all in place and ready for the sale to go through. Iain Muir goes on to say “We also set about fundraising for our own community contribution and raised thousands of pounds, receiving donations from members of the community and well wishers elsewhere. People have put money and a huge amount of voluntary time and effort into this so the seller’s decision to withdraw just as everything was being finalised is very disappointing for us all”.

The Hydroponicum was originally the brainchild of Robert Irvine, then owner of the nearby award-winning Summer Isles Hotel, who brought the revolutionary method of growing exotic plants in water to Achiltibuie. Famed for growing bananas in windswept Wester Ross, the Hydroponicum attracted thousands of plant lovers and garden enthusiasts every year until it was sold in 2007 to Moultan Ltd, a company registered in the Isle of Man. Since then, ambitious plans by Moulton for an eco-visitor development came and went, and after an acrimonious fall out with the community the Hydroponicum has closed, the plants have gone (some of them rescued by locals and now housed in greenhouses and poly tunnels in the area), the once well tended lawns are overgrown and the building has fallen into disrepair. The deteriorating structure sits on three acres of former croft land in the middle of the community famed for its scenic beauty and set in a National Scenic Area.

Lack of affordable housing is a big issue in Coigach.  Coigach’s Local Development Officer Julia Campbell says “Again and again our local consultations and surveys have highlighted the need for affordable or social housing. We need to retain our own young people, and there are families out there who would love to live and work here; people with valuable skills and children for the school but there is nowhere for them. Our plan for housing and workshop units would have helped with that. We jumped through all the hoops of the Community Right to Buy process, but with the sellers exercising their right to cancel the sale at this late stage we feel deflated.