September 10, 2014
Should charities own land?
Who owns Scotland and in particular the question of whether the current pattern of land ownership is best suited to meet the challenges of 21st century Scotland was, in part, what the Land Reform Review Group reported back on this summer. Scotland doesn’t have many charities landowners but the ones we have are large. The largest of all, National Trust for Scotland has come in for a lot of stick recently. As Jim Hunter puts it, a sense of permanence takes over when a charity becomes a landowner. And not in a good way.
SCOTLAND’S leading conservation charity is reviewing its role as a major landowner and has already been told to give more control to local communities.
The National Trust for Scotland is the country’s third largest landowner, with 190,000 acres of properties from Glencoe to the Mar Estate and Torridon to Fair Isle and Iona. It also owns the island of Canna and its houses, where there has been difficulty in keeping new residents who have gone to the island to build a new life.
The associated bad publicity is known to have troubled the NTS’s leadership, who have begun a dialogue with the 320,000 members about the Trust’s future at a time when land reform has been empowering communities. The momentum is likely to continue, with the First Minister himself having set a target of doubling the area under community ownership.
Kate Mavor, NTS chief executive, said the Trust, which was set up in 1931, “aimed to secure places of natural and historical significance so that they could be conserved and made accessible to the people of Scotland. In doing so the Trust was one of the pioneers of the ‘right to roam’,” she said.
But she added that the world had moved on and the NTS had to ask fundamental questions as to what people now regard as their heritage.
“In this theme of our debate we are looking at the relationship between heritage and communities, and there is no doubt that in rural Scotland especially there is a tidal force behind local empowerment. We need to understand what this means for conservation.”
As part of this process, the NTS had “invited different people who have made their voices heard on these issues to speak to us”.
One was writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, who was clear on several issues: “The NTS should get out of tied housing. This is antiquated. It disables people to regard somewhere as home.”
She said it undermined a local community where no one party should dominate, “whether it’s a private owner or a quango”.
“Bodies like the NTS have got to take onboard that people who live in a place are the prime movers. They are what creates value in it. They are what will keep it alive, rather than becoming a museum piece.”
She also said that the NTS should not hide behind legalities when it came to transferring land and assets to a more democratically defined group of people: “We have got to start questioning the restrictions of legality allowing what seems to be an unfairness to continue.”
She said where there was a will there was a way and added that Scottish Natural Heritage managed to find a way of transferring land to the community on the island of Rum.
Highland historian Professor Jim Hunter was another who was consulted. He said one of the problems regarding the likes of NTS as landowners was permanence. “Even the most iniquitous of private absentee individual landlords, at the end of the day, dies.”
But a voluntary organisation like the NTS “in principle is here for all time coming”.
The NTS, he said, has to be open-minded about the role of local communities in its conservation efforts. The evidence from community buyouts was that they liberated the energy of local people, houses were built, businesses started and population decline reversed.
He said given the financial crises that had beset the NTS in the past, there was no evidence to suggest community ownership was less financially viable.
A spokesman for the NTS said the organisation was already moving away from tied properties, unless for reasons of remoteness or security.