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July 27, 2016

Ambition knows no bounds

When the former First Minister, Alex Salmond took everyone by surprise back in 2013 and announced a new target of one million acres to be under community ownership by 2020, some were worried about the lack of large buy outs in the pipeline and that the target might be over ambitious.  However, there’s a school of thought that says if you set the bar high, people will eventually step up. And so it has proved  The communities around the Lochaber and Laggan area have a scale of ambition the likes of which we’ve not seen before.


David Ross, The Herald

PLANS for what would be the largest community buyout yet in Scotland, are at an early stage. But if 120,000 acres can be secured by local people of Lochaber and Laggan it would write a highly significant page in the Highland story, possibly Scotland’s.

The land is owned by multi-national Rio Tinto and is around its aluminium smelter in the shadow of Ben Nevis. It has two large hydroelectric schemes (one at Kinochleven) which power the smelter.

The company is reviewing its Scottish assets and the fight is on to keep the smelter working.

The founding of the East Lochaber and Laggan Community Trust (ELLCT) is crucial. It has a good chairman. John Hutchison, when Lochaber area manager of Highland Council, made Olympian efforts help the community buyout of Knoydart and before that the island of Eigg.

The thinking is that the trust could act along with others who have the expertise operate the smelter and hydropower assets, allowing the community to derive the benefit and income from owning the land. The hydros in particular could attract commercial interest.

The trust, a not for profit company, was formed to benefit the community council areas of Laggan; Spean Bridge, Roy Bridge and Achnacarry; Inverlochy and Torlundy; Caol; Kilmallie; Fort William; Nether Lochaber, Glencoe and Glen Etive and Kinlochleven.

The biggest buyout to date was the 93,000 acres the people of South Uist acquired in December 2006 at a cost of £4.5 million.

With around 600,000 acres already secured, the 120,000 acres would put the Scottish Government well on its way to its target of one million acres of community-owned land by 2020.

It would also herald the greatest number of potential stakeholders as it includes Fort William, the second largest settlement in the Highlands behind Inverness. In the 2011 census it had 10,459 residents.

Anyone aged 16 or over, in the defined community area and on the electoral register can become an ordinary member of the trust.Those living outwith that area can become associate members. Those aged from 12 to 15 can become junior members. That’s a lot of community involvement.

One of the trust’s aims is to urban and rural regeneration. So Scotland’s urban communities within our cities, could learn a lesson about taking control of their local assets.

This is important as this year is the first time community organisations in urban areas are eligible to apply to the Scottish Land Fund for backing. This aligns the fund with the Community Empowerment Act which extends the Community Right to Buy to the whole of Scotland.

The Scottish Government has committed £10 million to the fund for 2016-17, more than trebling previous annual funding. But just how much would be needed to buy Rio Tinto’s assets is unclear.

Some creative government thinking may be required to keep the 150 smelter jobs, which support similar figure indirectly. But that should be a priority anyway. Meanwhile, helping the locals get the land could prove a transformational catalyst for community ownership across Scotland, and worth supporting.