December 1, 2020
Ballot box hesitancy
Some recent results of community ballots held to gauge support for land buyouts have been a sobering reminder that nothing can ever be taken for granted and that community consultation is a complex and difficult process to get right. Even with supportive legislation and public funding on offer, there are many reasons why a community might question the wisdom of assuming the responsibilities of becoming a landowner. If the proponents of community ownership could research and unpick some of the reasons for this hesitancy, it might pay real dividends further down the track.
A community attempt to buy land surrounding Scotland’s highest village, Wanlockhead, has suffered a serious setback after its £1.5m funding bid was rejected.
The Scottish Land Fund told the buyout campaigners earlier this week it had turned down their application for public funding, saying it was worried about the levels of local support and insufficient community consultation.
Wanlockhead Community Trust wants to buy 1,563 hectares (3,863 acres) of grazing, moors and brownfield land surrounding the village in Dumfriesshire from the property empire owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the UK’s wealthiest hereditary landowners. In August, an independent valuation set a price of nearly £1.5m.
The fund’s decision is a setback for land reformers in southern Scotland, who hoped to see a hat-trick of buyouts from Buccleuch after the nearby communities of Newcastleton and Langholm moor purchased land holdings from him earlier this year.
The Wanlockhead group said its efforts to build up local support by staging public meetings had been hampered by the lockdown and subsequent social distancing rules imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, but it planned to submit a fresh bid next year.
Despite having cross-party support from local politicians, the buyout plan was backed by only 69 people, with 55 against it, after a village-wide vote in August. Second-home owners were not allowed to vote, under a convention to prevent absentee owners affecting buyout decisions.
The bid’s critics argue there is little need for the buyout, and it would have saddled the village with responsibility for assets and problems, including contaminated land, which Buccleuch Estates currently look after.
Unlike the two other successful bids, many villagers were unconvinced by the trust’s plans to invest in eco-tourism, camping, its well-known gold panning trade, and small businesses.
Lincoln Richford, the trust’s chairman, said the land fund had suggested they could reapply for funding next year but it is thought the fund’s decision document, which has not been published, advised the trust the the split in community support had to be addressed.
Richford said he believed the fund had rejected Wanlockhead’s bid because supporting it would have squeezed out 10 other applications. It is understood, however, that the fund had 32 applications and will announce later this month that nearly 30 have been successful.
In a short Facebook post, Richford said the land fund had criticised its application in a number of areas. “Hopefully before July [next year] we will be able to rectify that. WCT is in talks with [the fund] to clarify the points they raise, to see what course of action we need to take.”
He told the Guardian the trust could challenge some of the land fund’s statements but added: “There were some legitimate points that they have made.”
Buccleuch Estates is likely to take some time to consider its response. It decided to sell the land voluntarily after the community trust asked to buy it, and had not put it on the open market. Buccleuch is likely to press the trust to address the land fund’s criticisms.
A Buccleuch spokesman said: “We have had very constructive discussions with the trust to date and we will be in contact with them to understand and discuss the implications of the funding decision.”
Land reformers argue the Buccleuch buyouts highlight wider problems with underfunding of the Scottish Land Fund and a lack of other investment options. It has not yet been confirmed if the land fund will continue after next May’s Scottish elections.
The Langholm Initiative first hoped to buy 4,000 hectares for £6m, in what would have been Scotland’s most expensive community buyout, but was only able to buy half of that for £3.8m, after being unable to raise the remainder.