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January 10, 2023

Community ownership (not quite)

When discussing land and community ownership, the debates between repopulating and rewilding, carbon markets and the rise of the ‘green lairds’, can all seem very polarising with few opportunities for compromise to be struck. The community on the Tayvallich peninsular have been trying to raise the funds to purchase the estate they live on. Over Christmas, it was announced that a ‘mass ownership’ company – Highland Rewilding – had been declared the preferred bidder instead of themselves. As Tayvallich Initiative openly acknowledge, this wouldn’t be community ownership as we understand it but potentially it could be the next best thing. Interesting.

Lesley Riddoch, The National

Something unusual and a bit hopeful is happening in deepest Argyll.

Green entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett is leading a pioneering bid to buy the whole of Tayvallich estate via Highlands Rewilding – a network of more than 220 “patient” green investors – rewilding and repopulating Knapdale alongside the local community.

Selling agents Strutt and Parker say their clients were “persuaded by Jeremy Leggett’s vision” and pushed the closing date back to February 28 so he can piece together the £10.5 million asking price through a mix of equity, crowdfunding and bank loans. If that mix succeeds, says Leggett, it’ll be the first time British banks have ever lent to a major rewilding project.

And that could provide a viable template for further bids. But will it work?

I met Leggett earlier this summer when he invited me to Bunloit – a small estate above Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness he bought in 2020. Walking round the old ruined clachan on the steep hills above Urquhart Castle, it was hard not to be swept up by Leggett’s vision – creating a new off-grid community here whilst also precisely measuring the increase in carbon sequestration and biodiversity to “beat this monster problem that threatens our collective future: Climate change”.

Leggett is certainly a man who puts his money where his mouth is. After leaving a comfortable academic job to work for Greenpeace, he invested in the “crazy, dreamy” technology of solar power – now the most cost-effective renewable – and took £3.3m from selling his company Solarcentury – plus millions more – to buy Bunloit and a second Scottish estate in Aberdeenshire for £7m. Then, partnering with start-ups and university experts, he has used drones with laser imaging to create a 3D model of the estate, calculating the volume of wood and thus of stored carbon.

It turns out native broadleaf trees store up to 100% more than previously thought, while neglected peat bogs emit far more.

Highlands Rewilding now knows that Bunloit stores roughly the equivalent of 2% of Scotland’s carbon emissions in 2019. And if carbon pricing is brought in, that’s how the estate could provide an extra return for its investors – over and above the usual, and seemingly endless, uplift in land prices.

But impressively, before all the 3D mapping, Leggett did something even tougher. Nothing. Instead, of powering ahead, the 67 year-old employed a local architect (whose family owns the neighbouring croft) and spent a year meeting locals and hearing their ideas before any eco-shovels hit the turf.

The same approach is being taken – in a much shorter time-frame – 130 miles down the Great Glen at Tayvallich, where it’s also won cautious support amongst locals.

Until news of the Highlands Rewilding bid broke this week, the community hoped to buy two of the 13 lots to house locals if other new owners proved to be absentee “old-style” lairds who ordered the customary “clear fell” of tenants.

Now though, that might not be necessary. According to Martin Mellor of Tayvallich Initiative Steering Group: “This isn’t community ownership but it might be the next best thing.

“We have some land gifted by the existing owners with a house, open land and woodland and a successful Scottish Land Fund bid to plan new affordable homes on it. So we’ll be busy.

“Fundraising to buy the whole estate would have been very hard for a small community, so it’s good to have an organisation with community prosperity at its heart.

“We’re not in the driving seat or the passenger seat but we’re a lot closer to the wheel. And at last, we are talking directly to the driver.”

It says something about the enduring Upstairs, Downstairs nature of landowning in Scotland that Jeremy Leggett’s eagerness to communicate sets him apart. But it does.

Here – with his permission – is a flavour of our email exchanges.

Is the community trust involved in any formal way?

We are working on a Memorandum of Understanding with the local community covering how we will work together. The chair of the Tayvallich Initiative is drafting it.

Why are you a better bet than community landowners?

I don’t think we are a better bet. Straight community buyouts are better for communities. But this model provides a degree of community co-ownership – via shareholding in Highlands Rewilding – and a vehicle for private investment to provide working capital for nature recovery.

Private capital is imperative because of the enormity of biodiversity collapse and climate meltdown. The Green Finance Institute estimates £20bn is needed for the Scottish Government to hit its 2030 targets. Highlands Rewilding aims to lead the way with “nature recovery and community prosperity via rewilding taken to scale in Scotland and later beyond.”

We aim to please communities and investors, recognising we’ll fall short of theoretical perfection on both sides.

Isn’t there an irony that interest from “green lairds” like yourself has driven up land values so high that community buyouts are increasingly impossible?

I am not a green laird. I am a minority shareholder in a progressive company I founded to tackle the existential threat of our times. I cannot make decisions on my own because I have a board composed of Highlanders which manifestly bats for rural Scotland as well as our shareholders.

That said, green lairds – whether corporations or billionaires buying large estates – have clearly helped pushed up land prices. If Scottish Government policies stimulate a pivot in land management to nature recovery, then landowners will make more money from carbon and biodiversity uplifts and that would create a taxable pool for Holyrood.

Do you recognise the fear about large, wealthy green buyers cornering the land market, and local people getting squeezed out all over again, after decades of hard-won community buyouts?

Yes, and it is justified. If I were a native-born Highlander I would be very upset about this. But I appeal to people who feel disenfranchised by the iniquities of history to take a holistic view rooted in the present. If we do not deal with biodiversity collapse and climate meltdown, nothing will matter, because we will no longer be in a liveable world.

What kind of security will existing Tayvallich tenants be given?

Nobody will be evicted. Those who can afford to buy, we will sell to. There will be one proviso for future tenants and buyers: A covenant to live in tune with the nature-recovery mission of Highlands Rewilding.

Will the rural housing burden be applied to new homes built on your land as the community requests (so all future buyers must be permanent not second-home residents? Yes. We won’t be building for, or selling to, second-home owners.

Yes to repopulation. There are 10 ruined residences on the estate we would hope to see restored, by us, a joint venture or by a local community eco-build co-op perhaps. What drew you to Tayvallich?

The unique scope to extend the rare Atlantic temperate rainforest, and all the biodiversity uplift and carbon sequestration that goes with it. Also, the chance to boost the local community. We hired 22 people in our first 2.5 years at Bunloit – most local and many with children. It would be the same story at Tayvallich and that might save the local school.

SO, can Jeremy Leggett persuade bankers to lend and hundreds more ordinary Scots to invest in nature and community restoration? If he can, will Highlands Rewilding create an exciting, viable, green and socially progressive template for landownership at Tayvallich or just another biodiverse way for locals to live without control?

The local jury’s out. But it’s also hopeful and slightly excited. At long last.

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