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May 16, 2023

Got to be a better way

Since 2003, we’ve witnessed a steady stream of land reform legislation but many question whether it has progressed as far or as quickly as it might have. The process surrounding the Community Right to Buy is cumbersome and even when a community is able invoke the Crofting Community Right to Buy which can force a landowner to sell, there have been many instances where the process drags out interminably. The community of Great Bernera have been waiting a decade for their absentee laird, Cyran de la Lanne-Mirrlees, who is based in Germany, to engage with them. Something has to change

John Ross, Press and Journal

Alasdair Allan MP says he is concerned that residents of Great Bernera have been trying for a decade to mount a community buyout.

He now wants the Scottish Government to strengthen its Land Reform Bill due this year to help them.

Mr Allan was speaking at the biggest gathering of community landowners from across Scotland in Lewis and Harris from today.

He said the great Bernera community is frustrated at not being able to buy the land from its Germany-based owner.

The Great Bernera Community Development Trust (GBCDT) was formed in 2013 to help residents assess the benefit of ownership.

Two years later a vote showed 142 residents (85% of the population) were in favour of a buy-out.

After offers were rejected a fresh buyout bid was made in 2018. An application was then made in 2021 to force a sale.

The estate was owned by Count Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees who died in 2012, leaving the island to his grandson, Cyran de la Lanne-Mirrlees.

Mr Allan said: “More needs to be done. The Scottish Government is committed to a Land Reform Bill during this Parliament.

“As well as hopefully enabling a wider and more equitable distribution of land, it needs to make it easier for groups to face-off against hostile landowners.

“It’s simply not right that, in 2023, the ambitions of a community like Bernera have been indefinitely vetoed by an absentee landlord.

“If we want the right to buy to be a proper right for crofting communities, it does now need more legal muscle behind it.”

But he said the Western Isles has gone from an area where land ownership was historically concentrated in the hands of a few to the centre of community land ownership in Scotland.

“While most of Scotland’s rural land is in private hands, more than 75% of people in the Western Isles today live on community-owned land.

“This has empowered many communities to take control of their own futures and ensure that the land and resources that sustain them are managed in a way that benefits the community as a whole.”

Cyran de la Lanne-Mirrlees recently told the BBC Eorpa programme he intended visiting the island soon. He said if a sale were to take place, discussions over the valuations would be done with official representatives of the community.

Land reform minister Mairi McAllan said the government is working with the GBCDT which recently received a compliance letter from Ministers.

This means the trust can submit an application under the Crofting Community Right to Buy and will be advised on the next steps.

“Communities know best what is needed in their own areas, and that is why they should have the power to decide the future of the land and buildings that matter to them.

Today’s meeting involves ten community groups stretching from the Northern Isles to Dumfries and Galloway.

Organised by Community Land Scotland and Community Land Outer Hebrides, topics under discussion include green income ideas, tourism, housing, woodland management, nature-based enterprises and peatland carbon markets.

The groups will visit the community owners of the 56,000-acre Galson Estate in the north of Lewis.

The Galson Estate Trust, won praise for protecting vulnerable residents during the pandemic and lockdowns.

It stepped up again when the cost of living crisis hit in past months and £80,000 was spent supporting residents.

Children’s activities and sports were subsidised, as were lunches and blankets for the elderly.

The money comes from three 900kW wind turbines owned by trust subsidiary and earn around £500,000 a year net.

Chair Agnes Rennie, a CLS board member, is still looking to learn from others.

“One of the really interesting things for us will be to see what we have done through the eyes of the visiting communities.

“It will give us a chance to learn from communities that are so very different, from the Borders to urban settlements to Orkney.

“We all exist to make the land or assets work for our local communities, not just for today, but for the future.

“Development opportunities don’t stand still. We have got to keep refreshing our thinking.”