September 19, 2023
Sort it out
When asset transfer legislation was being drafted almost ten years ago, we should assume it wasn’t a conscious decision to make the procedures quite as complicated as they are nor that it should demand quite so much time and energy of volunteers to negotiate them. And yet, that’s what has transpired. A community group near Inverness has, after an 8 year campaign, and an initial refusal from the owner (ironically Scottish Ministers) finally secured a 20 acre site for community growing and recreational purposes. The forthcoming Land Reform Bill is a big opportunity to resolve this once and for all.
A charity has won an eight-year battle to take over part of Scottish Government-owned Knocknagael Farm near Inverness.
Knocknagael Ltd aims to create a community garden, orchard and allotments on the 20-acre site, as well as areas for walking and recreation.
The group also wants to protect the land against future housing developments.
The initiative dates from 2015 when the Smiddy Field and adjacent land were declared surplus to requirements for the bull stud farm and later earmarked for housing.
Community asset transfer bid
A community movement began to save the fields and in 2021, Knocknagael Ltd submitted a community asset transfer bid for the Smiddy Field under the Community Empowerment Act.
This allows groups to request to take over land or buildings they feel they could make better use of.
The request was turned down as the government said land previously identified as surplus was now integral to the farm management plans.
An appeal was lodged and a hearing was held in March.
Now in a “landmark” decision, the government has accepted an independent panel’s recommendation to overturn the refusal, subject to conditions.
Maria de la Torre said it has been a long road to success
The panel concluded that Knocknagael had met the tests under the community empowerment legislation.
It said it is clear the project would have community benefits and said the evidence provided was realistic, measured and well considered.
The report supported the continued operation of the bull stud scheme.
A review of farming operations at Knocknagael and the Crofting Cattle Improvement Scheme will now be undertaken to ensure this can be achieved.
The charity developed its proposals with help from a Scottish Land Fund grant and anticipate moving soon towards buying the field.
Documents submitted to the hearing said the land was currently valued for agricultural use at £162,960, but more than £2 million for residential use.
Knocknagael Ltd chair Dr Maria de la Torre said it would provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take forward a “transformative project” she said would generate £3.25m over its first five years.
“After almost eight years, we are over the moon with the news of the ministerial decision ordering the transfer of the Smiddy Field to the community to progress.
“We cannot believe we have finally reached the point where we are able to move.
“This has been a long road with hours of volunteer time dedicated to the project.
“While we still have much to do, it feels like a momentous milestone in the journey.”
The community group wants to create a green hub at the government-owned Knocknagael Farm near Inverness
Local MP Drew Hendry MP said the decision is fantastic news.
“It is a recognition of the determination, drive and vision of the neighbourhood volunteers who make up the Knocknagael company.”
He said the group deserves praise for getting to this stage.
He also thanked Tom Arthur, the minister for community wealth and public
finance, for “listening to local people, seeing what an opportunity this is, and acting to allow this”.
He added: “I know that building an even stronger sense of community through this green hub project at Knocknagael is at the heart of the plans.
“There is a lot of work still to be done but this is a great start.”
Balancing need for homes and green space
Green MSP Ariane Burgess said the decision is testament to the tenacity and commitment of the volunteers.
She said as one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities, it’s vital that Inverness balances the need to create homes with the needs of communities to access green space.
“Knocknagael’s plans to develop the Smiddy Field site into a community green hub are exactly what Inverness needs as volume housebuilders seek to free up more land to expand the urban sprawl.
“This decision demonstrates the possibilities offered by the Scottish Government’s new planning framework that prioritises tackling our climate and nature emergencies and acknowledges the need to provide more local food growing spaces in cities.”
The green hub plan has public support says Knocknageal Ltd
Ailsa Raeburn, chair of Community Land Scotland, also said it is “marvellous news for local people in Inverness”.
She said: “Securing this land will help them take forward projects of real value and interest to the local community.
“The fact, however, it has taken eight long years and huge amounts of unpaid volunteer time, demonstrate why changes are needed to the law to make the process easier.
“The Land Reform Bill provides this opportunity and we would urge the government to make sure this happens.”
The benefits of green space
The charity was supported at the hearing by a number of groups who said the use of green space could help improve mental health and combat social isolation.
It could also provide an area to help people, including children at nearby schools, to learn more about growing food.
But Ian Carmichael, head of agriculture development at the government’s rural payments and inspections division, told the hearing the site was an integral part of the farm.
He said giving up the land would mean additional costs in managing the farm and potentially an increase in the cost of bull hire.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The transfer once completed will enable Knocknagael Ltd to progress plans for the Smiddy Field and their work with the wider community will bring benefits to the local area.”