Celebrating 10 years of community ownership of West Harris

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This is the text of a talk I gave at a Burns Supper held by the West Harris Trust on January 25th 2020 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of West Harris coming into community ownership. 

I’d like to thank the Trust for the invitation to come and speak at this evening’s event.  10 years of community ownership is a fantastic achievement and there’s much to celebrate in that time, which I’ll get on to shortly.

I must admit I was flattered and slightly surprised to be asked to speak to you this evening.  My first thought, when I got the invitation from Neil Campbell, was that David Cameron must be off the island this weekend.  It turns out that he is.  But I hope you’ll bear with me in any case!

As some of you know, I have long-standing family connections with Harris.  Both my late parents were Hearachs.  My father, Tormod, came from Finsbay and my mother, Mairi, was from Seilibost.  Neil and I share a connection in that she was our primary school teacher in Vatten Bridge in Skye, longer ago than we probably both care to remember!

I grew up in Skye and lived there until I was 16.   In 1985 my father, my brother and I moved back to Finsbay after my mother passed away.  All of our holidays before then had been spent on the croft there where my father was brought up.  As a kid I always felt that I had a sort of dual island nationality.  In Skye I was known as ‘Calum Hearach’ but as soon as I crossed the Minch, I transformed into ‘Calum Sgiathanach’, which is what my Harris relatives called me.

Much as I love Skye, let me confirm here that I’m a Hearach really!

Aside from my island credentials, perhaps another reason I’m speaking to you tonight relates to my day jobs.

Half of my working week is spent as policy director for Community Land Scotland, the representative organisation for community landowners, of which  –  I’m pleased to say – the West Harris Trust is a member.  So I spend quite a lot of time at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and elsewhere making the case for community land ownership and representing our members’ interests.

By a happy coincidence, Community Land Scotland is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year too, having also been set up in 2010, at a time when the political momentum for land reform in Scotland seemed to have all but disappeared.

You certainly couldn’t say that’s the case now.

The other half of my time is spent working with communities who are keen to follow in the footsteps of places like West Harris by taking the land where they live into their ownership.

In fact, I do quite a lot of that work with Duncan Macpherson, who’s also here tonight.  Duncan often uses West Harris as an example of what can be achieved by communities through ownership of their land, which is always well received and inspiring to the people we talk to.

It’s a real pleasure, therefore, to actually be here to talk about and celebrate what’s been achieved by the West Harris community over the last 10 years.

The story of community ownership in West Harris and elsewhere is – to my mind, at least – essentially one of enabling communities to take control of their own destinies.

Basically, it’s a story about power.  Who has it.  What they do with it.  And who they are accountable to.

But I’m conscious that the Trust’s is not the only birthday being celebrated this evening.  With that in mind, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what Robert Burns had to say about Highland Lairds and the power they exerted over their tenants.

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  And none of it complimentary!

In the late 1700s the Highland’s landed elite were facing the unwelcome prospect of losing great swathes of their still economically useful tenantry who were keen to emigrate to the New World in search of better prospects.  That these emigrants would put a sizeable dent into Britain’s military recruitment was an unequally unwelcome development from the Lairds’ perspective.

It’s estimated that around 12,000 Highlanders emigrated between 1782 and 1803, the year that the Passenger Vessels Act was enacted to raise the cost of travel to North America far beyond the means of prospective Highland emigrants, under the pretext of regulating passenger vessels crossing the Atlantic.

Back in 1786, Burns penned ‘Address of Beelzebub’ upon learning of the landed gentry’s intention to ‘frustrate the design’ of some 500 Highlanders to emigrate from the estates of Macdonald of Glengary to Canada.

In ‘Address of Beelzebub’ Burns portrayed the Highland Lairds and Beelzebub – the poem’s narrator – as kindred spirits. Which gives you more than a hint of where his sympathies lay!

This short extract gives a flavour of his scathing view of the Lairds’ efforts to keep their tenants in their place.

 “An’ whare will ye get Howes and Clintons

To bring them to a right repentance

To cowe the rebel generation,

An’ save the honour o’ the nation?

They, an’ be damn’d! what right hae they

To meat, or sleep, or light o’ day?

Far less – to riches, pow’r, or freedom,

But what your lordship likes to gie them?”

Burns – it scarcely needs adding – wrote the poem before the pendulum had swung away from estate owners actively preventing their tenants leaving the land and towards forcibly clearing them from it.

Harris, of course, was no stranger to the Clearances.

In his book, ‘Harris in History and Legend’, Bill Lawson recounts the remorseless removal of the people from the west side by the notorious Donald Stewart.  He writes:

 “It was a bad day for Harris when Donald Stewart came to Luskintyre as a sheep farmer.  When he became Macleod [of Harris’s] factor nothing would do for him but that he would turn the whole of the machair side of Harris into sheep farms, and send the people away to Canada.  Scarista had already been cleared, but Stewart cleared [the Borves], and in 1838 evicted the last of the people from Seilibost”

Landlordism cleared these people without ceremony or compunction to make way for sheep and cold coin.  Many of them ended up in Finsbay in the Bays of Harris, squeezed onto overcrowded crofts or left as landless cottars to work on the kelp farm established there in the 1790s.

The injustice of that enforced displacement of the people echoes through the centuries in Reverend Alexander Davidson’s testimony to the Napier Commission when it convened in Obbe one spring day in 1883.  He said:

It is most unnatural that man should be chased away to make room for sheep and deer; that the land should lie uncultivated when men are perishing for lack of food.”

Three decades earlier, in 1852, the steamer Celt had travelled from Finsbay to Campbeltown to meet with the emigrant ship HMS Hercules before she set sail that December with 742 emigrants from Harris, North Uist and Skye, on a typhus-ridden voyage bound for Australia.

By then Harris was in the ownership of the Scotts of Dunmore.  In turn, they sold the island to Lord Leverhulme, the ‘Soap Man’, shortly after the end of the First World War.  Leverhulme sold it in lots in 1922 or thereabouts, creating the distinctive estate structure that exists in Harris to this day.

In the 1930s and 40s three of these new estates – in Scarista, Borve and Luskentyre – were bought by the Department of Agriculture to provide land for the settlement of crofting families.  In so doing, the ‘Department’ was copying an approach it had used to great effect in Skye in 1923 to create new settlements in North Talisker using the Land Settlement Act 1919.

That initiative had resulted in families – mainly from the Bays of Harris and also from Lewis – moving to 68 newly created crofts in the area, thereby establishing a population of 400 people where for over a century there had been none.  Many of the Harris folk crossing the Minch in 1923 would have been descendants of the generation cleared from the fertile machair of West Harris to the rock-strewn landscape of the Bays a century earlier. There’s a certain poignance in that.

Back across the Minch, it was as ‘Department’ crofting estates that West Harris remained for the rest of the 20th century.

But by the first decade of the 21st century the pattern of land ownership in the Western isles was beginning to change.

In 2003 the 25,900 hectare North Harris Estate was bought by the community.

That was followed in 2006 by the 37,635 hectare South Uist Estate coming into community ownership.

And in 2007 by the 22,260 hectare Galson Estate in Lewis.

Each of these buyouts was motivated by the idea that the communities pursuing them could best shape their own futures by owning the land on which they lived.  And a major part of that has been about ensuring that there are more people living on the land and prospering from it.

That’s hardly surprising, given that between 1951 and 2001 the population of Harris fell by over half from 3,991 to 1,984 people.

Increasing the population has certainly been a driving force behind community ownership of West Harris.

Back in 2010, after – I think it’s fair to say – a fairly challenging buyout process using the 1997 Transfer of Crofting Estates Act, Murdo Mackay, the Trust’s Chair, outlined the vision for West Harris under community ownership.  He said:

“We want to promote Harris as a great place to live and work and we hope to get more families into the area and create new crofts and bring currently under-used land into production. We are very excited about the fact that control of our own land will breathe new life into the community and encourage people to set up homes and raise families.”

 Well, you’ve certainly done that!

In 2010 there was no affordable housing in West Harris; one of the biggest problems facing any island community. Now four affordable house plots have been sold for private builds and there are ten properties, either already built or under construction in collaboration with Hebridean Housing Partnership.

In 2010 there were no business units to let.  Now there are eight business units and one office for lease across three sites.  They’re all occupied.

There are new tourism facilities generating income for the community.  Seven Campervan hook-ups; five camping spots, and toilet and shower facilities.

There’s new infrastructure.  Pontoons.  Renewable energy generated by wind turbines and a hydro scheme.  All delivering environmental benefits for the community and, ultimately, the planet.

There’s Talla Na Mara, this amazing community building we’re privileged to be sitting in tonight.   A fantastic asset for the community in all sorts of social, economic and cultural ways.

There are more jobs.  The Trust employs six members of staff and the restaurant here in Talla Na Marra has created eight seasonal jobs.  And there’s the employment supported through the business space the Trust provides.

All of these things have combined to make West Harris a better place in which to live and, increasingly, to work.

Most preciously of all, there are now more people living here.

Back in 2010 the resident population of West Harris was 119 folk.  There was only one child under 5 years of age living in the community.

Incredibly, that population has risen to 152 people in just 10 years. There are now seven children under 5 and twenty-two people aged under 18 living here.   And there are ambitions to increase the resident population still further by the end of this year.

Now, we’re all Hebrideans, by birth or inclination.  And we’re not much given to shouting our successes from the rooftops.

But permit me – if you will – to break with that tradition just this once.

Because what the West Harris Trust has achieved over the last 10 years of community ownership is quite simply remarkable.  There’s really no other way of describing it.

And plans are afoot for much more to come: renovation of the school building; additional campervan hook-ups; an extension to Talla Na Mara; more affordable housing; fibre optic broadband; and a community share offer.

That’s an impressively bold agenda completely in keeping with the ambition the Trust has shown since 2010 for the betterment of the community.

Opponents of community ownership – they do still exist, unfortunately – often recite the mantra that it’s how land is used, not who owns it, that counts.

Strange, then, that the Lairds should seem so reluctant to be rid of their estates if ownership is so inconsequential!

Of course, land ownership and land use are inextricably linked in shaping communities’ prospects, as the history of West Harris through the centuries demonstrates so well.

Yet here we are in the Scotland of 2020, still with one of the most concentrated patterns of private landownership in the world.

Most of rural Scotland is privately owned and half of that privately-owned land is estimated to be in the hands of about 400 owners.

I don’t think that sort of land monopoly is a healthy situation for Scotland to be in.

By comparison, the amount of land in community ownership is tiny; 209,810 hectares.  That’s less than 3% of the total of Scotland’s rural land.

Remarkably,  over two thirds of the land in community ownership in Scotland is located here in the Western Isles.

And the roll-call of community landowners keeps on growing: Stornoway; North Harris; Galson; South Uist; West Harris; Carloway; Barvas; Pairc; and Keose Glebe.

All places where community ownership is seen as a normal way of doing things.

Places that will hopefully soon be joined by the Bays of Harris and Great Bernera as community-owned estates.

You’ve shown here in West Harris how decades of decline can be reversed when a community takes ownership of the soil (and machair) beneath its feet.

How strong community leadership, vision, commitment and partnership can deliver huge benefits to an ever-growing community by virtue of owning the land.

So I think there’s much that other communities in Scotland – both rural and urban – can learn from your experience of delivering genuinely transformative change in this glorious place you call home.

West Harris has travelled about as far away from the dead hand of landlordism as it’s possible to get. And you’ve made that journey without leaving.

There’s a tender beauty in that achievement that I suspect Robert Burns himself would have appreciated.

Here’s to the road ahead!

Community Empowerment and Sustainable Landscapes

This is an edited version of the text of a short presentation I gave as part of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Rural Policy meeting on October 29th 2019 on the topic of ‘Taking a place-based approach to address demographic change in rural Scotland’.

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Place-based approaches to rural development are not new.

This is the village of Portnalong in North Talisker on the west side of Skye.  It was created as a consequence of arguably the most radical example of land reform legislation in Scotland in the 20th century.

In 1919 the coalition Government of David Lloyd George passed the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act – celebrating its centenary this year.  Legislation designed to provide smallholdings fit for the heroes returning home from the first world war.

In 1920, as a direct result of the Act, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland paid Norman MacLeod of MacLeod £58,609 (about £1.9 million at today’s prices, according to Jim Hunter) for 60,000 acres of land in North Talisker that had served as a sheep farm following clearance of the area in the 19th century.

And in 1923 families, mainly from the Bays of Harris – where I come from – and also from Lewis moved to 68 newly created crofts in the area, establishing a population of 400 people where for over a century there had been none.  Many of the Harris folk who crossed the Minch in 1923 would have been descendants of a generation cleared from the fertile machair of West Harris to the rock-strewn landscape of the Bays over a century earlier. I suspect I’m not alone in discerning a delicate mix of poignance and optimism within that symmetry of departure and arrival.

Fast forward to the present day and in the grand scheme of things Portnalong, and Talisker as a whole, are doing pretty well.

There’s employment, including at the thriving local distillery.

There’s a resident population which – according to the last census data – seems to have  been bucking demographic trends elsewhere in parts of rural Scotland.   And there’s a primary school that remains open despite previously being threatened with closure.

Head along the road to Minginish and you’ll see – as I did when I visited last summer – an impressive looking community hall celebrating its 10th anniversary as a vital community asset.

That’s not to say that the area is immune to the structural challenges – most obviously a lack of affordable housing – facing many other parts of Skye and elsewhere in rural Scotland. But make no mistake; at a time when skewed demographics lead some observers to contemplate the unpalatable prospect of fragile rural places facing ‘death with dignity’, Portnalong and the wider North Talisker area offer a powerful century-old counter-narrative of ‘rebirth with rights’.  And the most fundamental right of all for a community is simply to ‘be’.

The need for political boldness and policy imagination of the sort that propelled Portnalong and its neighbouring settlements in North Talisker into existence is now more pressing than ever.

So, it may be that a Land Settlement Act from 100 years ago offers important contemporary pointers for the future of rural place-making in Scotland.

Not least regarding how the current land-use planning system can counter negative demographic change by helping to retain and grow existing communities’ populations and by enabling creation of new settlements where it’s feasible and appropriate to do so.

But that alone is not enough.  Contemporary rural place-making also needs to embrace a radical rethinking of the relationship between communities, landscapes and sustainability.

Last year, in collaboration with Inherit (the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development), Community Land Scotland published a research report titled ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’.

 It uncovered tensions between the principles of landscape policy (broadly encompassing natural, cultural and built heritage) and its practice that are vital to account for in taking a place-based approach to development.

These tensions include:

  • An approach that dissects the environment into parts rather than taking a holistic approach to its management;

 

  • An absence of diverse views on what defines a place;

 

  • A continuing drive to single out and protect ‘special’ landscapes;

 

  • A ‘fence and exclude’ conservation culture that treats development simply as a threat;

 

  • A tendency to see landscape matters as the preserve of landscape professionals and institutions.

The research also found a significant ‘participation gap’ whereby communities felt ‘locked out’ of decisions about conservation and its relationship to development that affected their everyday lives.

These tensions and that participation gap matter.  Because if we are serious about place-making as a way to reverse the damaging demographic trends that threaten our most sparsely populated areas, we need to think about our rural landscapes in ways that are genuinely economically, socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable.

That means ensuring that communities’ voices are to the fore in characterising, valuing and managing our rural landscapes, rather than marginal, disenfranchised aspects of these processes.

It also means – and I accept this may be uncomfortable for some – stripping away the ‘wilderness myth’ that shrouds much of Highland Scotland in particular.  There’s a political ecology at play in characterising many of our rural places as ‘wild’ that is beguilingly seductive for all sorts of reasons.

But it masks an inconvenient truth.

Our rural landscapes were never ‘wild’.  They are socially constructed places that have been made and remade – for better or worse – by centuries of human intervention.

That’s not to suggest that we should forgo or somehow downplay and diminish the ecological heritage and diversity of our rural places.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as we hurtle towards the existential threat of climate catastrophe.

Rather, the central challenge confronting us all – policymakers, civil society and communities alike- is how to calibrate the idea of rural place-making to embrace its economic, social and environmental possibilities holistically, in ways that are mutually and positively reinforcing.  Locating community empowerment at the centre of that endeavour is critical to enabling our rural communities – and, by extension, our rural places – to thrive rather than simply survive.

That challenge also necessitates ensuring that land reform in its broadest sense – involving changes to the ownership and use of land in the public interest and for the common good – is hard-wired into public policy as a permanent cross-cutting issue for sustainable rural development rather than an optional extra.

In short, we need to re-connect the relationship between communities, landscapes and power to ensure that the road ahead takes all of our rural communities and places towards a sustainable future.

 

Scotland 2050: Thriving Rural Scotland

The following is the text of a short think-piece I was invited by the Scottish Government to write on the theme of ‘Thriving Rural Scotland’ to help inform discussion on priorities for Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) to address.

Much of rural Scotland faces a depopulation crisis.  Scottish Government funded research by the James Hutton Institute estimates that the Sparsely Populated Area (SPA), covering almost half of Scotland’s land area but containing less than 3% of the nation’s people, will lose more than a quarter of its population by 2046 in the absence of urgent policy intervention.  Zoom in to the regional level and the picture looks equally grim. The Highland Council predicts population growth between 2016 and 2041 in Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh and Ross and Cromarty. However, many of the region’s other places are set to experience continuing population decline over the same period: Sutherland (-11.9%); Caithness (-21.1%); East Ross (-13.8%); Badenoch and Strathspey (-5.3%); and Lochaber (-5.9%).  Head to the Western Isles or the Southern Uplands and you’ll be confronted by a similarly gloomy population prognosis.

Stemming the flow of people from our sparsely populated area must feature at the top of policymakers’ ‘to do’ list if we are serious about creating a thriving rural Scotland by 2050.  That means reframing our relationship as a society with land and landscapes so as to enable our most vulnerable rural communities to flourish as a matter of social justice whilst simultaneously safeguarding our natural heritage and combatting the existential threat of climate change.      Land reform – defined in the Land Reform Review Group’s 2014 report, ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’, as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”  – has a vital role to play in reframing that relationship.   A crucial part of that task involves tackling negative monopolies of power inherent in concentrated rural land ownership that can stymie genuinely sustainable development.  That implies more imaginative deployment of  legislative, regulatory and fiscal policy levers to achieve rural outcomes that contribute to the common good of Scotland as a whole.

The land-use planning system also has an important future role to play in the reframing process.  Some of the groundwork for the system’s future contribution to rural repopulation has been laid in provisions within the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 for which Community Land Scotland strongly advocated.  Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the next National Planning Framework (NPF).  Scottish Ministers must have regard to the desirability of resettling rural areas that have become depopulated when preparing the content of the Framework.  Allocating land for resettlement may now be a consideration for developing both the NPF and Local Development Plans. There is also scope for producing maps and other material relating to rural areas where there has been a substantial decline in population when preparing the NPF.  The Framework must also have regard for any Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement or any strategy for land ownership or use prepared by Scottish Ministers.

These are all helpful provisions in terms of making the planning system fit for the purpose of helping repopulate areas of rural Scotland. However, their effective implementation depends on the commitment of Government and Planning Authorities to steer planning policy towards land use that is genuinely economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.   In short, planning policy that helps deliver the affordable housing, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure and high-quality jobs that are vital to attracting more people to live and work in our currently most imperilled rural communities.  That will require policy imagination and political will.   But be in no doubt that the extent to which these communities’ prospects are turned around will be the barometer of whether all of rural Scotland is thriving by 2050.

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 and Rural Repopulation

Last week the Scottish Parliament passed the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 after three days of intense and increasingly acrimonious debate in the Chamber.  The Bill was originally envisaged by the Scottish Government as a measure to streamline the land use planning system.  Instead, it became a legislative ‘free for all’ as MSPs from all parties weighed in with well over 300 amendments;  the highest total ever tabled for a Bill progressing through its legislative stages at Holyrood and a reflection of the political importance of the planning system as something that both directly and indirectly affects people’s everyday lives.  Not all of these amendments survived the Bill’s protracted and occasionally stormy passage, with  the Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats voting against it becoming law while the SNP and Conservatives voted in favour.

Amongst other things, the new Act sets in statute for the first time the purpose of planning as being to manage the development and use of land in the long term public interest. It sets out issues for consideration in developing both the next National Planning Framework (NPF) which is the long-term spatial plan for Scotland and future Local Development Plans  formulated by Planning Authorities.  The Act also introduces provisions for Local Place Plans, envisaged as enabling communities to have a stronger say in deciding how their local areas are developed and Masterplan Consent Areas to more readily facilitate development in specified areas.

Several amendments that did survive the cull relate to rural repopulation and resettlement, and reflect much of what Community Land Scotland – the membership organisation for Scotland’s community landowners – called for in its evidence submission on the draft Planning Bill back in January 2018.   Community Land Scotland’s proposals for rural repopulation and resettlement drew considerable media attention at the time.  Amongst the more excitable headlines was that of one national newspaper proclaiming “Lairds warn against plans to reverse Clearances”.   Pause for a moment to contemplate the rich seams of irony contained within these words.

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 makes several explicit links between rural repopulation, land reform and the continuing evolution of Scotland’s planning system.  Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the National Planning Framework. Scottish Ministers must have regard to the desirability of resettling rural areas that have become depopulated when preparing the content of the Framework and allocating land for resettlement may now be a consideration for developing both the NPF and Local Development Plans. Preparation of the next NPF will also include scope for producing maps and other material relating to rural areas where there has been a substantial decline in population.  The Framework must have regard for any Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement or any strategy for land ownership or use prepared by Scottish Ministers.  There are also provisions in the new Planning Act about reporting on and improving consultation with communities in relation to the designation of any new National Scenic Areas.

These amendments matter because of the depopulation crisis that great swathes of rural Scotland – and particularly the Highlands and Islands – face.  In 2018 the James Hutton Institute published research indicating that, “in the absence of intervention”, Scotland’s Sparsely Populated Area (SPA), covering almost half of Scotland’s land area but containing less than 3% of the nation’s population, faces losing more than a quarter of its population by 2046; a decline which “implies serious challenges for economic development, and consequences for its landscape and ecology which are poorly understood”.  Similarly grim projections are contained in The Highland Council’s Corporate Plan for 2017-2022 which was updated earlier this year.  Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh, and Ross and Cromarty are projected to see their populations increase between 2016 and 2041.  Yet many other places in the region are set to see their populations continue to spiral downwards during the same period: Sutherland (-11.9%); Caithness (-21.1%); East Ross (-13.8%); Badenoch and Strathspey (-5.3%); and Lochaber (-5.9%).

The rural repopulation and resettlement provisions contained in the new Planning Act can help reconfigure the planning system as an effective policy tool to help address the litany of depopulation facing much of the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere in rural Scotland.  However, the effects of these provisions will inevitably take time to come to fruition, given that the next iterations of both the National Planning Framework and of Planning Authorities’ Local Development Plans lie some way into the future.   They also depend on the commitment of Government and Planning Authorities to drive the planning system towards land use that is genuinely sustainable in helping deliver the affordable housing, physical and services infrastructure and high quality jobs that are vital in helping to retain and attract more people to live and work in our rural places.

The planning system is ultimately a single piece – albeit an influential one – of a policy jigsaw that urgently needs to be assembled for Scotland’s sparsely populated rural places to flourish.  Part of the challenge lies in reframing our relationship as a society with land and landscapes in ways that enable our rural communities to exist and thrive as a matter of social justice while simultaneously safeguarding our natural heritage.

Land reform, defined in the Land Reform Review Group’s 2014 report, The land of Scotland and the common good, as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest” has a vital role to play in reframing that relationship.   However, its relevance as a cross-cutting theme to advance sustainable rural development has yet to fully penetrate the siloed structures of Government if ‘A new blueprint for Scotland’s rural economy: recommendations to Scottish Ministers’, a report issued in September 2018 by the National Council of Rural Advisors is any guide.  That influential document in shaping Government thinking on the rural economy mentions land precisely once in calling for development of “ecosystems services and climate change mitigation actions that reflect best land use-practice”. There is not a single mention of the significance of land ownership as a driver for rural development or of land reform more generally.

Such omissions are perplexing, particularly in light of the Scottish Land Commission’s subsequent research report in March of this year highlighting abuses of power as a result of concentrated land ownership in Scotland.  The Commission’s report highlights “fear of repercussions from “going against the landowner” expressed by some people.  This fear was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.   This is testimony given to the Land Commission in 21stcentury Scotland. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for evidence to the Napier Commission of the 1880s, so shockingly does it collide with our self-image as a socially progressive nation.

It’s clear that rural communities in Scotland’s sparsely populated areas face a crisis of depopulation that threatens their very existence in the longer term.  Provisions contained in the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 offer encouragement that the planning system has an important role to play in tackling that crisis if there is genuine will on the part of Government and Planning Authorities to implement them effectively.  But much more needs to be done.  If we are serious about addressing rural depopulation then land reform in its broadest sense, encompassing changes to both land ownership and land use in the public interest, needs to be front and centre in future rural policy development as a matter of social justice.

By coincidence, there’s an opportunity to start doing exactly that.  A couple of weeks ago the Scottish Government announced the creation of a Ministerial Task Group on Population, chaired by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Culture and External Affairs with a remit to “consider Scotland’s future population challenges and develop new solutions to address demographic and population change”.  The extent to which the Task Group takes up the policy cudgels on behalf of rural communities imperilled by depopulation will provide an early indication of where their needs sit in the policy pecking order.

Scotland’s ‘land question’ is ultimately a question of power

Last week was an important one for Scotland’s ongoing land reform journey. On Wednesday the Scottish Land Commission published the report of its Investigation into the Issues Associated with Large Scale and Concentrated Landownership in Scotland’.  That was followed on Thursday by a land reform debate in the Scottish Parliament, initiated by the Scottish Government on the topic of ‘Land Reform in Scotland – Delivering for Now and the Future’.   Both of these developments are significant because they give strong indications of where land reform might go next in policy and practical terms.

The Scottish Land Commission was created in April 2017 as a result of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 with a remit to ensure that land reform does not stage one of its periodic vanishing acts from Scotland’s public policy agenda as has happened in the past.  That’s a scenario unlikely to occur anytime soon given the substance of the Commission’s report and the political reaction to it.

The report is the most substantial investigation to date into issues associated with large-scale and concentrated land ownership in Scotland.  It follows a call for evidence by the Commission in 2018 for people to share their everyday experiences of living or working in parts of rural Scotland where most of the land is owned by a small number of people.  407 people responded to the call, including landowners and land managers, community representatives and individuals.

Back in 2014 the Scottish Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) broadly defined land reform in its report, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”.   That definition is instructive because it confirms the significance of land reform as a multi-faceted issue cutting across individual public policy areas in Scotland and places public interest considerations squarely at its centre.

The Commission’s new report is equally instructive because it contradicts the jaded mantra of land reform’s opponents that it is how land is used, rather than who owns it that matters. It also confirms that Scotland’s ‘land question’ is ultimately a question of power.

The report makes a distinction between the concentration and scale of land ownership, noting that “There is no automatic link between large scaleland holdings and poor rural development outcomes but there is convincing evidence that highly concentratedlandownership can have a detrimental effect on rural development outcomes.  These effects arise because landowners have the power to decide who can access land, when, for what purpose and at what price.  This power is created by the current system of private property rights and is therefore directly linked to landownership”.

The detrimental effects of concentrated landed power on rural outcomes are laid bare in   evidence presented in the Commission’s report. The most frequently identified theme in the evidence relates to the influence of concentrated land ownership on local economic development opportunities.   The report finds that economies of scale – another argument for large-scale landholdings routinely trotted out by advocates of the status quo – appear to be “more theoretical than real and more likely to benefit landowners than communities”.  It also finds that the irresponsible exercise of landed power enables landowners to block business development by determining whether and on what basis land is made available for such activity.

Worryingly, the report also notes that approximately a quarter of those who submitted evidence feel that Scotland’s pattern of concentrated landownership has a negative impact on the ability to meet local housing needs.  It states, “these experiences were all connected by a common narrative in which the power of a dominant landowner to control the supply of housing was a key driver of depopulation and economic decline”.

More troublingly still, the report highlights the corrosive effect of landed power on community and social cohesion.  The evidence indicates fear of repercussions for “going against the landowner” by some respondents.  As the Commission’s report notes “this fear was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.

Much of the evidence regarding other themes in the report also paints a dispiriting picture of the scope for concentrated landownership to skew power relationships between landowners and communities in favour of the former.  The report challenges the “weak” assertion that landscape scale environmental management requires large-scale land ownership.  It also documents the “perceived unilateral approach to decision-making adopted by some landowners (often NGOs) and perceptions of poor land management practices that can arise from this”.

Against that background, the Commission concludes that “there is an urgent need for formal mechanisms to be put in place that would enable harmful land monopolies to be identified and changes in either ownership and/or management practice to be implemented that would protect fragile rural communities from the irresponsible exercise of power”.

To that end, the Commission recommends specific statutory action including the introduction of a Public Interest Test for significant land transfers/acquisitions; requiring land holdings over a certain scale to engage on and publish a management plan; and legislating for a new Land Rights and Responsibilities review process, to take effect when there is evidence of adverse impact.  The Commission also calls for the effects of concentrated ownership to be accounted for in the implementation of the forthcoming Community Right to Buy to further sustainable development established in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.   Other recommendations include promoting more diverse patterns of private land ownership to help achieve land reform objectives and local engagement in land use change.

Unsurprisingly the Commission’s report dominated last Thursday’s Land Reform debate in the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Conservatives expressed disappointment at both the report’s focus and content, questioning the basis of the evidence and reiterating that the focus of policy should be on land use rather than land ownership.  The Liberal Democrats were happy to support the Report’s findings but considered it premature to call on the Government to accept all of the Commission’s recommendations.

The SNP, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens gave the Report a more enthusiastic reception.  Together they ensured that Parliament passed a wide-ranging motion which amongst other things “urges the Scottish Government to support the recommendations of the Scottish Land Commission on how to deliver interventions in the operation of Scotland’s land markets and ownerships that will provide disincentives to the future accrual of large privately owned land holdings and help deliver a more equitable distribution in the ownership of Scotland’s land assets in the public interest”.

The dust is still settling after publication of the Scottish Land Commission’s report.  Nevertheless, important points are already coming into sharp focus. The report and its carefully crafted, evidence-based analysis of the inextricable links between concentrated land ownership, land use and the exercise of power feels like a vital staging post in the next phase of Scotland’s land reform journey.  Viewing the issues of land ownership scale and, particularly, concentration through the twin lenses of monopolistic practices and their corrosive impacts on the public interest has significant policy and practical implications.  Such a perspective underscores the potential for the Commission’s recommendations to contribute to a policy route map away from the debilitating exercise of landed power highlighted in its report and towards a more progressive, socially just and sustainable relationship between Scotland’s people and land.  Parliament has endorsed these recommendations and the Scottish Government has stated its support for them in principle.  In the coming months both will have the opportunity to transform their warm words into tangible policy action.

 

Power to the People: Blue Hearts and Big Dams

The Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development (Inherit) recently organised a screening of Blue Heart: The Fight for Europe’s Last Wild Rivers hosted by the Moving Image Archive of the National Library of Scotland at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall.    The documentary focuses on controversial plans for hydropower development on the Vjosa/Aoos River, one of Europe’s last surviving free-flowing rivers, in the transboundary area of Albania and Greece.  These plans form part of a much larger push for hydropower generation in the Balkans where over 3,000 hydropower dams and diversions are being planned from Slovenia to Greece.  188 of these developments are already under construction with potentially significant negative impacts for the region’s natural environment and rural communities.

Blue Heart highlights the struggle of communities, for whom the river is their lifeblood, to resist the construction of these dams.  In so doing, it poses some deeply challenging questions about the sustainability of ‘big hydro’ in the region, transparency and accountability of governance arrangements, and the marginalising of communities’ voices in ‘development’ processes.  It’s hard not to be moved by the dignity and resilience shown by these protesting communities in the face of what appears to be an uncompromising – and sometimes violent – combination of state and corporate power.   It’s equally hard not to be cheered when they successfully resist the bulldozers coming in, as some communities have done.

As part of the same screening and by way of a prelude to Blue Heart, the Archive also showed Power for the Highlands, a short Ministry of Information film from 1943 about the potential of hydropower to economically transform the Highlands of Scotland.   As Jim Hunter noted in a tweet, it’s worth watching just to see a couple of GIs turning up in the Highlands to sing the praises of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a key component of Roosevelt’s New Deal.   Power for the Highlands is certainly also worth watching for the way it deftly weaves themes of repopulation, land ownership, community and development into its fifteen minutes, aided by a subtly subversive script co-written by Neil Gunn.  It scarcely needs adding that these issues remain highly relevant to the region’s prospects today.

 Separated though they are by the geography of time and location, both Blue Heart and Power for the Highlands nevertheless shine a light on the complexities of interpreting what constitutes ‘sustainable’ development.   In Blue Heart the prospect of intensifying hydropower production in the Balkans is portrayed as a socio-ecological disaster in the making; one posing an existential threat to human settlements through which the Vjosa/Aoos River meanders and to the biodiversity which depends on its free-flowing currents.

In contrast, the promise of hydropower coursing through Power for the Highlands carries with it the prospect of something akin to economic salvation; a ready-made solution to ‘the problem of the Highlands’ whereby ‘nature’ is conquered for the greater good of the region’s human population.   That 1940s narrative may seem a little too anthropocentrically brutalist for modern tastes.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that the then Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston’s vision of hydropower for the Highlands, and the ‘electric light’ it subsequently delivered, were pivotal in transforming the region’s fortunes in the second half of the twentieth century.

The narrative trajectories of both Blue Heart and Power for the Highlands might ostensibly be heading in opposite directions, certainly in terms of the merits or otherwise of large-scale hydropower developments.  But at their core these films share a fundamental concern about power in other guises – political, social and economic – and how it might be exercised for the common good. Now, more than ever, that feels like an issue deserving of our attention.

 

Community Ownership and South of Scotland Enterprise

Over the last five years land community land ownership has become an increasingly mainstream public policy issue in Scotland. The suite of Community Rights to Buy first introduced in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 has been simplified and extended to enable rural and urban communities to buy land and built assets as a result of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.  The Scottish Government has published a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement to shape thinking on land issues in Scotland.  A Scottish Land Commission is in place to review and recommend changes to law and policy relating to land and provide guidance and information on relevant issues.  The Scottish Land Fund will continue to allocate its annual £10 million budget to assist communities to buy land and built assets until 2021.  These are all positive developments designed to help create more diversity in Scotland’s absurdly concentrated pattern of land ownership wherein over 80% of Scotland’s land is privately owned and 50% of that private land is in the hands of fewer than 500 owners.

There’s still a long way to go, of course.  Scottish Government data estimates that as of June 2017 there were 562,230 acres in community ownership, accounting for 2.9% of Scotland’s land area. It’s an encouraging figure but nowhere near enough. Dig a little deeper into the data and you’ll see that the vast majority of that acreage is registered to community groups in The Highland Council Local Authority area (141,912 acres) and especially Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles) Local Authority area (385,340 acres). Head towards the South of Scotland and the comparable figures for the Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders Local Authority areas are 381 acres and 412 acres respectively.

That glaring discrepancy in both the amount and location of land in community ownership matters.  Not least because the ownership of land has a significant influence on how it is used and in who’s interests.  The Scottish Land Commission seems to agree. Last November it published recommendations to Scottish Ministers on the future development of community ownership and the community right to buy. The Commission’s overarching strategic recommendation is that “[f]or Scotland’s community land ownership sector to reach its potential […..] a clear vision is now needed for the way in which community ownership matures over the coming decades to be a mainstream route to delivering sustainable development for communities across rural and urban Scotland”.

One important way to help diversify Scotland’s concentrated pattern of land ownership involves hardwiring land reform into the decision-making machinery of a wide range of public policy areas and institutions to make community ownership the “mainstream route” to sustainable development envisaged by the Scottish Land Commission.  The Bill to create a new South of Scotland Enterprise agency currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament offers an early opportunity to gauge the political will to undertake precisely that sort of policy co-ordination.

The South of Scotland Enterprise Bill is a welcome and long overdue sign that the region will soon have the type of custom-built development support long embedded in the Highlands and Islands, initially through the Highlands and Islands Development Board and latterly via Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).  Opinion as to what exactly constitutes the ‘South’ of Scotland may vary but, for the purposes of the Bill, the new agency will mirror the geographical parameters of both Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders Councils.

There’s rather less debate about the need for the new organisation. The policy memorandum accompanying the Bill notes natural advantages that make the South of Scotland attractive for residents, businesses and visitors.  These include its strategic geographical location and significant land assets and energy resources, together with active further and higher education sectors and innovative businesses.  The memorandum also identifies a range of challenges that impact on the region’s economy including “an ageing population, challenging physical and digital connectivity, low GDP per head with low productivity, sectors with traditionally low wages and few higher skilled jobs, and a business base dominated by micro and small business”.

These are familiar development challenges for predominantly rural areas elsewhere in Scotland too.  It’s therefore encouraging that the Bill articulates the strategic aims of South of Scotland Enterprise as being to “further the economic and social development, and to improve the amenity and environment of the South of Scotland”.  Community land and asset ownership can play an important role in helping to achieve these aims.  We already know that it’s an approach that works elsewhere.  Take the West Harris Trust, for example. When it assumed ownership of the 7225 hectare West Harris Estate in 2010 the resident population stood at 119 with little prospect of its ongoing decline being reversed prior to the buyout.  That population has now risen to 147 and – crucially – its demography has been reshaped to include an increasing number of younger people resident in the area.    Affordable housing, new business developments and renewable energy generation – opportunities all unlocked by the Trust taking ownership of the land – have been vital to the upturn in the community’s prospects.

There’s no reason why communities in the South of Scotland can’t replicate that success by taking ownership of land and other assets to help shape their sustainable development and, by extension, that of the wider region.  The demand is certainly there, as illustrated by Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders having the third and fourth highest numbers of approvals respectively from the Scottish Land Fund by Local Authority area as of January 2019.

In another of its recommendations to Scottish Ministers regarding the future development of community ownership, the Scottish Land Commission has called on South of Scotland Enterprise to provide the type of support for community land and asset ownership that has long been given by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in its region. It’s easy to see why the Commission favours that approach.  Since its creation in 1997, HIE’s Community Land Unit (now Community Assets Team) has provided start-up and technical assistance for community groups at pre-acquisition stage; community engagement via networking, information exchange and visits and skills training; land and asset acquisition support via capital funding; post-acquisition project support; and capacity-building, training and development.  That range of support has been instrumental in making community ownership an increasingly mainstream activity in the Highlands and Islands, as the Scottish Government data discussed previously shows.

The creation of South of Scotland Enterprise is an opportunity to contribute towards a step-change in the prevalence of community land and asset ownership in the South of Scotland as a means to support the sustainable development of the region.  Scottish Ministers have apparently accepted the Scottish Land Commission’s recommendation to incorporate specific support for community ownership within the new agency’s remit.  Parliamentarians can reinforce the permanence of that commitment by adding an explicit provision for such support to the face of the Bill during Stage 2 of its legislative journey.  Doing so would send a strong positive signal regarding community ownership’s importance to the sustainable development of both the South of Scotland and the nation as a whole.