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.

 

Small cairns, big questions: community empowerment and landscape

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Norman MacCaig’s epic poem ‘A man in Assynt’ famously asks

Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?

Fast-forward the 50 or so years since the poem’s publication and you might be tempted to add smart-phone brandishing tourists eager for a selfie and another tick on their ‘beauty-spot’ bucket lists to MacCaig’s cast of characters laying claim to some of rural Scotland’s most iconic settings.  That’s certainly been the case in Skye’s Fairy Glen for quite some time, but tourists’ encounters with that landscape have involved bestowing unwelcome – from locals’ perspectives at least – punctuation marks in the form of the cairns many insist on building there to mark their visit and doubtless share on social media.

As last week’s gloriously headlined front-page story in the West Highland Free Press highlighted (“Cairn madness at Fairy Glen sparks action”), some of these locals have had enough and taken it upon themselves to remove the offending items, which they maintain are a health and safety hazard and leading to the erosion of the environment.  Some tourists were apparently less than thrilled at their mini-monuments to themselves being removed according to Claire Irons, the Uig resident whose Facebook post and accompanying photo inspired the cairn clear-up a couple of weeks ago.  It seems that Hell hath no fury like tourists deprived of their selfie props.

In its modest way, the Fairy Glen furore provides a stone-strewn vignette of wider and more deep-seated issues concerning how rural landscapes are valued, consumed and, in another nod to MacCaig, how they are possessed.  And, crucially, in who’s interests these processes are played out.

Some of these questions are explored in ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’, a new research report by Inherit: the Institute for Heritage and Sustainable Human Development in collaboration with Community Land Scotland, the membership organisation for Scotland’s community landowners.  The report examines how ‘landscape policy’, a convenient shorthand for the laws, designations and associated initiatives dealing with conservation and management of the ‘landscape’, ‘historic environment’ and ‘natural heritage’ dimensions of rural places is implemented by Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Environment Scotland, the main Government agencies responsible for putting that policy into practice.

Not particularly well from a community perspective, as it turns out.  According to the report’s author, Dr Chris Dalglish, the research’s key finding is that communities’ feel “locked out” of landscape designation decisions that affect their lives, leading to a “participation deficit” that leaves them largely disempowered in determining the characteristics of the landscapes of which they are the living, human dimension.

Does that matter? Read the whole of ‘A man in Assynt’and you’d be forgiven for concluding that it probably does not, as MacCaig dismisses his “false questions” concerning  ownership and possession of a landscape that is

masterless

 and intractable in any terms

that are human

Well, perhaps. However, the human dimension certainly does intrude into the distinctly unpoetic world of landscape policy management. Or at least the institutional dimension does because, as the ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’report shows, there is a tendency to see landscape matters – in terms of defining their characteristics and “special” qualities – as the exclusive preserve of professionals and institutions underpinned by a ‘fence and exclude’ conservation culture that treats development simply as a threat.

The most obvious example of that approach is the creation of Scotland’s 42 wild land maps covering some 3.7 million acres of rural Scotland, most of them in the West Highlands and Islands. These maps are underpinned by a highly subjective list of supposedly “special’ qualities that conveniently airbrush the ‘people’ dimension out of great swathes of the rural landscape.  You can add Scotland’s 40 National Scenic Areas and countless other conservation designations into that same mix.

That’s not to say that ‘conservation’ or ‘development’ should to be a binary, ‘either-or’ choice. However, as ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’ also shows, there needs to be some radical rethinking of how landscape policy is conducted to make it more attuned to the principles of sustainable development than it currently is. That implies integrating consideration of human rights and wider social and economic consequences into the process of applying and managing natural and historic heritage designations.    It also implies a culture change on the part of public agencies to enable communities’ voices to be heard much more prominently in landscape policy than has hitherto been the case.  Hovering high above these issues are two vital questions; namely who and what are Scotland’s rural places for? Anyone who thinks these fundamental questions about the future of rural Scotland are uncontested might be well advised not to build any cairns in the Fairy Glen anytime soon.

Land reform goes into legislative overdrive

Scotland’s land reform process is giving a pretty good impression of being in legislative overdrive. Last week the Scottish Parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act containing, amongst other things, long overdue provisions to simplify the ‘Crofting Community’ and ‘Community’ Rights to Buy land and extend the latter’s coverage to urban as well as rural areas. Yesterday the Scottish Government published its long-awaited Land Reform Bill, embryonic legislation that the SNP claims will help permanently redraw the relationship between Scotland’s people and land in the interests of fairness, equality and social justice. Continue reading

Land Reform in 2015

2015 is shaping up to be a significant year for land reform in Scotland. The Scottish Government is consulting on the contents of a new Land Reform Act to be introduced in the current Parliamentary session. That legislation is envisaged as forming part of a Land Rights and Responsibilities Policy to fill the land reform policy vacuum that has existed in Government for a decade.

Judging by proposals in the consultation paper the policy will encompass institutional change (a new Scottish Land Reform Commission to oversee policy progress); greater transparency and accountability of land ownership (more information on who owns what land and limits to legal entities that can take future ownership of land); scope for Ministerial intervention in land ownership and management (where the scale or pattern of landownership in an area or the conduct of a landowner act as barriers to sustainable development); and specific measures to manage land and land rights for the common good (including a duty of community engagement on charitable trusts regarding land-based decision-making and an end to business rates exemptions for shooting and deerstalking businesses). Continue reading