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Game, set and match to the people

Brian Wilson MP
West Highland Free Press, 13th June 2002
Article archived at: http://www.whpf.com/1572/top11.html

BRIAN WILSON looks back on the day Eigg was liberated and the Highlands and Islands Community Land Unit established.

Even before the General Election was held on 1st May 1997, I was looking forward to attending the official handover of Eigg into community ownership a few weeks later.

During the weekend which followed Labour's victory, I was offered the post of Minister of State with Donald Dewar in the Scottish Office. I had not expected this particular job since I had been away from the Scottish front-bench for five years. But I was absolutely delighted, particularly because Donald gave me responsibility for some areas of policy which he knew to be very close to my heart.

For instance, I acquired Ministerial responsibility for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which I'm sure, had a certain piquancy for them as well as for me! But it very quickly occurred to me that the engagement which was already in my diary - the day of celebration on Eigg - could now be adapted to become a Ministerial visit and a policy initiative.

A couple of days before the event I phoned Iain Robertson, then chief executive of HIE, and told him what I was thinking of - the establishment of a Community Land Unit within HIE, to promote and support community ownership initiatives within the Highlands and Islands. Both he and Fraser Morrison, the chairman, were excellent and immediately pledged the organisation's support and an initial budget.

That effectively short-circuited the procedures which might otherwise have bogged the whole thing down in inter-departmental nit-picking. And so, within a few weeks of the Labour Government being elected, the Community Land Unit was brought into existence - announced from Eigg on 12th June 1997, in what, I think, was the Scottish Office's first-ever bilingual press release!

For me, that episode involved the sharpest of learning curves about how to turn the words of opposition into the kind of action which government alone allows. It also explains why I regard this week as cause for double celebration of two equally exhilarating events - the liberation of Eigg from the curse of private landlordism and also the foundation of the HIE Community Land Unit.

Under the fine leadership of John Watt, the Unit has gone on to do great things. There are now 10 people working for it, seven of them based at Auchtertyre and another in Argyll. John Watt remarks upon the quality of staff which it has been possible to retain within the area, or to bring back to it, in order to fill these posts - most of them with a background on the land.

The unit has directly supported 68 buy-outs, both large and small. And it has been involved in advising on 250 others. Islands, forests and crofting estates which would otherwise still be at the mercy of the market-place are now in the hands of their own communities. With legislation on their side, many more will follow.

It was also necessary to give the Community Land Unit some financial muscle beyond the budget which HIE could allocate it. This took a little longer but eventually we negotiated the lottery-based New Opportunities Fund as a suitable source of finance. Thus was established the first Government-backed Land Fund since the one created in Hugh Dalton's post-war Budget and later dismantled by the Tories.

What a great day it was on Eigg five years ago. Just before I was to speak, someone mentioned to me that the marquee had been erected on the ground which Schellenberg had used as a tennis court. This gave me the best line in my speech: "Game, set and match to the people of Eigg!"

But while 12th June 1997 was a landmark in the movement towards community land ownership in the Highlands and Islands, it is worth remembering that much of the groundwork had already been done in circumstances which were far less politically friendly. Assynt and Eigg had fought the battles which then encouraged others, in the new political environment, to have a go.

The establishment of the Community Land Unit and Scottish Land Fund were only two of the steps taken during that period of a Labour-run Scottish Office prior to devolution. We fast-tracked preparation of a Bill for the abolition of feudalism. John Sewel's working group laid the foundations for the community right to buy including, crucially, the proactive right of crofting communities to buy at any time.

It is an agenda which offers great hope and excitement to many communities in the Highlands and Islands. And I would like to think that the story so far has been a good example of the only kind of politics that matters - the politics of making a difference.

West Highland Free Press www.whfp.com

Article archived at: http://www.whpf.com/1572/top11.html