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Caledonia
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Land Reform
Land Reform Guidance
Commonweal Papers
Networks of Agents
Training of Trainers

FERNAIG COMMUNITY TRUST

Colin Parsons

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Introduction

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Fernaig on the market

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Failure of the Bid

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The Agricultural Land

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Raising the Money

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Small holdings

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House Sites

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Community Animateurs

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Purchase

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Strome Forest Initiative

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The Concordat

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Conclusions

Introduction

The villages of Achmore and Strome Ferry in Lochalsh, in Wester Ross, together with a few scattered groups of houses, form a discrete and well-defined community of about 150 people. It is a fast-growing community with 29 per cent of the population under 18 years, and 61 per cent between 18 and 60. Despite this, the range and quality of facilities available for all groups remains small.

There is no school, shop, post-office or other facility within seven miles of the village. However we do now have a very good facility in our village hall. This was opened in November 2000, after major refurbishment, funded by the National Lottery (Scottish Halls Investment Programme), The Highland Council, the European Rural Development Fund, and our own fund-raising. Many people work outwith the area. The jobs that do exist locally are connected with support services, education and fishing as well as tourism, notably B&B. There is also some agriculture: two small farms and two crofts. The bulk of the land in the area is owned by either the Forestry Commission or private estates.

There had long been concern locally about who owned and controlled the land, with decisions being made by, and benefits accruing to, people outside the area. Large areas of land were passed around by property speculators and used as exclusive playgrounds for wealthy absentees. The idea that the local community should have some influence and control was very attractive to many of us, and land purchase by the community was perhaps the best way to achieve this. If land could be purchased by our community, it could be held in perpetuity for the benefit of the people who live in it, with maximum accountability and accessibility.

The community of Achmore and Strome Ferry is unusual in the West Highlands in that there is very little croft ground, and the majority of residents have no access to land. There is, however, substantial interest in small-scale agricultural and horticultural activities, and the purchase of land by the community would give an affordable opportunity to many people.

Fernaig on the Market

Towards the end of 1997 we heard that the owners of Fernaig were thinking of putting it on the market. The property consisted of a large five-bedroom house, which was to be sold with about 95 acres of land (lot 1), and Fernaig Hill extending to about 1,815 acres (lot 2). The latter is mostly rough hill ground and natural woodland, including the prominent crags overlooking Plockton, but also includes about 120 acres of fields in Srath Ascaig. This land was farmed by a local man, (in a limited partnership with the owner), who indicated that he did not want to continue farming the hill. There were also two other small lots: a cottage and a derelict steading with planning permission for conversion.

After discussions among a group of villagers, it was decided to look into the possibility of community purchase. An adjoining sheep farm at Auchtertyre had recently been sold, and the tenant removed for the purpose of tree planting. This was done by interests from outside the area, using contractors from outside the area, and was not a popular development. People were concerned about the future of the land, particularly about the possibility that it might end up planted with conifers. The outcome preferred by most was that the land should remain as a farm.

We wrote to the sellers towards the end of 1997, to be told that Fernaig would go on the market in the spring of 1998. They were pleasant and helpful to talk to, but did not want to compromise their chances of receiving the maximum they could for the land. They could have delayed putting the land on the open market, knowing there was a community interest, and they could have given us more time to put a package together, but they were not willing to do this. At one meeting we suggested that they could take it off the market for a period to allow us to raise the money. Two days after this meeting, however, we were informed by the agent that a closing date had been set. Although they seemed sympathetic to talk to, they were not prepared to compromise over the price. This time factor was perhaps critical in the failure of the bid, and the new land reform legislation will hopefully solve this problem for future community land purchase.

From further discussions held locally came a wide range of ideas for possible management by the community, and Highland and Islands Enterprise's (HIE) Community Land Unit (CLU) were approached for help and advice. It was decided to focus our ideas on lot 2 - the hill ground. This was priced at offers over £250,000. Quite a sum for a small community to come up with! We had a very well-attended public meeting in June 1998 which voted unanimously in favour of community purchase, if at all possible. CLU offered to help with setting up a constituted body, by granting assistance with the costs of legal fees, etc., but were at the time unable to help with land purchase. We also contacted the Woodland Trust, who were interested as there is a considerable amount of native woodland on the hill. However, they did not have sufficient time before the sale to raise the necessary funds.

The CLU funded an assessment of agricultural possibilities by the Scottish Agricultural College, and a subsequent management plan, which suggested ways to generate income from the land to pay off the loan needed to purchase it. At this point the CLU also financed the setting up of The Fernaig Community Trust, a Company Limited By Guarantee1. It had the ground valued at £186,000, and offered to provide a loan to make the purchase possible, although this would stretch the funds that were available at the time. The CLU put in a bid on our behalf in July 1998.
The Fernaig Community Trust was formed in August 1998, and is a Company Limited By Guarantee without a share capital. It is intended that it should represent the community, and to this end membership is available within the Stomeferry Community Council area at £1 annual subscription. The membership owns the Trust. We now have a membership of over 50, in a total population of around 100 adults. We currently have four directors, elected by the membership, of whom three are on the community council. Our councillor, Bis Campbell, is Patron. As the trust is a non-profit making organization, we intend to apply to become a recognised Scottish charity.

Failure of the Bid

In the event our bid failed, and the ground was purchased by Mr. John Denham, a London resident who owns the neighbouring forestry land. We found out later, from the Public Records Office, that he had paid £325,000 for the land. It became obvious that a fair independent valuation on land must be an essential part of the new Land Reform proposals. Communities cannot compete in an open, speculative market.

Mr. Denham applied for Forestry Authority grant assistance for a natural regeneration scheme on the hill. On learning this we arranged a public meeting with the Forestry Authority in the village hall in October 1998, at which we were assured that no conifer planting would be grant-aided on the hill. This allayed some fears. However, it was thought by some to be a pity that the hill would be completely cleared of stock. It was also seen as a pity that the benefits of this management would accrue to a London resident, rather than the local community.

The Agricultural Land

Mr. Denham was not interested in the 120 acres or so of in-bye land, which lie between the River Ascaig and the Braeintra-Achmore road, beyond Braeintra towards the main road, and also north-westwards between the river and the Achmore-Plockton road. Almost immediately after the sale, he offered it to us. He had the ground valued at £600 per acre. However, the CLU had the land valued at £505 per acre.

During 1999 and 2000 the area under consideration was altered four times. These changes were due to approaches which had been made to Mr. Denham by a recently arrived member of the community, asking him to provide land for a water buffalo enterprise. The situation became quite complicated, and delayed things considerably

Just as the purchase was poised to go ahead at the end of October 1999, Mr. Denham suggested that the land he had planned to keep back be included after all. It became clear that he wanted to sell the ground to us, provided we agreed to the condition that we leased it to a named individual. Although we were interested in the land, we could not agree to the condition that we lease to a particular individual. We were only prepared to act on the basis that everyone in the community would be treated equally. This left the total area of land at 82 acres for some time - until June 2000, when it became apparent that the water buffalo enterprise would be moving elsewhere, and the land on offer was increased to about 110 acres.

Raising the Money

With more money becoming available, the CLU was eventually able to offer us a 75 per cent grant, based on their valuation of £505 per acre. We could probably raise enough money to cover the 25 per cent through the sale of perhaps two house sites, and we spoke to the planning authorities about this. They responded favourably and suggested places at Braeintra that would be acceptable. This idea fitted in well with the community nature of the project, and we hoped we could direct the sites towards local people on low incomes. There is a need for affordable housing in the area.

Thus we had a funding package almost in place, assuming the land was valued at £505 per acre. However, Mr. Denham was still holding out for his figure of £600 per acre, and the whole thing could have died there. However, in August 1999, after many letters back and forward, he eventually accepted our valuation, to much relief. The question of valuation is crucial to this kind of purchase. To some the value is the earning potential, and to others it is whatever sum the market will pay for it, however ridiculous that is. To the community the land, once purchased, has no monetary value, as it is intended that it should never again be sold.

Smallholdings

Our intention is to use the 110 acres of ground which we have purchased to create a number of holdings of a range of sizes. These could be leased by the trust to individuals in the community at a rate sufficient to cover administration costs, but not enough to exclude anyone on grounds of cost. The leases would be similar to tenancy arrangements for crofts, although new crofts cannot be created. Fixed-term limited partnerships seem to be the best solution. There is also an interest in some land being held communally. A questionnaire circulated in the autumn of 1998 demonstrated that there was more interest than could be met with the land available. It polled a sample of 36 per cent of the community who were unanimous in supporting land purchase.

We had a visit from a Scottish Agricultural College consultant in November 1999. He walked the fields with us, and was to write a report and advise us on such matters as the potential of the land, how it could be divided up, possible improvements, rentals, and so on. There seemed to be a long wait for this report, which the CLU required. Eventually we received a visit from another SAC consultant - apparently the first one had retired. The report was eventually received in March. It was felt to be useful in places, but not relevant in some respects, owing to insufficient consultation with individual members of the community. Most of it could have been written by ourselves, given funding and some advice. If it had been, it would have been more closely focused on our requirements. This situation seems to be a recurring problem with many community projects: if consultants or contractors are required, they are often recruited from outside, when suitable people are living within the community. Another example can be found in a recent set of case studies which was written by a consultant who visited us. His study is accompanied by an illustration commissioned from an artist from Glasgow, who did not visit us. Inevitably the illustration is not very appropriate, and it was felt that it could have been done, and done better, by one of many local artists. The fundamental purpose of such projects should be to create diverse economic opportunities within the community and to utilize the expertise available locally; and by doing so, to build confidence.

House Sites

The intention was to sell the two house sites to the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust (HSCHT), as this would fit in with our aim of providing housing for local people on low incomes. The CLU needed to be sure that we would be able to sell the sites and so cover the purchase cost. We were lucky that this option was available. Had the land area been much bigger, as is the case with many community land purchase initiatives, the 25 per cent of the price needed would have been unobtainable.

The community had been kept well informed of the intention to sell two house sites in Braeintra. However, a year after the idea was first publicised, two residents of Braeintra objected. Although these objectors had never been 'community minded', it was felt that everyone was entitled to their own point of view, and all feelings were taken on board. Some members of the trust felt that the original house sites should remain, but it was decided that for the benefit of the community as a whole the purchase of the land should not be delayed by lengthy planning complications, and so the position of the sites was moved to a less contentious area. A hold was put on the project, until the new location was decided upon.

Since the start of this project we have tried to be as open as possible, keeping everyone in the community fully informed of every development, and allowing and encouraging everyone to be involved in any decision-making. This is the nature of the Fernaig Trust. Its raison d'être is community participation and control of resources.

Community Animateurs

The workload for the project has at times been quite heavy, and in May 2000 we applied successfully to the CLU, through their Community Animateur Scheme, to fund an administrator for two days a week for one year. Time has always been a major problem, and paying someone in the community to administer is one of the most important ways of making projects like ours viable. In June 2000 we received more funding, this time from LEADER II under the Community Resource Worker scheme, to pay someone for one day a week for six months to progress the forest project (see below).

Purchase

In September 2000 the HIE Management Group approved the funding. The price tag on the land was eventually settled at approximately £55,550, (about 110 acres at £505 per acre). The CLU would fund 75 per cent, i.e. £41,662. HSCHT would purchase the two sites at £10,000 each. This would give us a surplus of about £6,112. The plan was that the cash from HSCHT, together with the CLU grant, would be paid to our solicitor, who would then make the purchase, giving the Fernaig Community Trust the remaining £6,112 or so. However, this would now all have to wait until planning consent was granted on the sites, and this would have to wait until the next Planning Committee meeting in November. There always seems to be another hurdle! Delay is always frustrating, but in other instances it could be terminal, either by racking up interest on capital loans or by exhausting the patience of the seller. The sale was eventually settled on Friday, 23rd February 2001.

Strome Forest Initiative

The Strome Forest Initiative pre-dates the Fernaig land purchase, and started in June 1996, when forestry staff numbers were again being reduced. There had been around thirty workers employed in South Strome Forest in the 1950s and 1960s, but today the only Forest Enterprise (FE) employee resident in our community is a stalker (who also covers many other forests in the district). Inspired by developments at Laggan, we discussed the idea that the community could buy the forest. We concluded that with a different management style more geared towards provision of recreation, and restructuring of the forest to include a wider range of species, mixtures, diversity, and perhaps continuous cover silviculture, and more value added locally, a greater number of people could be employed in the forest; and that there could be other economic benefits for the area as well.

FE told us that the forest was not on the disposals list, and so a sale was not possible. However at a well-attended public meeting in August, a steering group was formed. This group met the Forest District Manager and some of his staff in September, and were encouraged to go down the road of a partnership agreement. In the autumn of 1996 our ideas crystallised as proposals for a cafe and shop at the viewpoint above Strome Ferry and some footpaths and other recreational facilities in a discrete area of the forest at Strome Ferry, called Strome Wood.

Strome Wood was scheduled on the Forest Design Plan for long-term retention. This means it is not a production area for FE, and so alternative management would not compromise the financial output of the forest. FE were happy about our management input at Strome Wood, and also with our suggestions for a shop and cafe development at the viewpoint. Although these ideas were scaled down dramatically from our original proposals and would not create as much employment as we had hoped, they seemed a good way forward, and a good starting point from which things could be expanded in future years.

In the spring of 1998 the possibility of the Fernaig land purchase came on the scene. We were already at the stage with the forest project of creating a constituted body, and were now being required to create another for the Fernaig purchase. The latter had a deadline, and so took precedence. During this process the idea of combining the two projects under the same trust was suggested to avoid duplicating work (and fees). For this reason there was a hiatus in the forestry project over the summer while the trust was being set up, and the Fernaig project was taking up most of our available time. With a properly constituted Trust things started to move forward in the latter part of 1999, and we were offered a draft partnership agreement.

The Concordat

A member of the steering group attended a meeting of community forest representatives in November 1999, which included a visit to the project at Cairnhead in Dumfriesshire, and came back with some fresh ideas. The steering group was impressed by the Cairnhead "Concordat", and was keen to adopt a similar agreement in place of the partnership agreement we had been offered, which was written in very legal language, and was difficult to understand.

The FE staff responded positively to the Concordat, and took away a copy to be looked at by their land agents. As this document had been already signed in Dumfries-shire, we thought it would be a simple matter of adjusting some wording to make it relevant to South Strome Forest. However these things always seem to take time, and it was not until October 2000 that the document was signed.

Conclusions

There have been many times when it seemed that our ideas would not come to fruition, and indeed they are still at a very early stage. However, we are now, at the very end of February 2001, at a landmark stage, with the Forest Concordat signed, and the land purchase just completed. The community is very excited and positive about the future, now that decisions affecting the village and surrounding lands can be taken by the people who live here.

There are a number of things that have been very helpful, if not essential, for without them our ideas would all have foundered long ago. The CLU made the land purchase possible by providing help and advice, and funding. FE has been very helpful and co-operative, and the Concordat now opens the door to a range of exciting possibilities. We have found contacts with other community groups to be very helpful, and the network is becoming stronger and better organised. Reforesting Scotland, and the Not-for-Profit Landowners Group have been very important in this regard. The funding of paid administrators/facilitators by CLU and LEADER II has been essential: without it the project would very likely have collapsed. The new Land Reform legislation will be a great help to us and other future community land projects, and it is very important that it is not watered down, as some have suggested it might be, if its opposers get their way.

Summary

Land Purchase

Forest Partnership

bulletNovember 1997 Rumours of Fernaig Estate going on the Market. We approach the owners, who decline to discuss it.
bulletMay 1998 Fernaig on the market.
bulletJuly 1998 Fernaig Community Trust set up.
bulletJuly 1998 Fernaig Sold.
bulletAugust 1998 New owner offers community the 120 acres of farm land.
bullet1999-2000 Various alterations in land area on offer, negotiations over price, changes in funding package.
bulletMay 2000 Community Animateur funded for 2 days a week for 1 year.
bullet23rd Feb 2001 Land sale settled (110 acres) Immediate future New fences and accesses put in, leases signed, and tenants move onto the land.
bulletJune 1996 First approaches to Forestry Commission concerning South Strome Forest.
bullet1999 Draft partnership with Forest Enterprise
bulletNovember 1999 Concordat (on Cairnhead model) brought in.
bulletJune 2000 Community Resource worker funded for 1 day a week for 6 months.
bulletOctober 2000 Concordat signed.
bullet2001 Various ideas for amenities and shop/café, etc. planned and talked about over the last few years start to move forward.

 

 

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