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The lessons of Gigha and Stornoway

Editorial, West Highland Free Press, 31st October 2001

One of the most satisfactory aspects of the successful community buy-out of the island of Gigha has been the late conversion of its former proprietor to the philosophy of the communal ownership of land.

As negotiations drew to a close and contractual details were finalised this week, it was discreetly made known that the community bid was not the highest on offer. Just a short time ago Mr Derek Holt and his estate agent Savills were loudly advertising that market forces would prevail and that whomsoever promised most cash would win Gigha, be they the residents or another private entrepreneur.

Whatever happened on the day of closure between Mr Holt's representatives, interested politicians, the HIE Land Unit and the Scottish Land Fund, it had its effect. Derek Holt was persuaded to accept the amount offered by the community for Gigha, and to hand the island over to its residents - albeit with a thankfully brief lecture about their new responsibilities as landowners and "business people".

While we welcome his decision and his goodwill, it would be less than realistic to ignore the fact that the pill of local ownership was substantially sweetened for Mr Holt. The Gigha community's publicly-assisted bid amounted to little less than the - hardly derisory - sum of 4 million. And the buy-out itself, like too many of its type was nonetheless an uncomfortably close-run thing.

In short, Gigha was too expensive and - even once the majority of the population supported it and the money had been raised - it almost fell through. The task facing the politicians framing the Land Reform Bill has never been clearer. The legislation must enable such communities, inside and outside the crofting areas, to exercise a right of pre-emption at a sensible price. Only then will the land upon which people live and depend be removed from the casino of the marketplace.

All of the precedents indicate that Gigha can, under its new dispensation, look forward to a better future. It was especially well timed of the Stornoway Trust to release its latest riparian figures at the same time as the sale of Gigha. Two months ago a body known as the "Crofting Counties Fishing Rights Group" announced itself with intemperate attacks on champions of land reform, including Brian Wilson and James Hunter, who had the temerity to question their motivation. Its patronising assertion was that community ownership would lead to the neglect of salmon rivers, and consequently to the unemployment of "country people".

The Crofting Counties Fishing Rights Group was quickly exposed as a front for landowning interests. But their basic point may now be tackled head-on. It is a fact that almost every private estate in the Highlands and Islands has for decades past bemoaned the shortage of salmon and sea trout in "their" rivers. They have made this complaint when it was convenient for them to do so, usually in opposition to fish-farming sites, and they have done so frequently on the basis of extremely dodgy statistics.

It is therefore extremely interesting to note that the oldest and the largest of all the community-owned estates, the Stornoway Trust, has just announced its best salmon fishing results since 1991. Logic leads us inescapably to the conclusion that community ownership is actually better for riparian interests (and for "country people's" jobs) than is private ownership, and that if the Crofting Counties Fishing Rights Group was serious about its avowed intentions, it would therefore be supporting rather than opposing such buy-outs as Gigha.

The fact is, of course, that in virtually every sphere of economic activity - even those which the landowners have traditionally regarded as their own preserve - community ownership has proved itself superior to the private, and usually absentee, alternative. There are now sufficient examples on the ground to make that point several times over. We welcome Gigha to their company.

West Highland Free Press

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