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A beacon lighting the way for community land ownership

Brian Wilson MP
West Highland Free Press, 21st February 2002

At the opening of the new sawmill woodlands centre this week, BRIAN WILSON MP paid tribute to the work of the Stornoway Trust and set out the case for community buy-outs of crofting land on terms consistent with the Crofting Acts

As long as I have been involved in debating public affairs in the Highlands and Islands, the Stornoway Trust has stood out as a beacon of what is possible.

The magnificent sawmill woodlands centre
 in the Castle Grounds in Stornoway

In the long years when the concept of land reform was consigned to the political margins, the Stornoway Trust acted as a crucial reminder that something different to, and better than, the norm was actually possible. This is an opportunity for me to salute the vision of those who created that model in 1923 and to those who have sustained it ever since.

Before Assynt, before Eigg, before all the other beacons that have now been lit throughout the Highlands and Islands, the Stornoway Trust provided the practical example of an alternative system. It would be churlish on an occasion such as this not to acknowledge that the existence of the Stornoway Trust is also attributable to an act of generosity on the part of the man who owned Lewis from 1918 to 1923 William Hesketh Lever, the first Lord Leverhulme.

Sometimes, in the course of my Ministerial duties, I host dinners and receptions at Lancaster House in London. It is a beautiful venue with an interesting pedigree. In times past, it was the private home of both the first Duke of Sutherland and also of the first Lord Leverhulme. Every time I note that history, I am reminded of the phenomenal wealth which attached to these people and which underwrote their ventures into Highland landlordism. At least it can be said of Leverhulme that he left something of value behind.

It is nonetheless paradoxical that Leverhulme bequeathed not only the Stornoway Trust estate to Lewis but also, to crofting society as a whole, this alternative model of land ownership which now points the way to an ownership structure which will guarantee the perpetuation of crofting tenure far into the 21st century.

For Leverhulme was no admirer of crofting. It was the antithesis of his own belief in master and man relationships, however paternalistic he may have considered them to be. In the intense drama of the post-First World War years in Lewis, the right to crofting tenure was the rallying point for those who preferred the dignity of human freedom to the enslavement of the factory bell.

All of that may seem long ago. But on an occasion like this, when we are celebrating the achievements of the Stornoway Trust - and in particular this magnificent Centre - it is worth remembering why such a rare organisation, this elected community landowner, even exists. This is a good example of why we cannot really comprehend the present or mould the future, without first understanding the past.

AT PRESENT, in the crofting counties, a remarkable opportunity is about to emerge in law which will allow communities to mould the future in a way that can and should be overwhelmingly favourable to their future well-being. There is no reason why, over the next few years, community ownership of crofting land and the assets which attach to it should not become the norm rather than the rare exception. That is the historic opportunity which the crofting community right-to-buy will open up.

The arguments which are developing are curiously similar to those which were around in Lewis in 1923. On the one hand, there were those who saw the opportunity, and it is thanks to their vision that there is a Stornoway Trust today. On the other hand, there was a preponderance of opinion in other parts of the island which saw no great benefit in ownership. Rights of tenancy were secure. Capital was in short supply. What was the point of owning assets over which, in any event, you had control?

It would be absurd at this range in time to denigrate the choice which was made in 1923 by the Lewis District Council not to act upon Leverhulme's offer. In an era when land was everything to those who occupied and worked it, while ownership or lack of it did not appear to impinge upon their hard-won crofting rights, it is understandable that there was no great mood to take on additional burdens.

But now, at this range in time, there are lessons to be learned. Crofting landlordism in rural Lewis fragmented in a dozen directions. Sporting tenants and functionaries of the Leverhulme Estate acquired for next to nothing the crofting lands which the community had turned down. If you look at these mini-estates today, the best that can be said of any of them is that they do relatively little harm on the basis that they do nothing at all. In some cases, they have done a great deal of harm by pushing out the rights of ownership and seeking to trample on the rights of crofting tenants.

The contrast with the Stornoway Trust could hardly be greater. We see around us an Estate that is run by people who are democratically elected; that employs a substantial number; which administers its crofting management responsibilities in a responsible and accountable way; which both invests in the community and, in its role as landowner, encourages others to do likewise. It is the Stornoway Trust which expanded the number of tenancies while population relentlessly declined elsewhere. It is the Stornoway Trust which opened Arnish and which will re-open it in the near future. It is the Stornoway Trust which has created the Sawmill Centre which we are celebrating tonight.

The crucial point at this juncture in crofting history is that there is not another estate on Lewis or, I suspect, in the whole of the Crofting Counties which can lay claim to that kind of record. We now see the same kind of pro-activity coming from the other crofting estates which have recently come into community ownership, including Bhaltos on this island. And still there is no privately-owned crofting estate which even pretends to have the same kind of aspirations. So if the truth of all of that is accepted, then what can be the argument against the expansion - now that the opportunity is about to present itself in law - of the widespread expansion of community ownership.

The terms, of course, have to be right and I want to say something about that. The pro-active community right to buy applies only to crofting estates. That in itself is recognition that crofting landlordism is different from other forms of landlordism in Scotland. From that recognition flows the different treatment. It is essential, however, to understand that crofting rights are different and stronger on the basis of the existing legal definition and not as some vague act of philanthropy on the part of the Scottish Executive.

Crofters have rights stemming from the 1886 Act which effectively curtail the rights of landowners in a way that does not occur under any other form of tenure. The crofting landlord cannot use the land productively in his own interest or give to other people the right to use it in return for profit. As far as the land is concerned, the crofting landlord is master of nothing outside his own house and garden site. He is a landlord in name but has the right only to collect crofting rents as fixed by the Land Court. The land has no value to him beyond the agriculturally-based rents.

IT IS CRUCIAL that these constraints upon crofting landlordism are understood before any question arises of fixing valuations for the acquisition of crofting estates. Market value has nothing to do with it since it represents only the fantasies of ownership rather than the realities of crofting law. The valuation method in respect of crofting land must, I contend, adhere firmly to the well-founded principle of 15 times the rental value as enshrined in the 1976 Act. Anything else would be a fundamental departure from the principles of crofting law.

Finally, I want to say something about the question of ballots and how a majority in favour of community buy-outs should be determined. There was a case, of course, for saying that only crofting tenants should participate. But it is not an overwhelming case and the tragedy would be if this legislation was to be neutered by the argument that crofters must be protected from non-crofters who live next door to them, to such an extent that nothing will ever happen. That can be the only consequence of arguing for 66 per cent or 75 per cent majorities.

Under the legislation which is currently proposed, a simple majority of those voting will suffice. But that is conditional on there also being a majority of crofters in favour. Then, having considered all of that, the Scottish Executive has the reserve power to take a view on whether there is genuine support for a buy-out proceeding. Please let it be left at that, because the inevitable consequence of creating further hurdles is to ensure that nothing at all will happen. However sincerely intended, these higher thresholds are not pro-crofter amendments but pro-landlord amendments.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to make these points about the future of crofting community ownership. There could be no better or more appropriate platform from which to make them. Eighty or indeed 10 years from now, many places in the Crofting Counties which are currently in slow decline could be healthy, thriving communities embracing all that is best in the culture and values of the Gaidhealtachd. The twin foundations on which that prospect can be based are crofting tenure and community ownership - in other words, exactly the same foundations on which the Stornoway Trust has survived and flourished.

West Highland Free Press www.whfp.com

Article archived at: http://www.whfp.com/1556/focus.html