Am Bratach No. 250
August 2012


Land reform panel must be rigorous and impartial
writes Elphin crofter Iain Mackenzie

Earlier this year I had a bit of a ding dong with our multimillionaire landlord's absentee factor. To be on the safe side I consulted a lawyer. Young,enthusiastic and, no doubt, idealistic, I was advised to consider the merits of the Land Reform Act 2003, and the possibility of organising a hostile buyout!

The announcement of Alison Elliot's appointment to lead a review into the models currently operating is to be welcomed. She comes to the subject with a fresh mind and does not appear "to carry baggage." Her work in other spheres is admirable; and she has not been grinding her axe on the issue these past forty years. Her review of the success or otherwise of what has been implemented ought to be rigorous and impartial; she as no past to defend.

How her "radical conclusions", are to be implemented is a matter for speculation and conjecture given the First Minister's charm offensive and outreach to the landed classes earlier this year. The more cynical among the commentariat, whom I have had the opportunity to read to date, opine that this is a ploy to kick the matter into the long grass.

The fact that James Hunter has accepted a position on the panel, might suggest otherwise, though the lack of available money, makes one wonder.

Nonetheless I implore Dr Elliot and her colleagues to examine the models in current use with rigour, a critical eye and the impartiality for which she is noted. The mechanism that sees communities and associations thirled to government, government agencies such as the SNH, groups with a very particular agenda, such as the RSPB and the John Muir Trust and other grant-giving agencies, ought to be examined very carefully. We need to know whether such as system is efficient, is wasteful in terms of the amount of time and effort spent completing forms and pursuing grants; whether groups seeking control of their lands and communities have their autonomy and plans compromised by the need to tailor their aspirations to the wishes of the donor bodies.

Moreover there is an imperative that this review finds out whether development in fragile areas is being stifled by the dictates of some of these very rich and very powerful organisations with a finger in so many pies. The lack of land for housing and the lack of employment created by some community organisations is worrying. The Vesteys employed twelve to fourteen men on their Assynt estates before they came into public ownership. Now a mere fraction is thus employed. Lights have gone out in the straths and Dr Elliot is invited to enquire as to the feasibility of re-igniting them using that particular model.

The Vesteys and their like used the services of some very experienced land managers. Now I am given to understand that this important task devolves to retirees and others willing to turn up at meetings and indulge their fantasies as land managers, conservationists and administrators. In their review, I trust the panel will enquire if this is the best way to manage large tracts of land and administer the spending of large sums of public money.

It has been pointed out that bad individual landlords die in the end. There is a fear that some of these oligarchic buyouts might self-perpetuate without proper accountability and oversight from an uninterested public which disengages if it sees no benefit accruing to them in the form of houses, jobs, amenity or arrogant unwillingness to engage once ensconced.

Assynt was fortunate twenty years ago when that group of talented, idealistic, industrious and practical people came together to organise that historic buyout of a traditional crofting estate. Now the Panel ought to enquire into the sustainability of this concept. The young are leaving as before in search of work. Livestock production has all but disappeared. The crofting cannon has been loaded against them if they are absent for any length of time unlike some of those now old men who returned in middle age to reclaim their heritage.

I would hope that the Panel gives serious consideration to the establishment of a Land Bank which would give communities a freer hand in how they operate. This could dovetail with some of the ideas emanating from government as to the provision of infrastructure and "green projects", and could, I submit, operate on a micro and macro level. The buyout agency, for example, could borrow long-term at low rates to carry out job creation work and the individual could borrow to finance his house, croft or business at the same low rates.

This is an alternative to the spider's web of funding agencies which aspirant communities are now required to please. It would also inject some financial and economic rigour, which might increase the success rates of these bodies and lessen the need for them constantly to return to a tight public purse. It would also get rid of what appears as "feather bedding" as implicit in "...there is very little financial risk involved should things go pear-shaped."

I often disagree with the use to which the multimillionaire puts the land and with the inequity of the land ownership in Scotland, and in the Highlands and Islands, in particular, and with the fact that individuals dealing with plutocrats are at a terrible disadvantage in terms of access to legal resources, for example, if he happens to seriously disagree with the rich. But, sad to say, I have similar grievances with many of the community buyouts.

Moreover a system which very much resembles state socialism is a danger to the citizen if replicated right across the country. Pluralism in the public acquisition of land is a must.

Alex Salmond announced a "radical review of land reform" when he visited Skye last week. By the end of 2013, the review group will have advised the Scottish Government of any legislative changes they want.


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