Am Bratach No. 217
November 2009
mandy@bratach.co.uk



Woodland croft purchase suffers setback

The people of Assynt have failed to achieve sufficient local support to buy Ledmore Forest to create woodland crofts. The 1,038 hectare forest is owned by the Forestry Commission Scotland, which wants to sell it as part of its repositioning programme.

The Assynt Foundation has tried but failed to mount a buy-out through the National Forest Land Scheme, which allows communities to express interest in buying Forestry Commission land. Over last winter it ran a feasibility study, which looked into the history of land use at Ledmore and explored what local people think should happen there in future, concluding that there was substantial interest in taking over the forest, with a view to supporting existing crofters, creating new woodland crofts and generating a local wood fuel supply.

The procedures of the National Forest Land Scheme are similar to those under the Land Reform Act, and as such require the community to be balloted for their support, requiring more than half of the community to return a ballot paper, and more than half of them to approve a buy-out. The ballot was duly carried out, but although a majority of those who voted supported the buyout, the turn-out was only 40% and thus not sufficient.

Once news of the failure was made public, it became clear that around 25% of the community had not been given the opportunity to vote, because the ballot, run by Highland Council, used only the edited version of the Electoral Roll, excluding those people who opt to avoid their personal details on the public register being sold.

One of those excluded was Bill Ritchie, a key player in previous Assynt land buyouts, and a member of the National Forest Land Scheme’s panel. He said: “Like many others, I ticked the box on the electoral register thinking it was a way of avoiding junk mail, not to be excluded from exercising my democratic right to support another chance to bring more of Assynt into community ownership.” The government has since stated that the names on the full register could have been used by the returning officer by adding them to the edited version for the purpose of a community ballot.

Even had the Assynt Foundation been successful in their bid for Forestry Commission approval, they may well have struggled to raise the money to buy the forest. The Heritage Lottery Scheme has decided that it will no longer fund communities to buy publicly owned land, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise support is much lower than in previous years. This is already frustrating other communities who are keen to create woodland crofts, notably Embo in East Sutherland, which has full approval from the Forestry Commission Scotland to buy their land, but has so far been unable to raise the necessary money.

 

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