Chris Fergusson, one of the most energetic participants in the original Facebook campaign that attracted more than 5,000 signatures in defence of maintaining the Council owned Castle Toward Estate as an outdoor education and community facility for South Cowal, has issued a public challenge to Argyll and Bute’s MSP, Michael Russell.
The Scottish Government has recently refused the South Cowal community the right to buy the estate and has given Argyll and Bute Council licence to go ahead and sell it. It is known that there are around four developers interested in buying the estate – composed of the castle (the spiritual home of Cowal’s Clan Lamont) and its extensive grounds.
Mr Fergusson’s query is based on Mr Russell’s response to a parliamentary question on 4th February 2010 from Ken Macintosh, MSP for Eastwood and now front runner in the current contest to lead the Scottish Labour party.
A compressed outline of the issue is that Argyll and Bute Council have wanted for some time to sell the property, which they inherited from Glasgow in a local authority boundary revision, and which then and since is an outdoor education centre, run for Argyll and Bute Council by Actual Reality.
Mr Mackintosh asked what steps the Scottish Government was taking to prevent the closure of Castle Toward as a residential facility for outdoor pursuits and courses in the expressive arts.
Mr Russell’s response was: ‘It is for Argyll and Bute Council to consider what the best interests and actions are in relation to Castle Toward. I understand that the council and Actual Reality, the operator, have held positive discussions about the reopening of the facility and its future ownership.’
Mr Fergusson’s point would appear to be that, in the light of this response – and since it has been said that Argyll and Bute Council was willing to consider a community buy out of the castle and estate, it is important to know why the Scottish Government saw fit to remove that option from the council’s spectrum of choice, this making a nonsense of Mr Russell’s reply to Mr mackintosh.
The reasons put forward by the Scottish Government – not on their taking of this decision but on the reasons for its specific nature were essentially twofold – that the community proposal had been late (not ‘timeous’) and that it had not presented an adequately developed business case.
In our examination of the issue we showed why we see these situations as having been the case, asking why the Government had not dignified the community’s effort by assuming that there was good reason for the way it had acted and for its inability, in the circumstances to do anything else.
We felt and feel that this contravenes the spirit of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act which is widely seen as one of the most successful radical piece of legislation since devolution, contributing powerfully to communities assuming responsibility for their own destiny and to thier growing confidence that they have the capacity to do this.
The reality is that the South Cowal community was not given the time to find its way through a complex and confrontational set of circumstances and summon everything it takes to develop and present a fully fledged business case for a major community enterprise.
If ‘consultation’ meant what it is supposed to mean and if, in Argyll and Bute Council, there was an administration with a history of trustworthy, competent and responsible performance and decision taking over its assets, the South Cowal community would not have come together in its current determination.
The reality was that the community and its representatives were initially reluctant to appear to compete with Actual Reality’s own ambitions to buy the castle and part of the estate.
This reluctance was born of two key factors.
Actual Reality had a history of running the facility in a successful operation and was respected for that reason. It was therefore reasonably seen by the commuity that it was in the community’s best interests for that company to buy as much of the property as it felt was appropriate and to continue in operation, with local access guaranteed.
As well as being respected, Actual Reality was, in our objective view, quite overbearing as far as the community’s interest was concerned. It effectively required the community not to press its interest while Actual Reality pursued its own negotiations with the council. The community was happy to oblige and played a supportive role in this.
When it appeared that these had come to nothing and that the council was putting the property on the market, the community came together to consider their own options – but still with Actual Reality in mind, this time as a partner.
All of this delayed the community – for honourable and understandable reasons, in taking a full-blooded position in building its own business case for the planned community buy out of the property under the Land Reform Act.
Our own view then, as now, was that he community would have been advised, at the outset of the council’s declared intention to sell the property, to press ahead and build a strong and evidenced business case for a community buy out. That wold have left them in a position to make any later arrangement with Actual Reality that stood up to business logic.
As it was, with Actual a locally powerful and determined potential bidder for the property, the community did not seriously examine its own capacities or its possible intentiosn until a late stage.
While this may be regrettable, the community should not have been penalised as it has been. Some communities are gentler, perhaps less initially self-confident than others. This does not mean that they are essentially less capable – just that they need time to reassess themselves.And the race is not always to the swift.
One would have thought that the heart of the purpose of the Land Reform Act was to allow this growth process to mature – instead of which, in this case, it has been aborted.
It remains to be seen – but not for long – what the Council is to do with the property. If that decision and, most importantly, the realisation of that decision is not seen to be in the community’s best interests in the mid to long term, there will be strenuous questions to be answered by the Council and by the current Scottish Government.
It has to be remembered that the council inherited and did not buy the property and that they manifestly failed to have it properly maintained.