Inspiring. Rivetting. Focussed. Enabling.
Over two days, on the Isle of Mull, in Tobermory, at the Western Isles Hotel, 80 or so delegates from agencies, government and community organisations from all over Scotland took part in Community Land Scotland’s second annual conference hosted this year by the North West Mull Community Woodland Company. This event, trailed as an opportunity to feedback into policy and funding decisions, as well as building on the significant success of the movement toward community ownership of assets, took its cue from two key events: the first was the launch of James Hunter’s new book, From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops: Community Ownership of Land in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland ISBN 978-1-907443-28-2 (a review of which will be posted sometime in the next week on this site) and the second was the recent announcement of the new Scottish Land Fund.
In the case of the publication of Hunter’s book, we have a fully persuasive, properly referenced work of record articulating the experience of Community Landownership in Scotland. This is critically important to the movement Community Land Scotland embodies, because it not only validates the efforts of community bodies and associated agencies to secure ownership of assets, but it also documents the huge successes and benefits accruing to communities which have acquired assets.
In his address on the second morning of the conference, James Hunter provided a signal statistic which summed up the impact of the research in this publication: at present 500,000 acres of land is owned by communities at a cost of £30,000,000 (or £60 per acre). This investment by the various funding bodies, since the first community purchase in the early 1990s, represents the cost of 600 yards of the tram system in Edinburgh linking city to airport, or more tellingly, 3 to 4 days of subsidy to agriculture in the UK from Europe.
Against this background then, the new Community Land Fund offers the prospect of a further 100,000 acres coming into community ownership in the next three years which is particularly exciting. Why? Because given the financial models shown at the conference, particularly that of the North West Mull Community Woodland Company who showed an investment to purchase of £347,000 leveraged a spend in the first three years of their project of around £2.4M in their community total (or a ratio of 7:1) we see that this new money has the potential to create a total investment in excess of £42M in communities across Scotland. Now, that is an opportunity.
But of course two headlines don’t a conference make, especially one which was variously described as “the most positive conference anyone remembers attending”, a gathering of the “most activated communities in Scotland” and “the cresting of a wave of community endeavour”. The business of the conference was introduced in the centrepiece address of the first day. Given by John Watt, retiring Director of Strengthening Communities in Highlands and Islands Enterprise, his speech acted both as a context for the entire event, and a gentle introduction to the brief but eventful history of community asset acquisition for those delegates who, like your correspondent, were new to the Community Land Scotland scene. John, who has worked for HIE since the early 80s (albeit with a previous, brief sojourn with the organisation in the mid-70s), picked out the signal events in what has become the most significant change in land ownership patterns in recent times. His considered and generous perspective on each of these landmarks (from the Assynt Crofters to Funding decisions to Island buy-outs) proved just how far we, as new radicals, have come, and how much the acquisition of land can, and does, provide for sustainable futures for the communities which venture into this most invigorating and challenging of fields.
In many ways it was the feedback seminars which followed the first set of formal speeches that initiated the dynamism which characterised the event, this “cresting” that was continually referred to. Unlike many conferences, this event was not so much about the receipt of insights and knowledge but the expression and debate of ideas by the delegates. This dry description however does not particularly capture the signal effect of community organisations being asked their opinion and views on policies, laws and funds which are being framed in the short to medium term, particularly when those asking are the principal actors in those formations. Community Land Scotland, and in particular David Cameron (the chair of CLS) and Peter Peacock, are to be commended for bringing together so significant selection of individuals to interact with their organisation’s members.
In those sessions which I attended the highlights were:
- discussions around the Land Reform Act, particularly the difficulties and disadvantages of the Community Right to Buy process, the problems obtaining full electoral registers, a desire from communities to see the establishment of a right to buy made easier (and a concomitant increase of rigour in the actual move to purchase), the possibility of compulsory purchase on significant but failing community assets (eg. village shops, hotels, piers etc.) and discussions around the communication of the benefits of the act to landowners.
- understanding the form and process of the new Community Land Fund, how the disbursement of funds will be managed and the type of assets the fund will be aimed at (particularly larger parcels of land).
- giving feedback on the SRDP process, the increasingly onerous claims process, how those processes have gradually elongated and caused difficulties with cash flows (and therefore partner or supporting organisations), and the frustration of seeing community organisations (and indeed farmers) avoiding the fund because of the perceived complexity of both applying and claiming.
Feedback on the other sessions was that they were of a similar level and depth, providing no doubt directions of travel for CLS and those who were facilitating them.
Aside from the launch of James Hunter’s book, we spent the morning of the second day listening to and absorbing the strides forward that communities were making towards providing local affordable housing. The issue of communities building houses is one which remains in flux, given the funding policies of central government, the rise of community land ownership, the restructuring of housing associations, present economic conditions and the confusing welter of models to achieve the ends of affordable, properly allocated housing. The conference at least gave the delegates an insight into this vast subject with Di Alexander and Ronnie MacRae’s introduction outlining the challenges and opportunities available to us as communities. Angela Williams case studies based on Knoydart were particularly memorable, showing how this remote and isolated community has really engaged with the housing needs, permanent and temporary, of its residents and visiting workers over nearly two decades, and done so with an adroitness many boards and volunteers could learn from.
Fittingly, and at the instigation of our last speaker (Nick Wilding of the Carnegie UK Trust), the conference finished to the pipes of Fergus Walker of Camuscross & Duisdale Initiative. Fitting because here was a man who, as one of the youngest delegates, and an islander at that, represented the future of the movement, a movement which as David Cameron said on Tuesday evening, was focussed not just on the next year, or the next decade, but the next century.
The overriding impression from the conference is that this is a growing, vital movement of activated communities and individuals who are becoming a force to be reckoned with. However, a few words of caution: many of these folk are volunteers, they have limited time to devote to these endeavours, and quite frankly where they find the time to attend and to contribute to conferences like this is a mystery. Agencies and funders must recognise that although communities are rich in ideas, enthusiasm and know-how, they are also time impoverished. If this movement is to be asked to deliver as much for the social good as seems to be indicated by policy-makers, then these groups need to have more permanent forms of support, not over the period of months or years, but over decades. Consider James Hunter’s statistic: as much is being spent every three to four days on agricultural subsidy in the UK as has been spent directly on the entire Community Land movement over twenty years. Is there not an argument which says one should spend one’s budget where most benefit will accrue? And is that not by supporting communities acquiring and running their own assets? I think all of the delegates at the conference would answer, from the top of their cresting wave, with a resounding, “Yes!”
Picture shows the core Community Land Scotland personnel, including Peter Peacock and David Cameron taking a breather from their highly successful conference on the terrace of the Western Isles Hotel, Tobermory. 2012 © C.S.Dixon-Spain