A campaign launched yesterday saw the Registered Offices in Edinburgh of the Mount Stuart Trust and the Applecross Trust – companies owning and managing the estates of the Isle of Bute and of Applecross in Wester Ross – receive more than ninety applications for membership rights.
Those concerned want representation on the boards of the companies whose actions or inaction shape the lives of local residents as much or more than their local authority does.
In both cases, the landlords are absentees.
In both cases every one of the members of the companies controlling the estates are not resident in the areas.
With Bute, the Mount Stuart Trust [28,000 acres] is wholly controlled by members of the family of the current Marquess of Bute, with a lawyer and an accountant. None live on Bute.
With Applecross, the Applecross Trust [61,000 acres] is controlled by seven people, again with none living in Applecross.
This would seem to be an initial move towards community buy-outs with the campaign making it clear that if yesterdays’ applicants succeed in gaining rights to membership of the respective controlling companies, they ‘…will work with local residents to hand over the companies to community control’.
This somehow suggests that ‘they’ who ‘will work with local residents’ are no more resident themselves than are the absentee landlords.
The applicants for membership rights appear to contain local residents in each case but also to contain applicants admitted to be from ‘across Scotland’.
This is a contradiction in terms because the movements are therefore fuelled, at least in part, outwith the communities concerned – and may not even be locally driven. There is little credibility in seeking to limit or change the influence of absentee landlords in a campaign supported by or even directed externally.
This is a fascinating and complex issue, one that is not helpfully respondent to crude simplifications.
At the heart of it is the question of competing rights – those conferred by ownership and those by commitment of residency.
The late Jo Grimond, Orcadian leader of the Liberal Party, held that labour was capital as much as money – and of course it is.
The return on investment of labour is a wage. The return on financial investment is distributed profit – a wage for the money, if you like. But the investment of money additionally confers ownership and control where the investment of labour does not.
This then introduces the vulnerabilities and strengths of the lottery of inherited ownership and control, with the lives of residents and workers directly affected by whether the right genetic numbers come up.
There is no doubt whatsoever that in the great majority of cases the judgment of a resident landlord will be more acutely tuned to the context of the estate than will that of an absentee. Communications too will be potentially direct and every day. The security in residency is less about ownership than about integration, development and sensitively directed management.
Different rights remain rights
Land is visceral in its impact. If a landowner does not share that with those who live on land he or she owns, they cede the authority of that powerful connection and its consequent knowledge.
But landlords also have their rights, whether or not they are resident. These rights too must be respected in an equitable society.
We remain disturbed by the Scottish Government’s oversetting the rights of an absentee landlord, Barry Lomas, who robustly did not wish to sell to the community his land at Pairc in Lewis in the Western Isles.
That decision carries something inconsistently revolutionary in a party of power, the SNP, which has embraced the continuation of the monarchy in Scotland for reasons of political expediency. As such, the Pairc decision seems brutally populist, with the independence referendum on the near horizon – rather than considerative.
In a website launched today [27th September 2012] for this campaign – Land Action Scotland – its coordinator, Andy Wightman, the well known land rights campaigner who necessarily keeps the Crown Estate Commission bang in his sights, says:
‘The aim is to democratise these private organisations which are meant to operate on a charitable basis. They exert enormous influence over the local communities of Bute and Applecross and yet they remain in the exclusive control of a handful of people who to date have shown no interest in extending participation to local residents.
‘The time has passed for aristocrats and wealthy families to hide their continued control over vast tracts of Scotland behind front companies and charities, fig-leaves that allow them to keep control. The people of Bute and Applecross have the right to be members of these companies and play a full and democratic part in the future of the estate.
“We have therefore this week launched a major campaign to challenge the vested interests who control the company and to open up membership.The ball is now firmly with the Mount Stuart Trust and the Applecross Trust. Are they nepotistic cliques or are they prepared to share power with local people?’
This is fiery stuff – but the scenario in total leaves the landlords in a situation they will find hard if not impossible to accommodate.
If this were simply about membership rights, about representation and shared authority, it would be different from the case in question – where these matters are overtly presented as the deliberate forerunner to community control. This makes it very difficult for a landowning company to open the doors to what is a self-declared raiding party. But if they don’t, they will be put in the stocks for widespread abuse and used as examples of the need for change.
Who would hand over control of their house or flat to a Residents Association because they all happen to live in the same area?
Community control is also not, per se, any more developmental than landowner control.
There cannot be a single formula for the rights and wrongs of something as complex and sensitive as this. It requires an understanding of the nature of the very real rights of all parties concerned; and respect for the rights and views of others – who, on both sides, must earn those rights by engagement.
In some cases the fire in what Andy Wightman has to say is justified but by no means in all – because this is not a simple matter.
There are incapable, irresponsible and rapacious tenants and residents as there are landlords of the same kind. Neither money nor residency confer superior moral rights per se. Only an enduring, responsible and engaged commitment to the good of all can do that.
There are other sides to this issue.
Well managed and integrated estates with a resident landowner can be seen to be a positive advantage.
For example, the village of Inveraray lies within the massive Argyll estates whose HQ is Inveraray Castle where the current Duke of Argyll and his family live.
The estate is largely open to the public so the village of Inveraray enjoys free and open access to stunningly beautiful and mature grounds, landscaped down the years and containing a range of marked walks. Inveraray Shinty Club – the narrowly losing finalist in the 2012 Camanachd Cup and a recent former champion – has its ground in the estate.
This is effectively a public park beyond imagining, for whose maintenance residents and visitors welcome to use it do not pay, nor does the local council. This is a serious amenity the area enjoys at the landlord’s expense.
Were this parkland to be the property of a community or of a council, short term needs and wants would be given priority over the long view, leaving it unlikely to retain the designed shape and flow it has today.
Access to rural or urban landscapes which, in their different ways create the spiritual impact of space, scale, secrecy, a sense of timelessness – and offer physical challenge – is a core necessity of the decent life that should be a universal right.
The good estates – and they do exist – make these assets freely available and maintain them better from long knowledge, records and vested interest than they would be maintained by any alternative agent.
A diverse society as opposed to a monolithic one has the best chance of offering universal access to a wide variety of opportunities.
The Argyll Estate at Inveraray is an engaged estate, proactive in a wide spectrum of initiatives – from urban development to tourism to business promotion – to help to drive the economic sustainability of the area – because this is vital both to the area and to the estates.
Shared responsibility, mutual respect, an awareness of different but equal rights are the signposts to where we need to go – towards evolving a civilised and universally just expression of those different rights in their respective contributions to shaping the circumstances of all our lives.
Finally, it has to be said – and by a radical – that there is something disturbing about an externally led campaign flying local banners like Bute and Applecross. These do not appear to be genuinely indigenous initiatives.
People who are content have a right to remain so, rather than to be expected to dance to someone else’s drum.