Visit to Gigha leads Labour MSP to demand Scottish Government gets serious about land reform

David Stewart, Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, is urging the Scottish Government to get serious about land reform on following a recent visit to Gigha.

Mr Stewart, who visited the island as part of a wide ranging trip to Argyll, spent time meeting representatives of the Gigha community to learn more about their experiences as one of the pioneers of community land reform.

He was also keen to hear about the current challenges facing the island.

As a result, he has also tabled a motion at the Scottish Parliament that has attracted cross party support and is hopeful that Gigha can be used as an example for further land reform across Scotland.

Following the visit Mr Stewart said:

‘I was very keen to get across to Gigha to see for myself the benefits that community ownership has brought to the island and also to hear the benefits of their experience ten years on from the community buyout.

‘What is abundantly clear is that the community has prospered as a result of the buyout turning round a pattern of long term decline and attracting new people to the island.  It is clear that this could be happening all over Scotland and it is time for community land reform to be much higher up the political agenda.

‘I am proud of the achievements of the last Labour Executive in land reform and I am glad that at long last the Scottish Government have agreed to a review into the next steps of the process.

‘It is now time for the Scottish Government to get serious about Community Land Reform looking at ways to not only help new communities buy their land but also supporting communities such as Gigha in the next stage of their development.’

One issue we would point to where reform in community buy outs is necessary is actually exemplified by Gigha,

The landowner from whom the island was bought was allowed to retain some elements of the property which he cherry picked. Coincidentally these were the earning elements – the home farm and the fish farm.

This seems to defeat the purpose of land reform. leaving a community buying out its land, deprived of the strengths of their potential purchase and making the best of the rest. Owning a sodden stone-ridden field is not necessarily better than tenanting a productive one,

Then, while Gigha will be delighted that their experience and achievements are deservedly seen as exemplary and inspirational, it may be that the island community is now entering or already in a new phase where some realities are making their presence felt and solutions are not yet obvious.

Islanders are shop off the island quite a lot at the moment as there are reasons why  their needs cannot now be met locally.

There are also strains from the constant need to repay the money they have borrowed, as the novelty of ownership wears off and the flush of adrenaline that drove the community to the buy out  subsides.

None of this is any indication of failure. Gigha has been doughty and inspiring. But this is the reality of  the endlessly demanding responsibility they have taken on.

As a landowning community with a mortage to service they are rather at the stage of newly weds once the fun of playing house and throwing dinner parties wears off and the fact of enduring responsibility makes freewheeling singlehood seem temporarily nostalgic.

It would be constructive to rec0gnise that this is a necessary stage of evolution as community landowners and to help the islanders to address it. This would indeed create a model for others. Forcing Gigha into a fiction where all is always bright, happy and easy is to obstruct an understanding of the nature of the realities the buy-out communities come to confront.

Scotland also needs to understand that it is in the nature of things  that there will be buy out communities which, at some point, will fail. This is unlikely to be Gigha but one day it will happen with one community somewhere. They will  not be alone and it will not be their fault.There is simply a statistical probability and it has to happen to some.

The sort of responsibility in scale and duration that such communities take on has massive rewards but it is wearying. There will be periods of exhaustion and defeatedness. Most will come through but not all.

Is there an ‘exit strategy’ for this eventuality?

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23 Responses to Visit to Gigha leads Labour MSP to demand Scottish Government gets serious about land reform

  1. Following publication of this article, Mr Stewart’s office has told us that the issues of the shop and of debt fatigue were raised with his party when they were on Gigha – as well as the relationship with the Council for accessing advice, services and finance for further investment.

    Mr Stewart is also working with Bob Chicken from Tarbert on land issues on Islay and is planning to visit the island in the near future to discuss them.

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  2. As the Scottish Government budget settlement for 2013-14 is going to be the tightest so far I think that there are more important things to spend Taxpayers’ money on than wasting it on Community buyouts.
    If communities want to purchase land from their landowners they should raise the funds themselves instead of going “cap in hand” to the Scottish Government for the vast majority of the funds.

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    • Total Government funding to date for community buyouts would pay for 600m of the Edinburgh tram line. Which is the more important?

      That’s the sort of question our Government has to address. I’d say the money has been well spent to date in terms of the benefits returned in terms of increasing rural employment and community resilience.

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    • Community buy-out funding should be raised from a land value tax levied on those few who own vast tracts of land as status symbols and don’t put them to productive use.

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      • Land Rental Value, a rent rather than a tax, should be levied on all the land in Scotland and Andy Wightman in his latest book suggests the income from this would be greater than the block grant from westminster. This gives rise to the interesting notion that we could abolish the majority of taxes, the income being replaced by the rent from the land. It is certainly fairer and has a number of added benefits most of which would result in economic resurgence.

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    • I recollect that the current government was very critical of the disastrous tram project and extremely reluctant to get involved, but when push came to shove and the city was seriously considering decapitating the line by stopping it at Haymarket, short of the city centre, it would so clearly have made such a colossal nonsense of the project that the government really had no option.
      If only they’d see the Kilcreggan ferry debacle in the same light.

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  3. Douglas.
    I will give you another more sensible option.
    The total Government funding of community buyouts could have been spent on insulation of more homes in Scotland.
    I suspect that the citizens of Edinburgh who thanks to the Labour & LibDems Scottish Government coalition prior to 2007 would rather have the money spent on another 600m of tramline than community buyouts in the back of beyond.

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    • 3T: I suspect that the good folk of Edinburgh would rather the money hadn’t been spent (wasted?) on the tram fiasco at all given the huge disruption and damage to trade it has wrought and still not a single tram running.

      The Government is already pushing ahead with insulating every home in Scotland through the UHIS scheme and other measures so it is hardly an either or. The government money spent on community buy outs is pretty small beer in any case and has successfully leveraged money from the Lottery funds and the private sector. Compared with other forms of support for rural areas (Invergordon anyone?) this seems a pretty cost-effective policy that, and perhaps more importantly, sings to the hearts of Scots and particularly Highlanders for whom the Clearances are not distant history but a raw wound that never seems to heal.

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  4. I have already commented on my views of a ‘planned community’ which the Gigh trust appear to use as its model.
    Cherry picking the residents may not be a sustainable way forward either.

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    • Lowry – so what’s the alternative? If the island was still owned by a landlord, do you think he would have no control over who he rented his property to? Of course he would, and he would exercise that power according to his own whim. He would also control what if any further development took place on the island, and what if any property was sold on the open market.

      You need to explain why you think the fact that these powers have passed to a community group which is subject to democratic control by the islanders themselves makes the situation worse. To my mind it has the potential to make it much better.

      If there is land or property on the island which is owned by individuals and not the community trust, it can presumably be bought and sold like anywhere else.

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  5. Two wrongs do not make a right. In my view, residents should be self-selecting: rich and poor, abled and disabled, young and old. Of course, Gigha is trying to attract families and workers to help sustain the project but what happens to the residents when they end up in an unwanted category and block housing?

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    • There is nothing ‘special’ about a community landlord – tenants have the same rights and responsibilities as they do for privately-rented or social housing. Anyone who has spent time on a housing waiting list and has experience of the ‘points’ system knows only too well that housing is allocated according to the priorities of whoever owns it. What about the perfectly legal ‘No DSS’ qualification for many private rentals?

      But I get the feeling that you are singling out the Gigha model because you just don’t like the whole concept of community organisations per se, Lowry. Perhaps the solution would be to sell off all the houses on Gigha to whoever wants to buy them, that way it could end up with the model you so despise on Easdale – two thirds of them holiday homes.

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      • I am glad that you point out the large number of holiday homes on Easdale Island – something that has increased, with permanent resident population decreasing, since Eilean Eisdeal became established.

        Not all communities suffer such a fate – Luing, for example. I understand that the Luing trust caps the number of second home owner membership so that it can never exceed that of the residents. Therefore the resident community can truly have a say in its future.

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        • Lowry – it is surely a touch disingenuous to imply that Eilean Eisdeal has any control over the number of holiday homes on the island. That situation has arisen because the majority of houses on the island (as I understand it) are privately and individually owned – i.e. not by either a community group or the main landowner. There’s nothing any community group can do about the free market in housing which they do not own.

          That’s why I was trying to point up the inconsistency in your position – that on the one hand you don’t like control of housing in a community to be under any kind of collective control (Gigha) and yet you abhor the results of a free market in property ownership (Easdale). I ask again: what is your suggested solution?

          I do agree however with your suggestion that a community trust should find some way to accord a greater say to a resident population than to second-home owners, especially if it is going to get involved in a future buy-out.

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    • Gigha Heritage Trust does try to build a sustainable community by encouraging enterprising families to come – however the new social housing is subject to the same points system as any other social housing in Argyll and Bute. Residents are equally valued – and all are eligible to join the Trust for £1 and take part in decision making. Real people live here – and we have stopped the rot of holiday homes which leave communities dead through the winter and allow schools to dwindle to nothing in beauty spots around Scotland

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  6. There are a couple of important omissions from this article.

    Firstly, the purchase of Gigha predates the introduction of land reform legislation in 2003 and was therefore (in principle) negotiated between a willing buyer and a willing seller. So if the owner ‘cherry picked’ anything (though I was not aware of this), this was not a failing of the legislation which did not exist then – and despite its faults, even the 2003 Act does not allow landowners to ‘cherry pick’: interest can be registered by communities in any land, buildings, salmon fishings and some mineral rights.

    Secondly, Newsroom has failed to mention one of the community’s most successful income-generating projects to date, namely the famous ‘Dancing Ladies’ of Gigha. Is the fact that this is a windpower project (albeit community owned and of appropriate scale) an ‘inconvenient truth’ for Newsroom?

    Can I recommend to readers of this forum Professor Jim Hunter’s excellent book “From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops” as essential background reading to the land reform story.

    One final observation: in my view one symptom of the ‘immaturity’ of much of our land reform debate – at least in the media – is the way the discussion has focused solely on either bona-fide, appropriately constituted community groups, or big, bad, wealthy (and usually) absentee landowners. In between these options are a range of alternatives that could also provide increased local benefit. Making ownership of land accessible and affordable to ordinary local people would go a long way to realising the many potential benefits.

    To give one example of where we are compared with other countries (from my own field of forestry):

    - last week the Swedish Forest Service published its annual statistics. These revealed that there are nearly 328,000 individual owners of woodland in Sweden, of whom nearly half are local residents.

    In Scotland? Well, we don’t bother to collect such information officially – but recent research has suggested approximately 4-5,000 woodland owners in total, many of whom live outside Scotland.

    Even accounting for Sweden’s greater population (roughly double) the comparison is stark.

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