Garbh Allt Community Initiative

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd October 2017.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-06241, in the name of Maree Todd, on Garbh Allt Community Initiative reaching its funding target. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament celebrates the Garbh Allt Community Initiative achieving its funding target for a community buy-out of the Sutherland Estate land at Portgower, Gartymore, West Helmsdale and Marrel, as well as the hill land; believes that this is of historic significance as these townships only came into existence following people being cleared from the Strath of Kildonan; congratulates the Countess of Sutherland and the members of the community initiative on getting funding from both the Scottish Land Fund and the Beatrice Partnership Fund for the buy-out, and looks forward to a bright future in Scotland in which all communities can harness their assets and flourish.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to lead this debate on community land ownership.

Scotland’s land is one of our greatest assets and, in an inclusive and progressive Scotland, it is only right that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from our assets. Scotland has one of the most unusual and concentrated patterns of private land ownership anywhere in Europe. At the last count, just 432 people owned half of Scotland’s private land, which means that vast amounts of power and wealth are currently held in the hands of a few individuals. That needs to be changed. I want more of Scotland’s land to be in the hands of more of Scotland’s people.

The question of who owns Scotland has been an area of contention for many years. With so much land in so few hands, changes in the law—such as the community right to buy—have been very welcome. There are good reasons for that beyond a drive for social justice: community ownership of land can regenerate a place economically, socially, culturally and environmentally. Research by Community Land Scotland shows that communities that buy their own land reap a number of benefits, including the reversal of depopulation, the creation of jobs and the ability to make money that can be invested back into the community. In addition, people who live on community-owned land report that they feel more in charge of local decision making, more connected with their area and more empowered.

Today, 560,000 acres of land are in community ownership. The Scottish Government’s target is for that figure to reach 1 million acres by 2020. Without the legislation that has given new powers to communities to purchase land for development, we simply would not be where we are today. The Scottish National Party established the Scottish land fund, which makes available £10 million a year to support community purchases. It has a healthy pipeline of interest from communities across Scotland that are seeking to buy land. Thanks to groundbreaking land reform legislation, just under 500 community groups own more than half a million acres of land and can control their own destinies.

In the Highlands and Islands, land reform empowered the Strontian community to buy its primary school. On the Isle of Skye, where the tourism industry is booming, projects such as the Fairy Pools car-park renovation have received a funding boost from the Scottish land fund towards its plans to develop the area, which will help the community to cater to the very welcome increasing numbers of tourists. Land ownership is vital to such projects.

The community land ownership movement has its modern origins in the Highlands and Islands, but it has much wider relevance following the Scottish land fund’s extension in order to enable urban communities to buy community assets.

I will focus on the Garbh Allt Community Initiative, but I hope that others in the debate will highlight the multitude of community buyouts in Scotland.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

Does Maree Todd agree that our rethinking of land ownership is directly linked to repopulating the Highlands, as we have seen on the Isle of Eigg? It was one of the first community buyouts, and its population has gone over the 100 mark for the first time in decades.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

Absolutely. The island of Eigg, which I know is in Kate Forbes’s constituency, has been an inspiration to all the subsequent community land buyouts, and shows what can be achieved when communities have control of the land.

As the motion states, Garbh AlIt achieved

“its funding target for a community buy-out of the Sutherland Estate land at Portgower, Gartymore, West Helmsdale and Marrel, as well as the hill land”.

The Helmsdale & District Development Trust helped to co-ordinate the buyout process and secured funding from the Scottish land fund and the Beatrice partnership fund. It is particularly satisfying that the trust harnessed its land asset with money that came from harnessing the renewable energy asset. As I have said before in the chamber, harnessing the renewable energy potential that we have in the Highlands and Islands will be transformative.

Before they received the funding, village residents in east Sutherland overwhelmingly backed the plan to take ownership of the surrounding land—96 per cent of the 73 per cent election turnout responded in favour of the buyout. That was obviously a very positive result and provided evidence of local support, which was crucial to progressing the buyout.

The new development officer post is the first job that has been created in the area south of the river for more than 60 years. The estate has more than 20 sites of historical interest. Securing the estate’s future will allow the development of business opportunities and create a stream of income into the community.

The new owners are really excited by the opportunity to invest in the land and to make the area an even better place to live in. They want to look at land management and show the land care and attention. Good stewardship is at the new owners’ core. They want to improve the land and pass it on.

The most exciting possibilities are further job creation, reversing depopulation and making something of the assets. The community is proud of its Jurassic coastline, and the residents are keen to show it off, through sustainable tourism, to the world.

The buyout just outside Helmsdale is of particular historical significance, given the wider area’s history of violent evictions during the Highland clearances. Helmsdale village only came into existence when the people were cleared from the straths. It is, of course, the site of “The Emigrants” statue, which commemorates the clearances and the ensuing global Scottish diaspora. The statue is the brainchild of gold-mining entrepreneur, Dennis MacLeod, who is, like many of those who have been involved in the community buyout initiative—not least his cousin Anne Fraser, who is the chair of the Helmsdale & District Development Trust—a direct descendant of people who were cleared.

Community buyout is really not about reversing the Highland clearances. That was different land. It was a different time. It is about the opportunities that land ownership brings to a community nowadays. It is refreshing to note the active co-operation of the Sutherland family in the purchase of the land outside Helmsdale. The legacy of the clearances still affects the area profoundly, and there is a sense here of something being put right. That landowners are actively co-operating with communities in the transfer of assets into community ownership is to be commended and encouraged.

Although the Helmsdale buyout is relatively small, I hope that it will lead to a gradual transition of power, with the Highlands benefiting from wider repopulation and greater economic gains as a result of community land ownership and development.

There are many exciting changes in the way in which land is owned and used in Scotland. I look forward to a bright future in which all our communities—rural and urban—can harness their assets and flourish.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, in relation to the farming business of J Halcro-Johnston and Sons.

I congratulate Maree Todd on securing the debate and giving the Parliament an opportunity to consider some of the practical elements of community ownership in the Highlands and Islands.

The beauty of the Strath of Kildonan and the wider east coast of Sutherland is well known, but the challenges of building and maintaining sustainable communities are often overlooked. Within the 3,000 acres of land that are subject to the buyout, there are markers of deprivation, and there is much to do to exploit the existing resources that are available to the community. Maree Todd touched on one such resource, that is, renewables. The members of the Garbh Allt Community Initiative expressed support for development and for attracting new residents to the area. It is positive to have the passion of local residents as a driver to improve the area.

It is also important that communities and landowners across Scotland can work together to ensure sustainability and improve the land where they live. In the case that we are considering, the community buyout process has been the result of the collaboration of both parties, to their mutual benefit.

It is notable that the Garbh Allt Community Initiative secured support from the Scottish land fund, in addition to other funding schemes. The Scottish Conservatives’ rural manifesto, which was published last year, proposed the opening up of the Scottish land fund to support long-lease funding for communities. In some cases, long leases might be the preferred option for communities and landowners, and I see no reason not to provide parity of support where that is what people seek.

I pay tribute to the organisations that have progressed the buyout process to where it is today. The Garbh Allt Community Initiative has engaged with the Helmsdale and District Development Trust and Highlands and Islands Enterprise in recent years to plan the project and apply for funding for the venture. I congratulate the project’s directors and team on what has clearly been a considerable undertaking.

It is important that the buyout does not represent the end of the support that is offered to such communities. In many ways, purchasing the land is the start of a process rather than the end of one. It is the beginning of a process of developing, expanding and making better use of the land. If we wish such projects to be a success and communities to be sustainable, we will need to continue to offer not only our support but our commitment not to put up unnecessary barriers to development.

The Garbh Allt Community Initiative project will likely continue to face the familiar challenges that we see across many rural areas in the Highlands and Islands. The issues will be well known to ministers: quality of transport connections; the enduring question of broadband and mobile connectivity; and support for farming and other rural businesses.

We cannot consider such issues in isolation. It is clear that the support that is offered to the rural economy has fallen short in the past, in many ways. The challenge that that poses to the Scottish Government is obvious: if we wish communities such as we are talking about to thrive, the Government must be serious in addressing the wider issues of rural Scotland and particularly the Highlands and Islands. If those challenges continue to be neglected, the costs will be considerable across the country, from the tip of Sutherland to the banks of the Solway.

I extend my good wishes to the Garbh Allt Community Initiative and welcome its commitment to improving the local area in a sustainable way. The initiative has gained an exceptional level of support in the community.

However, let us not forget that this is only the first step in a far wider process of building and supporting communities in our regions that can prosper for generations to come.

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I congratulate the Garbh Allt Community Initiative on reaching its funding target. Securing the transfer of 3,000 acres of land in Sutherland to the community is an incredible feat, and I very much look forward to hearing about all the good progress that the community will continue to make in future.

I thank Maree Todd for bringing to the chamber the topic of community buyouts and the benefits of the Scottish land fund.

Back in February, when the Garbh Allt Community Initiative received a grant from the Scottish land fund, a community buyout group in my Edinburgh Eastern constituency, Action Porty, also received a grant. The £647,000 Scottish land fund award that Action Porty received enabled it to purchase the Portobello old parish church on Bellfield Street. That made history as the first urban right-to-buy purchase in Scotland, and it allows me to add an urban perspective to the debate.

For those who are unfamiliar with the property, it has been a landmark in the Portobello landscape for over 200 years. During its time as a working church, it served as a place for the community to come together to celebrate. When the church closed, the Action Porty team, through its save Bellfield campaign, organised and made sure that that precious community space would be saved for the future. Portobello is not exactly home to many spaces where community groups can meet, so the preservation of Bellfield and the space that it allows will be key to maintaining the vibrancy of the Portobello area.

The project had, and continues to have, strong buy-in from those in the Portobello community. A community ballot to initiate the project received a 98.7 per cent “yes” vote approving the community buyout, and a recent crowdfunder that closed just this week or last week has raised £20,000 towards preparing the space for its opening next year. The buyout has been completed successfully and Action Porty received the keys to the property on 6 September, which is very exciting.

The strong community support for projects such as Bellfield and Garbh Allt, which received a 96 per cent backing in its ballot, as Maree Todd mentioned, really are the essence of why such community buyouts and the Scottish land fund exist. They empower communities to take control of land and spaces that are important to them and redevelop them in a way that will be sustainable and in the best interests of the people who live there.

For Bellfield, that will mean a community space for all. Action Porty’s vision is to create a fresh and lively space that will be accessible to everyone and for use by those of all ages and abilities. From providing a venue for the arts and entertainment to creating a community garden, an after-school programme for children and classes for the elderly, Bellfield will build on the legacy of the old parish church and create new and sustained opportunities for the people of Portobello.

That sort of space, where the people in a community can celebrate creativity, history and their future, is much needed in Portobello. Across Scotland, there are many other communities that have their own unique needs that can be realised through the purchase and redevelopment of land in that way. Garbh Allt and the save Bellfield campaign have paved the way for other right-to-buy initiatives to move forward.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

To emphasise Ash Denham’s point, I note that the Action Porty project is an inspiration across the capital city, including among my constituents whose inspire east end project is campaigning to save the former London Road church, which is not far from here, to turn it into a community facility.

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I thank the member for that intervention. He is quite right, as I was about to say that initiatives such as the save Bellfield campaign, Action Porty and Garbh Allt are an inspiration for groups across the whole of Scotland as well as for the future of land ownership and development, providing a model of what other communities both large and small, both rural and urban, can accomplish.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

I, too, congratulate Maree Todd on securing this evening’s debate and compliment her on a very fine speech. Presiding Officer, I may have to leave early to attend another event and I apologise for not staying for the whole debate.

As a highlander, I have had an interest in the land reform debate since I was old enough to hold up my first copy of the

West Highland Free Press

. History provides a rich tapestry of experiences: the Highland clearances, the battle of the Braes and the Highland Land League. Perhaps lesser known are the seven men of Knoydart, who defied Nazi sympathiser and landlord Lord Brocket to settle the land.

Around 550,000 acres of Scotland is now owned and managed by local communities but, significant though that is, it represents only a tiny fraction of Scotland’s land. There is scope to push much further forward with the agenda of community ownership. Doing so will help to bring the benefits that we are seeing in Garbh Allt and elsewhere to many more communities.

In the book “Who Owns Scotland?” John McEwen demonstrated just how few people own the vast bulk of our land. Since it was published in the 1970s, some things have changed for the better, but not enough has. The land ownership pattern remains essentially the same, which simply cannot be right. As we look forward, we cannot imagine a future Scotland where that continues.

I am a great admirer of David Cameron—not that one, but the one who is the former chairman of Community Land Scotland—and I remember a speech of his in which he called land reform “unfinished business” that is fundamental to greater social justice in Scotland. He said:

“Is it possible for Scots to conceive of a future Scotland that does not, explicitly, have greater social justice at its heart? I think not ... This is not about fighting battles of the past ... land reform remains a cause of the present and the future.”

Land changes under the feet of the people for some odd reasons. In the same speech, David Cameron highlighted an advert for the Gledfield estate in Sutherland, which appeared in the property section of

The Press and Journal some years ago. I quote:

“The estate will appeal to the international super rich ... The asking price for this exceptional property is offers over £8 million, but for that you get a traditional Highland estate with more than 6,000 acres of sporting ground, 2,000 acres of commercial forestry and a spectacular sporting lodge.”

I cannot see many local people having immediately to hand the money that is needed to put in an offer, so I celebrate the Garbh Allt community and the work that it has done in achieving its funding target for the buyout, with the help of the Scottish land fund and, as we have heard, from the Beatrice partnership fund

We need to push on with land reform and build on the work of previous land reform legislation. The Garbh Allt community being on the verge of buying out the Sutherland estate marks a new phase in Highland history, with the land soon to be reclaimed by the descendants of those who were evicted during the clearances—and from the descendants of the man blamed for starting the clearances in the first place.

As we know, the Duke of Sutherland infamously began the process of clearing the land 200 years ago, and the communities have been living in the shadow of that decision ever since. Some 15,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed from the land and their homes, which were then burnt to prevent them from moving back in. The physical and emotional scars of those actions will remain. I hope that the community’s repossessing the land will lead to a new sense of belonging. The land is in the community’s blood, and they can finally come home.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I thank Maree Todd for giving voice to this very important issue. Members may have noted that I have been relatively silent for the past three weeks, as I have been suffering from laryngitis. Maree Todd has arranged for me to be temporarily given back my voice to allow me to speak in the debate this evening. Let us hope—as I do—that it lasts for four minutes.

The history of the area of which we speak continues to be writ. Those of us who have been there will have seen, on the hill and in the distance, the statue of the Duke of Sutherland. There are those who would wish to take down that statue, and there have been many unofficial attempts to do so. I would leave it there, as a constant reminder of the iniquities of the past.

The Emigrants”, which Dennis MacLeod was one of the moving spirits behind and which now stands adjacent to the A9 at Helmsdale, is one of the most moving, poignant and relevant memorials that there are in Scotland. It depicts a mother and father walking out of the glen, with their child, holding his parent’s hand; the mother is looking back, never to see the glen again. It speaks to what has happened in such areas around Helmsdale.

For my personal part, as a family, we spent more than a decade holidaying at Achmelvich, just north of Lochinver, on the west coast of Sutherland. There, of course, we had the blight of ownership by the Vestey family. Not only did they own and control vast swathes of Sutherland and bits of Caithness and, I think, Ross-shire, but they paid not a penny in tax to the UK Exchequer, retaining their Argentinian domicile as a way of avoiding making proper contributions fiscally, just as they were inhibiting the operation of the community in the area that they owned and controlled.

The time for that model of land ownership is past. The Labour-Liberal Administration that we previously had in this place took the first excellent, widely welcomed step to ensure that land ownership was placed on a more formal basis and available to people. Previously, buyouts had been much more difficult to achieve, and we know much of the history of that.

I am delighted that the motion refers to the Countess of Sutherland and I am delighted that the family has taken a different attitude to working with the community from that which was taken in previous centuries.

The buyout is a very important move for the people of Helmsdale and it is a very important example of the benefits that can accrue and start to undo the injustices of a pattern of land ownership that came about not because landowners put out money to buy land, but because they seized it and used it as private fiefdom. We should no longer accept that pattern of land ownership in the 21st century. I very much congratulate the people in the Helmsdale area on their effort in raising the money and I wish them every success in their future management. The challenge of raising the money was substantial; the long-term challenge of sustaining the area may be even greater. I wish them well.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

I congratulate Maree Todd on bringing her motion to the debating chamber.

The area of Helmsdale is one that I know quite well. As members will see from my entry in the register of members’ interests, I am the treasurer of Highland & Moray Sailing, so I get into the area quite often, although not often enough. Many times over the years I have gone there to see the progress of the development at the Beatrice field.

The Garbh Allt Community Initiative is a shining example of civic Scotland: people working together to build a better future for their local area. I am reminded of the community power station in Tillydrone in Aberdeen, which has also been funded by the local community. I believe that all of us in this Parliament can and should support the project.

I also feel that instead of reflecting on the events of the 19th century—as an Englishman in this debate, I have to keep my head down—our time is better spent discussing the future of the project, and the next steps that we should take to strengthen rural communities. The buyout has been possible only because of the work of a dedicated group of volunteers, and I am delighted to pay tribute to them for their very hard work. Their job has only just started. I thank the Big Lottery Fund and SSE’s Beatrice partnership fund, which have provided the capital investment needed to get the project off the ground. I am sure that there have been many other sources of funding that I have not managed to identify.

We should recognise the Sutherland estate for seeing the tangible benefits that the venture will bring to the local community, and for agreeing to sell the land. However, we should be mindful of the difficulties that the area is currently facing. The area is defined as socially deprived and fragile, and there is a great deal still to be done in creating a thriving local economy. It is a place with huge potential for development and prosperity. The 3,000 acres of crofting land can be put to good use to drive growth and opportunity for the townships of Marrel, West Helmsdale, Gartymore and Portgower. Sustainable economic development is vital, and we must be consistent in giving any support necessary to help the area progress.

Unfortunately, that is only one example among many of a rural community not being given the opportunities that it deserves. Rural areas around Scotland feel left behind as advances in technology and processes move jobs away from the countryside rather than towards it. Conservative members are acutely aware of the problem and we will continue to work constructively to find solutions. We would support moves to promote more balanced land ownership, and we encourage community buyouts such as this, as well as long-term leases, to support both communities and landowners.

We should not treat this as a single issue. From schools and access to general practitioners to transport, connectivity and many more issues, our approach to rural areas could be stronger in many ways. We need to empower those communities and that means extending to them nothing short of the public services that we would expect and demand in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen.

This is an exciting time for members of the local community as they work to develop their area for the future. We should always seek to recognise the spirit of endeavour and enterprise of people striving to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. With that in mind, I welcome the Garbh AlIt Community Initiative and I wish the people involved the very best of success in their efforts.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

I congratulate Maree Todd on securing the debate, and the Garbh Allt Community Initiative on reaching its funding target. I am sure that those who are involved will have listened to the congratulations that have come from members from around the chamber.

I commend the approach of Sutherland Estates—once upon a time that would not have been a phrase that I could ever have imagined uttering, but here we are—to offer to sell 3,000 acres to the local community. It was a welcome offer, and an example that I would like to see a great deal more of.

I cannot comment on current live applications. One in particular was mentioned by Ben Macpherson and I know that there are many other pending applications that were not mentioned during the debate.

Land reform is of particular importance to the Government, and to me personally. I spoke at the first Scottish Land Commission conference last Friday, and I will say again what I said at the conference: I am absolutely passionate about land reform. I was elected to the House of Commons in 1995 and I remember speaking about land reform to a largely bemused chamber. Dave Stewart will recognise the experience, because he will have been through it, too.

A lot of people outside Scotland do not understand that land is our most basic natural asset and that its benefits should be shared by all the people of Scotland. It is fundamental to many things, including housing, employment, recreation and, of course, agriculture and other industries. Most important is that it is an integral part of our national identity and prosperity. Stewart Stevenson reminded us of how emotional an issue it can still be.

Scotland has made significant progress with land reform in the 20 years since the devolution vote. We now need to drive forward and sustain that progress, which can be done only if we work collaboratively. It is not a Highlands and Islands phenomenon any more, as Ash Denham ably highlighted. I was pleased to visit the Bellfield Street church when the group that she mentioned registered their right to buy. They are now the owners: I hope that members will remember that example when they talk about land reform in other venues, in the future.

Jamie Halcro Johnston talked about partnership. Partnership is the exact reason why we published “Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement: A Consultation” on Friday, which I hope members will find the time to look at. It is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and it is about partnership. It is about owners everywhere, including community landowners, understanding that they have both rights and responsibilities. Even community landowners have responsibilities—to the communities that share the land with them.

This year alone, funding has been approved for more than 40 groups and there are still more to come. As Maree Todd said, more than 200 groups have been referred to the land fund for assistance, and our partners in Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Big Lottery Fund are actively supporting the groups that are in the pipeline, going through the process. Of those 200 groups, about half are from outwith the Highlands and Islands. I hope that that reinforces the point that I was making earlier. That shows that there is a drive and enthusiasm for community ownership across Scotland. We have stepped up to the plate with financial assistance to help communities achieve their aspirations. The aspiration is ownership, as it should be.

The land fund is particularly important and is often a key factor in the purchase, but funding comes from other sources too, including HIE, renewable energy funds such as the Beatrice partnership fund, and the Big Lottery Fund. Those sources are often critical in getting projects off the ground. I am delighted that the increased budget of £10 million that we have allocated to the land fund is being used by projects such as the one that we are debating, and that it is available to help communities across the country.

The fund has also been adapted to mirror the legislative changes that have been brought in through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016. Community groups are now able to access funding through stage 1 applications to the fund to help to put together business plans, feasibility studies and other work that helps groups to prepare themselves better to take on land and buildings. That is precisely the kind of capacity building that I hope Jamie Halcro Johnston would welcome as a fundamental and important part of communities being successful in buyouts. In fact, the project that we are congratulating in the chamber today benefited from £23,000 in the first place to do just that, and the results are plain for all to see.

All that work will help to ensure that Scotland’s land reform journey is heading in the right direction, and that it continues well into the future. With support from the Scottish Government and others, communities can be part of that journey, helping to drive it forward rather than merely being passengers.

The range of projects that communities are capable of is staggering at times. From crofting estates like Garbh Allt in the north to community woodland in Moffat, and from a former school in Carloway in the Western Isles to a gospel hall and gardens in Aberdeen, communities across Scotland, both urban and rural, are taking the initiative.

As members will know, the latest programme for government contains a number of commitments on land reform, including asking the Land Commission to explore a number of options for further radical land reform, and to provide guidance and codes of practice to drive change on the ground. Just as the commission does, we want to drive increased economic, social and cultural value from our land. We want to encourage a more diverse pattern of land ownership, with the benefits of land being spread much more inclusively, and we want to ensure that decision making takes account of the people who are affected by decisions and that all owners of land accept that ownership brings responsibilities.

Examples such as those that I have mentioned show that there is a desire out there for community ownership. There is a determination among communities across Scotland to take more control of their own futures. The Government is determined to support those communities in any way that it can, ensuring that ownership of assets leads to a brighter and more sustainable future for those communities.

Community groups such Garbh Allt can be used as an example to others, to show just what benefits can be realised with ownership of assets. I congratulate them whole-heartedly on doing so.

Meeting closed at 18:43.