Island crofters turned out in good numbers for the Crofting Roadshow 2016

The Crofting Roadshow, held in the aptly named Croft Room at the Caladh Inn tonight (Wednesday, October 26th) drew a healthy audience, keen to air local views on the crofting industry and the Crofting Commission.

Opening the Roadshow, Western Isles Murdo Maclennan updated those present to the achievements of the Commission over the past year, including a 20% reduction in application processing times, the roll-out of the new Croft Information System in February this year, and the success of delegating simple decisions to be made at Commission staff level.

He revealed that the work of the Commission had increased by 50% over the last twelve months and spoke of the need to look at current regulations and turned to the importance of the Crofting Census in gathering an evidence base to support legislative change.

Mr Maclennan explained the changed role of Assessors in a bid to reduce the risk of conflict of interest.  He detailed that a ‘frank discussion’ had taken place local assessors prior to the Roadshow and said: “In this area the Commission has not done as much as it should have in the last year. We will look at it as a Commission and see how we can improve on that.”

The Western Isles Commissioner also urged all present to be active in the next Crofting Commission elections, due to take place in March 2017, and encouraged people to stand for election adding that ‘despite its challenges’, it was a ‘great post to have’ and a ‘great honour of representing crofters all over the island’.

Rhona Elrick, of Registers of Scotland, then took to the floor to deliver a short presentation updating on the progress of the Crofting Register.  She detailed that currently there are 300,191 crofts on the Register, and 300,033 Common Grazings; continuing that within the Western Isles around one sixth of crofts have registered in the past four years – a total of 870 crofts and 69 Common Grazings – and added that the Registers of Scotland are still keen to hear from community applications, with communities getting together to map their crofts.

The latter request drew a question from the audience regarding a community application, concerning around 30 crofters, which despite being made over a year ago, had yet to be registered.

Ms Elrick replied that she understood the application had been checked by all Commission board members, and believed it was being passed to the Registers of Scotland next week, where it would take three working days to process.

Next on the Roadshow schedule was a presentation by Scottish Crofting Federation Director (SCF) Brendan O’Hanrahan.  He gave a brief background on what the Federation does and its plans to continue supporting crofters, and the crofting industry, in the future including the organisation of several crofting courses to be run across the crofting counties of Scotland.

He highlighted the success of SCF involvement with the Crofting Connections programme, introducing crofting to school children aged five to 16 years, saying: “It is great to see the support and enthusiasm for crofting of the young people we have met in the schools.”

Mr O’Hanrahan also spoke of the SCF’s vocal and public issue regarding the dealings of the Commission over the last year, saying: “The way it has worked has threatened the very foundation of crofting.”

Jake Sayles, National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS) Agent and Group Secretary then addressed the Crofting Roadshow audience.  Based in Skye, Mr Sayles detailed that a Western Isles branch had now been established with local agent Duncan MacIntyre, and after illustrating issues faced by members on Skye, spoke of the uncertain future surrounding the impact Brexit may have on the crofting industry.

The unknown impacts of the UK separation from the EU were echoed by Rob Black, Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), who updated those present on some of the trial work being undertaken by the SAC as the final speaker of the Roadshow.

The floor was then opened to questions – a session which at times proved quite heated.

A number of points were made regarding the difficulties of young people wishing to enter crofting – with the requirement of a croft to be worked or have livestock on prior to allowing a house to be built being questioned.

Joseph Kerr, Head of Regulations clarified that such issues had been addressed by recent crofting legislation, but that many of the schemes ‘haven’t caught up yet’.

The workings of the Commission, regarding recent ‘misconduct’ of board members, including the refusal of Colin Kennedy, Crofting Commission Convener, to stand down despite widespread calls for his resignation, were queried.

Issues in both Mangersta and Upper Coll over the past few years were raised, leading to one Mangersta crofter commenting: “This is the attitude of the Commission, that it is high and mighty. They [members] seem to forget that they work for the crofters.”

Another added that it was ‘very clear’ that the Commission had ‘not acted legally’, questioned where responsibility for decisions made lay, and said: “You preach to us, you need to listen to us.”

In response Mr Maclennan said: “There are huge lessons to be learnt for this Commission, and the new Commission, in these two areas.”

He stated that any illegal activity had ‘not been proved’ and the question of responsibility needed to be clarified through current investigations, which would also clarify legal positions.

Mr Maclennan added that he had ‘taken on board the shortcomings of the Commission’ and said: “The Commission has clearly made mistakes, for which there have been apologies.

“The Commission will learn from these, but the matters are out of our hands and left for others to deal with.”

And regarding Mr Kennedy’s Convenorship, Mr Maclennan said it was not a matter for the Commission board, but a matter for Scottish Government Ministers.

For further information about the Crofting Commission 2017 elections - including eligibility to stand and vote - visit www.crofting.scotland.org.uk 

Murdo Maclennan, Western Isles Commissioner