Great Bernera may become the first community to actually use ‘right to buy’ legislation to force the sale of the land they live on from an obstructive landowner.
That’s the view of Tom Arthur, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, speaking in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday evening.
He was responding to a debate initiated by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan about the problems being encountered by the Great Bernera community in taking over their land.
The motion brought by Alasdair Allan asked the Scottish Parliament to recognise the work of the Great Bernera Community Development Trust in its attempts at a land buyout from Cyran Mirrless, described as a 26-year-old Frankfurt-based, absentee landowner. To date these attempts have been unsuccessful and MSPs debated how the community could be best supported to achieve a buyout that was voted for by 85% of the community.
The minister stated that Scottish Government policy was that there should be a greater degree of collaboration and community engagement in decisions about land.
As “the Great Bernera Community Development Trust feel that this isn't being followed, then there is the crofting community right to buy. The trust have already been investigating this route and have been in discussion with Scottish Government officials.”
Although it would be preferable to negotiate a settlement with the landowner: “I recognise that it is the view that the time has now come for a more forceful line of action.” Officials are currently considering how the trust could access this route and will continue to do so as they did in the Pairc case and the Galson case, where the threat of an enforced buyout seemed to unlock the negotiations and enable the communities to succeed.
The minister congratulated “Great Bernera Trust for continuing to persevere in the face of adversity and to encourage them to pursue this by any means at their disposal.”
In response to Alasdair Allan’s detailed request, the minister said he hoped the Scottish Land Fund “will now be able to enter into more detailed discussions with the buyout trust to examine the options that they wish to pursue.
“The crofting community right to buy has never been used to completion but maybe it's about time that it was. In this case, it might be able to bring the owner to the negotiating table but, if not, then I feel this community is the type to follow through on their plans and take this as far as they can until they become the owners of the land.”
He had earlier pointed out that the success of the Pairc and Galson buyouts was less to do with the details of law, and more to do with the determination of the communities to succeed.
He commented: “It really should never be the case that any landowners should be able to exert such control over the lives of those who open to live on land that they own and that is especially so in this case, given that the previous owner had already given the community first refusal to purchase Great Bernera following his death in 2012 and when it was put to the community, 85% of them turned out to vote on the buy-out and a total of 142 backed the purchase of the island, with 37 against.”
In his speech to Parliament, Alasdair Allan stated that he had been contacted by a number of constituents in recent months regarding the ongoing issues they are experiencing with the Bernera Estate. These included, he said, demands for payment of thousands of £s before allowing legitimate transactions to proceed, and ignoring correspondence from crofters seeking to exercise their legal right to purchase their own individual crofts.
Allan concluded his opening speech for the debate by expressing his hope that Bernera would one day be in the hands of the local community, saying: “The island of Bernera should belong to the people who live there, and to those whose families have worked the land there and fished from the surrounding seas for generations. Morally and culturally, the land is already theirs – we must now continue to do all we can to support the Great Bernera Community Development Trust to successfully take legal ownership, so that the island’s community can begin to develop and thrive once again.”
Following the debate, a representative from the Great Bernera Community Development Trust said: “We are very grateful that the challenges we have experienced during our lengthy and ongoing process of Bernera’s Community Buyout have been recognized and are being addressed by Members of the Scottish Parliament. We look forward to working more closely with the Scottish Government to tackle the issues raised and to find a way of moving forward.”
However, Labour’s Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant was not impressed and condemned SNP ministers, saying they were accusing the Great Bernera community of not trying hard enough in their attempts at a buyout.
In the chamber she said: “This situation arises wholly from the failure of the Scottish Government to legislate to make the community right to buy possible in the face of a hostile landlord.
“They have had 15 years to do this and they must urgently bring forward a new land reform bill. The battles, particularly in Pairc, showed that the 2003 legislation while well-intentioned, was far too complicated in the face of a determined landowner. If there was serious intent to help communities like Bernera, this would have been fixed long ago.”
Mrs Grant described how Bernera was in desperate need of jobs, housing and ongoing investment in order to tackle depopulation and that this could only be done with responsible landownership.
She said: “It is scandalous, in a place which has so long been associated with a history of resisting landlordism, that it is still cursed by the 21st century version of absentee landlordism without Government lifting a finger to stop it. Cyran Mirrlees should not be put in charge of a cat, far less people’s future and wellbeing. Indeed, there are more powers in Scotland to remove a cat from a bad owner than there are to remove land.”
Following the debate Mrs Grant expressed her disbelief at what she had heard.
“There is something seriously wrong when a community comes to their Government asking for help because the legislation they put in place isn’t helping, and that Government responds by shrugging it’s shoulders and saying ‘Try Harder’.
“It’s shameful and embarrassing. When are the SNP going to stop behaving like Tories by proxy?”
Mrs Grant added: “This case shows us what is wrong with Scottish land-owning patterns and while the Scottish Government procrastinate, people suffer.”