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Welcome to the Scottish Community Land Network

This site is for people interested in the management and ownership of land-based assets by communities in Scotland. A Scottish Community Land Network, you might say... As you know the internet is a big 'place' with everything about anything so we brought you relevant news and events, and provide opportunities to share ideas with other people interested in this subject. There are almost 1000 members, and more than 800 articles in our archive.

 

Scottish Community Land Network will not be kept up-to-date after March 2012. However, a new site is being produced by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and details will be published on this site as soon as they are available.

The most recent articles are available on the home page - previous articles are in their relevant topic areas (browse the 'Topics' menu on the left).

Half a million quid anyone?

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‘And how much is it you’re looking to borrow?’

‘Half a million.’

I paused in my note-taking and glanced around the table.  No-one batted an eyelid.  The solicitor jotted down the number with no more reaction than someone recording the morning’s milk order. It was just me who seemed surprised.  But then, pharm advice I was the visitor – I’d been invited to sit in on a Directors’ meeting of the West Harris Crofting Trust and I was definitely getting the ‘inside story’ of the reality of life after the razzmatazz of a community buy-out.

Earlier this year, the West Harris Crofting Trust bought out 6,578 hectares of croft land previously owned by the Scottish Government.  January 2010 was filled with jubilant articles in the press (including on SCLN) reflecting the Trust’s successful use of the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Act 1997 to acquire crofting land.  Six months on, a different type of hard work was beginning.

A beach in West Harris The Trust’s new land area covers the townships of Seilebost, Horgabost, Luskentyre, Borve and Scaristavore with a population of around 120 residents.  Of those residents, just one is a pre-schooler, whilst there are over 40 residents who can claim free OAP bus passes.  The Trust needs to do more than just manage the croft land - it needs to breathe new life and vigour into a rapidly ageing population, ideally securing the future of the local school as it does so.

But new life and vigour don’t come cheaply or easily.  The Trust has ambitious plans to develop new house sites and encourage families to the area and has been working with the Western Isles Council to identify suitable sites.  They’ve yet to decide on exactly how to manage the housing plots to avoid second home speculation purchases, but before they get to that stage, they also need to put the Trust onto a sound financial footing.

As part of the land buy-out, the Trust produced a business plan which looked at potential income opportunities.  And with fresh water aplenty on the Outer Hebrides, the development of hydro-power is likely to be a fairly reliable bet for producing a saleable resource.  Based on the outcomes of a feasibility study, it looks like it’ll be possible for the group to develop a hydro scheme near Loch Heileasbhal which has the potential for a 200kw output, bringing in an income of around £97,000 a year.  But whilst that sounds like a healthy number, developing the scheme in the first place, along with the housing sites, could be a costly undertaking.

So far the group have secured a grant of £380,000 from the Big lottery, but they’ve still got a substantial hole to fill before they can press ahead.  Hence the slightly surreal experience of sitting on kiddies chairs in a primary school whilst the directors calmly discussed borrowing a cool £500,000.  They’re looking to the usual suspects for lending to social enterprises, banks like Triodos and the Co-op, but it’s not going to be an easy ride – the days of simple credit have now passed.

As the hydro scheme begins to take shape, the group needs to deal with a whole host of newWest Harris hydro site questions.  They’ll have to look at crofting law in order to ensure the land is suitably assigned and they need to battle with the legalese and potentially take a gamble on a grid connection offer.  Then there’s the need to set up a separate company to manage the renewables side as well as all the standard technical stuff about water levels, flow rates and getting a licence from SEPA.

But despite all the headaches, the group were remarkably upbeat during their directors’ meeting – particularly as they pinned me to the seat and forced me to buy tickets for their on-line raffle (there’s a fabulous set of prizes up for grabs, so you might want to enter the draw yourselves, but remember who told you if you win!)

I sensed they’d show similar determination in battling through their other questions.  But they’ve got plenty to puzzle over – and the solutions will have resonance with many community land groups.  Where do you find the money to sustain a Trust in the long term?  How do you stay relaxed about borrowing significant sums of money?  How do you encourage young families to move into the area without discriminating against those who either can’t have or don’t want children?  How does a Trust branch out into housing management without becoming a housing association?

When I visit community groups to gather stories for case studies I’m always amazed at the dedication of those who give their time as directors and volunteers.  But sitting in a meeting watching individuals come together to tackle big projects and taking chunks of work away, without the safety-net of a project officer/manager was both exhilarating and worrying at the same time. Although they currently have a ‘volunteer’ support worker through the Western Isles Rural Opportunity program, the directors are taking full responsibility for project delivery until there is sufficient funding in place to employ people to help take them forward.

I sensed the tenacity of these directors, but what happens in the short term for groups like the West Harris Crofting Trust will depend almost entirely on their own hard work – which is very definitely ‘bottom up’ community development.  And whilst the bottom up approach with plenty of personal responsibility is great to see, most community groups also seem to benefit from having a dedicated project manager, to help those involved to juggle work, home-life and the interests of the wider community.  It’s not entirely clear to me how you balance out those two approaches at the start of a project – or how future representations of the UK government’s ‘civil society’ will interpret them.  I guess only time will tell.

To find out more about the West Harris Crofting Trust and the work they’re doing, have a look at their website

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