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 Land Reform & Rural Housing

Land Reform … the Next Stages


Published in The Crofter – The Journal of the Scottish Crofting Foundation, No. 63, May 2004, pp. 9 – 10 (www.crofting.org ). Also on this page is STV broadcast on "Politics Now" about the need for urban dwellers to benefit from land reform - click here.


Recently the land reform activist and author of Soil and Soul, Alastair McIntosh, lectured on crofting and land reform in Golspie and Fort William. These were part of Aberdeen University’s KEY Learning Opportunities. Here he summarises the main points.


On 25th October 1991 I gave a launch address for the original Isle of Eigg Trust. It took place in a derelict tea room down by the pier, damp and cold for all but the human warmth packed inside. It was an edgy event. Even to organise it had required the permission of the laird, Keith Schellenberg. That seems incredible now, but in those days it was normal, because he controlled the only usable public space. 

The meeting was followed by a secret ballot organised by the Isle of Eigg Residents’ Association. It had forty-eight members and there was a 100% turnout to vote on whether or not they wanted land reform to be attempted on Eigg. There were thirty-five votes cast in favour and thirteen against – a 73% majority. The rest is, as they say, history. 

There was nothing particularly new in what I said that late October night. It was mostly ideas that had been moving in the tradition for a long time that I just brushed down for the occasion. Indeed, I’d spent much of the day re-reading Jim Hunter’s classic, The Making of the Crofting Communities. What stuck me most was his account of the Pairc Deer Raid. 

This had taken place on 22 November 1886 at the Eisken Estate, just a few miles down the road from where I grew up in North Lochs. Famished crofters had taken the law into their own hands. With rifles that some say Michael Davitt had sent over from Ireland, they’d satisfied their hunger in the natural way. 

A detachment of eighty Royal Scots and a gunboat of marines were sent to Stornoway to deal with the insurrection. Well, they maybe put it down, but only smoored the fire. For what I found most mindblowing as I re-read this story in 1991 was to think that some of the old folks still alive when we were children would have lived through this. Indeed, my father, as the local doctor, would have helped some of them to have completed their earthly journey. My generation was literally within touching distance of these great Highland and Island radicals. So how were we going to bear the torch forward in the face of Thatcherism unbridled? 

Further words jumped out of Jim Hunter’s book ... page 173 … where it says that those responsible for the Raid had “hoped that as a result of the slaughter for which they had been responsible, the sporting value of Park forest would be so drastically reduced that its tenant would give it up, thus forcing Lady Matheson [to] hand the forest over to the crofters and cottars of the parish of Lochs…. ‘Their object,’ a group of raiders told reporters, was ‘to draw the attention of the whole country to their case.’” 

Hmm … so it had been an attempt at a media driven market spoiling strategy, to use today’s jargon! And if landed power is largely psychological – keeping people kow-towing like children who even had to ask permission for the only public meeting space – then maybe it could also be dismantled psychologically. Those deer raiders had savvy. So why not let their spirit touch us too in this day and age? 

I’ve recounted in my book, Soil and Soul (from Aurum Press), a very strange experience that I had of precisely that spirit touching as we drove over to the Eigg tea room that night. I’ll say no more about that visionary experience here. Suffice that when I got there, my speech was perfectly composed within. It just had to be spoken on behalf of a cultural spirit that was much bigger than just myself. 

There needed to be, I suggested, three stages of land reform. 1) Re-membering, in which we reclaim our histories, remembering and putting back together again what has happened to us; our community’s story. 2) Re-visioning, in which we explore new ways of becoming community with one another as a community of place. And 3), Re-claiming, in which the community makes a claim of right over that which is required for the common good. 

With the passing into force now of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, we’ve arrived at a stage of being able to evaluate the past decade or so of modern land reform. 

I’d say that good progress has been made on the re-membering; the re-visioning is still in the testbed stage, but with a lot of exciting new patterns and examples emerging. And the fact that we have land reform legislation, albeit only a start to the process, is more than most of us could have dreamed of before Devolution. In crofting areas especially we are poised to reclaim, where the community feels there is a need so to do. This will happen where there has been bad landlordism, but perhaps less where there is (currently!) no cause for complaint. 

I don’t want to dwell on those points further here. What I want to do, instead, is to add a voice to the growing chorus of folks who are looking at where we should go next. 

My view is that we’re now ready for a fourth stage in land reform. Indeed, it is already coming to pass. It is that of strengthening local democratic processes. Put another way, it’s the stage of learning (or re-learning) what it really means to be community. 

When the laird or distant wheels of government had a strong controlling hand, we didn’t have to work out how to do everything ourselves. What’s more, the laird always threatened (or at least, enough of them did), that if the lid was taken off the social pot and his paternalism removed, “they’d fight like cats in a bag.” 

There is truth in this. Take any group of people who have not been healthily socialised together, and they will fight. Landlordism has understood the psychology of this and used it to keep us down. As Milton is reputed to have said, “They who put out the people’s eyes reproach them for their blindness.” What we must now do is to face up to the need to learn more deeply how to make community work. And that means getting more real about conflict. 

There’s nothing for honest folks to be afraid of here. It simply means recognising that conflict is normal in any healthy human group. Normal, yes, but it must be recognised or named, unmasked for how it affects people (including such forms as “passive aggression”), and then engaged with so that it can be processed. 

In doing this it helps to have an understanding of the spirituality that underpins community. If everybody’s only looking out for number one, you can never create a society that rests on human dignity. But if everybody sets their own interests in the framework of the wider community, then something very powerful, beautiful and capable of feeding the soul can emerge. That, by the way, is what radical Highland religion at its best has always been about. It’s not about being upright and uptight. It is, or at least, should be, about being real – honest to God and one another in community as membership one of another. This means learning to discern and honour the “community spirit”. 

Let me close by offering an example of what can be achieved if community is put at the heart of things. Let’s look at the need for affordable rural housing. 

We all know the problem – holiday homes and incomers. 

Well, at the age of four, in 1960, when my family moved to Lewis, I was an incomer myself. My father’s people were of Gaelic speaking stock, yes, but my mother was of Anglo-Welsh stock, and I was born in a Yorkshire mining town where they worked together running the hospital children’s ward. 

Speak to indigenous people in any Highland community today, and in my experience they’ll tell you, “We welcome those that come to give and share, but not the ones who only take.” 

Fair enough. No problem then with incomers who are truly willing to integrate with the community and respect the place. They’re welcome. But there is a problem with those, and also with those of indigenous stock, who just want to exploit the place. 

There’s a problem with those who, for example, would exercise right to buy over local housing stock only to sell it on so that they can turn a speculative buck. 

Such activity, like working the grants system, rips the guts out of fragile communities. It dishonours the community spirit and discredits the help that a wider Scottish, British and European society is willing to give rural areas. Its dishonour should be named and shamed. 

But what can be done? What can be done, specifically, about the rural housing crisis? 

My view is that we need a mixed market when it comes to social housing. That market should try to square the circle of free enterprise entrepreneurship, and the need for social accountability with respect to the land. This is possible, and it’s starting to happen. 

The Chair of the Iona Housing Partnership is Dan Morgan, proprietor of the Argyll Hotel. On an island that comprises 40% holiday homes, the community are about to build four new homes for social ownership. These will be on former glebe land, the Church of Scotland having helped them out. 

Dan is a former student of mine. He did his MSc and PhD in human ecology and politics – making a study of the revolution on Eigg. He’s been a member of the SCU-cum-SCF since 1990. 

He tells me that one of the approaches they’ve invented for Iona is what he calls the “50% ownership system”. 

Social housing could be controlled 50% by the families living in the new homes, and 50% by a community trust – the Iona Housing Partnership. 

This allows people to get a foot on the housing ladder, so paying off a mortgage and accumulating the capital they would need if they move on elsewhere. 

But because the community remains the co-owner, it plays an equal role if and when that home is sold. This means it can prevent holiday home sales. It can select the best buyer for the community. 

What’s more, as property prices appreciate the community’s ratio of capital value to outstanding debt will rise. Dan says, “That will mean we can then use our share of the houses to buy out holiday homes on the island as they come on the market.” 

There are other approaches that could be used too. As part of the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act 2000 we now have the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003. Whilst I am not a legal expert, I understand that this allows for “rural housing burdens” to be written in to title deeds. These could restrict future sales of a home to conform with community benefit. 

A further approach would be to apply the crofting model. In this a distinction is made between ownership of the land and ownership of the improvements upon it (for example, the house). If the community were to gain and retain control of the land - and any outright right-to-buy is removed from the ground itself – then the sale of such a home would require a two-part transaction. The householder would sell their house, but the community land trust would need to transfer the land lease. As such, the land trust would function like a local Crofters Commission, but could set its own terms. 

Something rather like this has just happened on Eigg. Working with the Crofters Commission, new crofts have been created. The Grazings Committee and the Residents Association jointly worked out a points scheme to prioritise allocation. 

All these options and more are there to be used. The future is potentially bright. We just need to live up to its promise, pay heed to the promptings of the Community Spirit, and rise to the dignity of our own humanity. 

And what could government do to speed up such process? The present land reform act is only a start. The planning system needs to be made more receptive to approaches that favour community empowerment such as piece-by-piece self-build and the need to distinguish between social housing and the putting up of private “trophy mansions” as they call them in Ireland. 

On the public funding front, most government money is presently channelled through Communities Scotland to housing associations. However, these are sometimes remote from local need, and there’s always the worry that a future government might undermine original social housing intentions by ill-judged provisions for unfettered rights-to-buy. 

“So why not channel some of the money to community housing trusts?” was the question I put it to a number of key movers and shakers on this issue in Scotland today. 

Dan Morgan’s response summed up many voices. “It’s like it was in 1997,” he said, “when the Eigg Trust went for funding to the National Heritage Memorial Fund. They declined, basically saying they didn’t trust giving it to communities. What we’ve got to do now is to prove to government that communities really can deliver. The future lies with community control.”



Scottish TV Broadcast - "Pressure Point" on Politics Now, broadcast 16 September 2004  
Alastair McIntosh pressure point

Alastair McIntosh argues that land reform should be for urban as well as rural communities.

"For most of us, “Community” means those we live amongst, but there’s more to a community than the people alone.

The place itself is of equal importance. Every one of us needs a sense of place – a sense of belonging somewhere.

But many Scots are blocked from belonging fully to the land that is Scotland.

Too often a TV up a high rise is a person’s only window on nature.

Just one thousand rich landowners control nearly two thirds of private Scottish land.

Yet there’s enough of Scotland to average 4 acres for everyone – that’s three football pitches each!

It’s great to see empowerment in places like Assynt, Eigg, Gigha and North Harris where there have been community land buy-outs, but urban folks need something too.

The recent Land Reform Act, passed by the Scottish Parliament, is a wonderful achievment, but it needs to go a lot further. I’m suggesting it needs to reach urban Scots too.

 So here’s three low-cost but high-gain polices for our politicians.

- Extend land reform to urban areas, so that urban folks can get land for social enterprises.

 - Tax land values to finance the costs of community buy-outs.

- And reform planning law so that people can build low cost, socially affordable, self build type housing.

That way ordinary Scottish folks can stand on their own feet, because they’re standing on their own ground. And that’s how we can build a new Scotland."

  View Video - (requires Windows Media Player)


Click for SCF article at top of this page



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25 October 2004