Empty promises: The struggles of a community land buyout

 

 

It was the first big land buyout when the owners were forced to sell to the community – but so far the community has had little back from it. Richard Baynes travelled to Assynt to talk to the people battling to get a return on a £4m investment of public cash.

Richard Baynes
Richard Baynes

The rain plays a heavy-metal riff on the bothy’s steel roof as I stand in the doorway, watching a breathtaking view of the ragged ridge of Suilven unfold from the clouds

Seen from the coast, the mountain is a dramatic bullet-shaped dome, a magnet for thousands of walkers, and like the rest I have come here to Scotland’s far north-west to climb it.

Outside the former shepherd’s hut, now open to walkers, the river below is in spate, glittering in watery sun. The heather is still purple, the bracken copper, and there are flushes of emerald grass.

While the land is stunningly beautiful, it is completely empty. When I went to bed here at dusk there was no smoke from neighbouring chimneys: there are no houses, there is no livestock, the land is unused.

Six miles away in the village of Lochinver, David Grant, the boss of the Highland Stoneware pottery, is working on vases decorated with Suilven, in a window with a view of the dramatic cone.

Other workers paint similar scenes, and the pottery’s shop has plenty of dishes depicting the familiar hump.

In the village shops, it’s on postcards and teatowels; the walkers have read about it in guidebooks magazine photo-spreads, and tourism brochures.

It is for many the symbol of this wild and beautiful region of Scotland – yet the community group which owns the mountain and the landscape it sits in can only look on in envy at the business it generates.

Suilven lies at the heart of the 35,000 acre Glencanisp estate in Assynt. The estate, for long a plaything of the billionaire Vestey family, was bought for local people in 2005, along with the neighbouring Drumrunie.

The £2.9 million deal – using public and charity money – was the first major buyout under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which meant landowners planning a sale could be forced to sell to local communities. Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Big Lottery fund, and conservation group the John Muir Trust all contributed.

The Assynt Foundation community group which bought the estates has since spent more than £1m renovating the Vesteys’ Victorian pile, Glencanisp Lodge, and turning it into smart modern accommodation.

The buyout was regarded by many as a step to undo the work of the notorious Duke of Sutherland, whose Clearances removed the population in the early 19th century to make way for sheep.

But what replaced the sheep-farms when they proved unprofitable was the sporting estate, needing subsidy by a rich owner rather than making a profit – and the foundation has inherited that model.

Fewer people now work on the estate than did so in the time of the Vesteys and the only financial benefits for local people from the buyout have been a few grants of a few hundred pounds.

No-one lives on the 44,000 acres of the two estates.

The man who for the last four-and-a-half years has steered the estate has just left, and with criticism growing, the foundation now has a mountain of its own to scale to fulfil the ambitions with which it was launched.

 

The underpants of the upper classes stick in the mind of Patricia Robertson.

She used to work each summer helping housekeeping staff at Glencanisp Lodge, when the

Vestey family would hold shooting parties for friends and relatives. The domestics had to do the party’s laundry.

“The state of their underwear was terrible,” Robertson laughs. “Some of it was so tatty – the sort of thing you or I would have thrown out ages ago.”

Now Robertson is in charge at Glencanisp: she chairs the Foundation and is in no doubt the buyout fulfilled a need.

She says: “It’s very important that the community owns the land. It is important for the future of the community that they can feel connected to the land in a way that has not been possible for almost 200 years.”

The biggest achievement of the Foundation so far has been the transformation of Glencanisp Lodge. Walking around it, it is plain to see that what was once a draughty Victorian building is now a luxurious modern lodge, which lets for £5000 a week.

“When we took it on it was full of bats, rats and mice,” says my guide, foundation marketing manager Jane Tulloch. “There were only two radiators in the place, and all the windows had to be ripped out.

“Now – it’s fantastic. It’s a beautiful place to stay.”

The estate’s stalking is now on a commercial footing. Robertson shows me the old walled garden, now opened up for community use; there is a recording studio for local youngsters and a potter’s workshop.

Young people also use estate ground for motorcycle scrambling, and there is access for young anglers.

But still the estate only manages to pay for its own upkeep: any surplus is swallowed up by further work.

The buyout process on behalf of local communities was in 2005, just a few weeks after the 2003 Act was formally adopted.

he aims of the foundation are to manage the estates for the benefit of the local community and general public, with an emphasis on environmentally-friendly development. Education, helping the local economy, stopping young people drifting away and safeguarding the land for future generations are all in there.

In one of Lochinver’s pubs a group of fiddlers and a guitarists are playing traditional tunes, and voices suggest those aims are being missed.

“The people working for the foundation have done nothing but take money for their jobs,” I am told.

“There’s talk about housing but there’s no sign of it. They’ve had almost seven years – and we’ve got the use of the walled garden. It’s not a lot for £4m.”

At the tea van on the sea-front I hear similar criticism from a customer, but in a small community there are few who will put their name to it.

Many, such as potter David Grant, and Hillary MacDonald at her gift shop in Lochinver are politely supportive, but MacDonald states plainly what everyone wants from the foundation: jobs and houses.

Community ownership is the norm in Assynt. To the north of Glencanisp lie the 20,000 acres owned by the Assynt Crofters’ Trust.

Coulag Woods Community Trust runs 3000 acres, and the local leisure centre and old people’s home are community run.

The recent decision by the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen to abandon Lochinver’s Fishermen’s Mission led to a Big Lottery Fund Village SOS grant which turned it into a now-thriving community cafe and hostel.

Its manager, Jess Thomas, says: “What people want to see from the foundation is houses.

“There is a pretty serious need in the area for homes to keep people here and allow people who are from here to come back – to get the population anchored here. It is vitally important.”

One who will openly criticise the Assynt Foundation is Alan MacRae, and he says the emptiness of the Foundation land is at the heart of the problem.

A small, wiry man in his 70s, his thinning hair sticks out at alarming angles, as if it is trying to escape from his head. He built his own stone cottage, which has no mains electricity, and it still feels unfinished.

Eccentric though he seems, his is as sharp a mind as you will find in the Highlands, and he has for 11 years chaired the Assynt Crofters’ Trust, one of the pioneers of buyouts in 1992.

In six months the 120 crofters raised £300,000 to buy the estate they live on, obstinately forcing down the price demanded by its property-firm owners.

“We waited and got it for what we wanted,” says MacRae. “They had bought the estate without realising how much having tenants with crofting rights would limit what they could do.”

That buyout is the model MacRae believes works.

“Big buy-outs are political,” he says. “It’s public ownership by the back door – if the Government puts up the money it can tell you what to do with the land.

“You need private enterprise, you need to empower individuals to generate opportunities, that’s the only way to generate economic activity. All the small businesses in this area come out of crofting households, they create their own opportunities.

“The Assynt Foundation buyout is pretty disappointing, I think a lot of local people are disappointed. To buy the land back from the landowners was a great thing to do but that should have been only the first step.

“If you are going to generate economic activity you must redistribute the land to those who have an appetite to use it.

“The Assynt Foundation talked about making crofts and sites for houses but nothing has come of it.

Mr Vestey, the previous owner of the land, was condemned because he wouldn’t give up land for housing sites to local people. Now nothing has changed. You have 40,000 acres of land owned by the community and no-one can get any of it.”

In a giant fridge behind Glencanisp Lodge, a stag’s carcass hangs, big as a beef steer. The bullet wound is clearly visible, as is an antler scar from some old fight, and the body is loaded with fat for the autumn rut.

Mark Lazzeri became development manager for the foundation four-and-a-half years ago, and he’s giving me a guided tour of the improvements to the estate since the buyout. We talk just before his departure for a new job, managing a community-run estate in Harris.

We’ve just come from the giant new boiler system which burns lorry-loads of woodchips to create almost limitless hot water for lodge guests.

It’s hoped a job can be created in butchering and selling venison shot on the estate in this newly-refurbished meat-handling area.

But Lazzeri states bluntly why community wealth is not flowing from this £4m investment: “A lot of people didn’t understand that there are very few things that you can do with a Highland estate other than being a Highland estate: if there were all sorts of alternative enterprises possible the private owners would be doing them now.”

Pinning Lazzeri down for more than 15 minutes at the foundation office, above an old stable behind Glencanisp Lodge, is impossible: he has to fix the internet link; a contractor wants help repairing the boiler; he has to meet a Highlands and Islands Enterprise rep over a grant.

Originally from Kent, he took on day-to-day running of the estate, redeveloping Glencanisp Lodge, thinking up new sources of income, and trying to keep the community onside.

But the project the foundation hoped would leave it in profit and let it spread its wings was quashed soon after his arrival because some felt it would have been a blot on the landscape.

The planned wind-farm, with three masts on the hill behind Glencanisp lodge, could have supplied the estate with power, with plenty to sell to the National Grid.

Objectors, some of them local, felt the masts would spoil the all-important view of Suilven, and the project was shelved. The resulting lack of cash, says Lazzeri, has slowed down every other development.

A “micro-hydro” scheme is now plannned to generate electricity from two of the estates’ rivers, using invisible underground facilities.

“It would immediately make the estate not just financially viable, it would be secure and put it into a very generous surplus income situation,” says Lazzeri. “It could start investing in all sorts of other community projects, perhaps not even on the foundation land.”

The much wished-for houses are coming: a plot close to Lochinver has been chosen for up to 15 houses for families. To fit in with the aims of the Foundation they will be zero-carbon, fit in with the landscape, and be restricted so they cannot be sold as holiday homes. It is hoped they will be built within five years.

Asked if this will satisfy critics, Lazzeri shows a flash of frustration: “The people who are saying they are disappointed that housing hasn’t happened already have no idea about building site construction.

“Where are we going to get the power – where is the sewage going to go? They think you can just bulldoze a site and then dig the foundations and up it will go: it’s unrealistic.”

Objections which have delayed the plan included a fear that affordable housing would become a dumping ground for “Glasgow schemies” and inevitable concerns over habitat loss.

Crofts are also being planned, says Lazzeri, but the foundation is waiting for a change in crofting legislation to stop crofts being bought under-right-to buy rules, and remain a community asset.

One constraint is that when the Vesteys designated what was up for sale, it did not include strip of some of the most valuable and accessible land close to the public roads around Glencanisp.

Lazzeri is sceptical about the call for jobs: the estate has advertised for trainee deer stalkers and only been able to hire two in four years. It could have had eight. A senior stalking job was filled from outside the area.

Lazzeri will be missed – Jane Tulloch tells me quietly he’s the best thing that’s happened to the Foundation – and he is happy with what he has done for the Foundation: “It has gone from an embryonic organisation to one that has some clear objectives and knows how to achieve them.

“But where it has had difficulties is communicating with the wider community who have no idea what it takes to achieve something.

“You want to spread the good news, yes we’re going to do affordable housing, but then they are disappointed that you are not starting work the following week … It’s impossible to get the majority of the community to take a real interest. They only take an interest when they think the foundation is doing something they don’t like.”

 

From the bothy I climb Suilven in thin, luminous mist, and buffeting winds. Coming down I meet half a dozen other hikers heading for the top.

Its popularity is a source of satisfaction and frustration for Patricia Robertson

“It’s great that people come to the mountain,” she sighs. “But we can’t charge for access to the hills. We would love to be able to generate money from hillwalking.

Robertson, 59, is a support worker for people with mental health problems and learning difficulties. She has lived here for 37 years, brought her children up here, and has an air of quiet determination.

A supporter of the buy-out from the start, even she feels impatient with the foundation’s apparent lack of progress.

She says: ““When I came onto the board five years ago I didn’t realise quite how much of a struggle it was really going to be. I am disappointed, to be honest.

“One of the things that annoys me to a degree is that everything we do has to have endless feasibility studies before you can do anything, at great expense, and I just feel that the money could be used to actually get on with the job.

“But we are making it up as we go along: if you go into a business, like a shop, you have an idea about what to do, what hours you need to be open say, but something like this is different from anything that’s gone before.

“We are trying to make money out of it but we are trying to fulfil the wishes of the community and balancing these things is very difficult: without income we can’t do the things thing we want to do.”

With Lazzeri’s departure, the foundation setup is being changed: Tulloch will take on much of Lazzeri’s day-to-day work, along with office colleague Adam Pellant and head stalker John Cullen.

Instead of a permanent manager suffering constant distraction, individual project officers will be appointed to focus on schemes such as the micro-hydro.

Tulloch, an energetic 41-year-old mother of two, says: “It is a really exciting time – it is a time to change. What Mark has done has been fantastic but it now needs a new approach.”

Robertson firmly believes the foundation is reaching a tipping point, where the money poured in will begin to show results: “What we are planning for the next wee while will be things that make a big difference, with housing and the micro-hydro scheme, and jobs on those schemes.”

One big aim is to let the community use the lodge for weddings and functions free or at cost price.

“Five years ago we would have hoped we could do that sort of thing by now. Otherwise you think, ‘Why have we done all this if the community is not getting any real benefit.’ But it will, it’s coming.

“Things are taking a bit longer but we will get there in the end, I’m quite adamant about that.”

 

BUYOUTS

The community buyout movement has gone from strength to strength in Scotland.

In Assynt, the Crofter’s Trust bought the 20,000-acre North Assynt estate in 1992 for £300,000, using donations and the crofters’ own cash.

In 1997 Eigg near Mallaig was bought by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, a partnership between the residents, the Highland Council , and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The island had endured years of absentee landlord problems.

The Knoydart Foundation bought the peninsula north of Maillaig, containing the mainland’s most isolated community, in 1999 after two years of fundraising. Knoydart too had had problems with landlords.

The North Harris Trust bought its 62,000 acre tract of land in 2003 with the aim of using it to help to regenerate the local community.

Part 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave communities in some circumstances the right to buy important areas of land when the owner decided to sell.

The very first of these buyouts was by the former mining community of Crossgates in Fife.

Crossgates Community Woodland raised £150,000 to buy the Taft, a 36-acre site near the village, and turn it into a community facility. It took control of the site in May 2005.

The Assynt buyout, the first major estate bought under the legislation, followed hard on its heels. Since then a number of other communities have moved towards re-establishing ownership of what was once common land.