Community land buyout on Skye is latest example of the Big Society

Tormore Forest <em>Picture: John Knox</em>
Tormore Forest Picture: John Knox
By John Knox

A wood on the Isle of Skye has become the latest community land buyout in Scotland. And although the pine trees may not know it, they have joined a new experiment in community living in which the Big Society is becoming the Small Society.

Tormore Forest near the southern tip of Skye has been bought from the Forestry Commission (FC) by the Sleat Community Trust (SCT) for £330,000. The community itself has contributed just £16,000 – but, cleverly, it has borrowed half the total sum from the bank and will be repaid by harvesting some of the mature trees already growing in the forest. Grants from Highland Council and the Scottish government made up the rest.

Supporters of the buyout – and only seven of the 350 local householders voted against it – say it’s a “win-win” proposition. The FC gets £330,000 to invest in new forests elsewhere. The SCT can go on to develop the forest for fuel, timber, recreation, school projects, tourism etc on its own terms. And the council and the government get rural development for a fraction of the cost of doing it through state agencies.

Reassuringly, the SCT is no fly-by-night amateur organisation. It already runs the village shop and post office at Armadale, a local repair garage, a woodchip business, a machine-hire operation, a taxi service, a tourism agency – and it’s considering building a 900kW windmill on top of a local hill. It has just won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. This is the prime minister’s Big Society in action, except it’s a small society of just 350 people.

These 440 hectares of forest are just the latest example of localism in a country which is gradually reclaiming its land from the mighty landlords of the past. Over 100 community land buyouts, involving 200,000 hectares, have been made since the Scottish parliament passed the Land Reform Act in 2003. This has allowed communities in places such as Assynt, Knoydart, Harris, Gigha and Rum to buy their estates and develop them for themselves. Woodlands, golf courses, churches, a youth hostel – even an avenue of trees – have all been bought by the communities living around them.

So far, all buyouts have been amicable affairs, with the landlord willing or persuaded to sell. But the 10,000-hectare Pairc Estate on Lewis appears to be the exception, with threats of court action by the landlord, a Warwickshire accountant whose family have owned the estate since the 1920s. The Daily Telegraph, predictably, has called the islanders’ attempt to buy the estate a Mugabe-style land grab.

David Cameron, chair of the umbrella body Community Land Scotland, would presumably disagree. His organisation believes that land-ownership by communities increases its value as a source of jobs, revenue and services – and what is called “social capital”, the ability of communities to help themselves. Two recent studies have backed this up: one from the Scottish Agriculture College, the other from the Perth-based Centre for Mountain Studies.

The other David Cameron, he of the Big Society, would presumably agree that services being run by local trusts is a good thing. The problem seems to be making the model work across the country, not just in the Highlands and Islands. The key, and frightening, element is ownership.

Making people feel they are the owners of their local school or park or forest or factory or street seems to bring out their commitment and hard work. In the Highlands, that can be done village by village. In the cities, it is being attempted by councils but it may, in the end, have to be done by neighbourhoods. It depends how small we want the Big Society.

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