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Andy Wightman: In modern Scotland, power is becoming more centralised

Andy Wightman: In modern Scotland, power is becoming more centralised

Earlier this month I had the good fortune to visit the Isle of Eigg twice in two weeks.

The first occasion was in the company of academics from Edinburgh and the USA as part of a workshop exploring the meaning of community in relation to land. The second trip was to attend the official celebration of the 25th anniversary of the community buyout of the island in 1997.

It is easy to forget how ground-breaking this was all those years ago. Following hard on the heels of the Assynt Crofters, the islanders of Eigg captured the public imagination. What they have achieved since is remarkable.

The population has doubled, tourism has boomed, the forests are being actively managed, houses have been restored and built, and the islanders have installed their own renewable electricity supply.

It is a story of success and of hard work. Those who said it was not going to be possible have been proved wrong and in the 25 years of community ownership, decisions have been taken by consensus with (remarkably) only one vote.

In June 1997, the late Simon Fraser who masterminded the legalities of the buyout, spoke out against the naysayers. “This is one in the eye for anything that is mean-spirited or self-serving”, he argued.

Politically, the moment was significant as Brian Wilson, then a minister in the Scottish Office in the very new Labour Government, announced the creation of a community land unit within Highlands and Islands Enterprise to support such communities in the future. This was rapidly followed by the establishment of the Scottish Land Fund and the rest is history.

Looking back 25 years later, it is worth reflecting on the politics of all of this and what followed. Clearly the islanders of Eigg lived under a dysfunctional system of landlordism. Many residents did not have leases and some were served with eviction notices. Investment in infrastructure and the economy was lacking, with households relying on diesel generators for electricity.

Communities have achieved extraordinary things over the past 50 years but too often they have done so in the teeth of an unaccommodating state - one that was designed explicitly to marginalise local communities

With growing debate over land reform, their bid to take control of their own affairs resonated far and wide. 

But notwithstanding the evident success of Eigg and subsequent community buyouts, there are some inconvenient lessons to be learnt from these events.

Private landlordism failed Eigg but it is still the dominant framework for land governance across much of Scotland. Early hopes that communities might take over the big mainland estates failed to materialise and were always misplaced.

Community ownership on any scale remains restricted almost exclusively to the western highlands and islands. The government’s stated goal of having one million acres of land in community ownership (a target literally dreamt up in the back of a ministerial car) was rapidly dropped.

Bluntly, the idea that communities should be expected to fix a broken system of landownership is both deluded and unfair on communities themselves.

Where education, justice or transport policy exhibits failures or weaknesses, we (that is to say the local or national state) generally try and fix them. We don’t abdicate responsibility and tell communities that they can run these services themselves.

Community ownership of land is merely one small part to much larger policy agendas – land reform and community empowerment. Too frequently, however, politicians espouse the easy rhetoric of community as if it’s some magic potion that can solve all manner of problems.

Not only is this untrue, but the understanding of how communities can be genuinely empowered over land and other matters that affect them is still poorly developed.

Back in 1973, Scotland’s 196 town councils were abolished and there was an outcry over the loss of control by local people. Some town councils put ownership of their valuable community lands in new entities, such as St Andrews which transferred its precious golf courses (part of the common lands of the town) into a Trust.

In response to the wider complaint of loss of power, the government of the day established community councils – consultative bodies with no real power. Since then, power has become more and more centralised both regionally and in Edinburgh.

Communities have achieved extraordinary things over the past 50 years but too often they have done so in the teeth of an unaccommodating state - one that was designed explicitly to marginalise local communities.

And so, as community ownership has become the principal means by which land reform is to be achieved, it is hardly surprising that it has not delivered the widespread democratisation of land across the whole of Scotland.

It cannot do so because community ownership is only one means by which the governance of our land can be made more democratic.

Power has become more and more centralised both regionally and in Edinburgh

Far more powerful, universal and sustainable interventions such as fiscal measures, market regulation and land tenure reform have been ignored.

Back in 1999, I critiqued the first iterations of land reform that put communities at the heart of the policy agenda arguing that this was a measure which treats the symptoms of the problem rather than the underlying causes. My visits earlier this month reinforce this view.

Community aspirations in relation to land will only be fulfilled when we move beyond interventions at the margins of land markets and embed community interests at the heart of a refreshed land governance policy given them real control over local land use, tax, planning, spending, infrastructure and other matters.

Reconstituting a modern system of local democratic governance is the best means of ensuring that land is owned and used in the public interest and for the common good. Communities can achieve remarkable things but they can’t change the rules of engagement - only parliament can do that. 

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