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The Highland Line: why Scotland needs 10,000 new crofts

It may have gone unnoticed by many, but Scotland’s crofters have once again challenged ministers to create 10,000 new crofts by 2020.

In the ugly parlance of football punditry it is truly “a big ask”, given there are just over 18,000 crofts at present. The figure hasn’t changed very much for well over half a century as legislation was used to specifically prevent the creation of new crofts on most other land.

But the 2007 Crofting Reform Act lifted the prohibition. However since then only approximately 70 have been created, so we will be going at some speed to get another 10,000 in the next seven years.

The first time the Scottish Crofting Federation came up with its target figure was in 2011 when it unveiled an ambitious vision of the bulk of Scotland’s cultivatable land under crofting tenure.

Federation chief executive Patrick Krause said then: “It’s a long-term vision about the most sustainable and ecological way for Scotland to produce food. We believe that there is huge potential in Scotland for thousands of new agro-ecological units that can support land-based livelihoods.”

But almost certainly it was a vision that will now be safely filed under heading “Dust: For the Gathering Thereof” in an Edinburgh redoubt of the civil service.

However this time the SCF has put its idea in its official submission to Land Reform Review Group set up by ministers in July with a view to making stronger communities and encouraging economic growth.

This week Fiona Mandeville, Vice Chair of the SCF, said “We have pressed the Scottish Government to set out the policies that will be put in place to facilitate rapid extension of the crofting system. This is based on a fundamental belief, not only within SCF, that in the Scottish context crofting is the model best placed to deliver the emerging policy goals for agriculture and rural development. Review of land reform in Scotland should reflect these policy goals and so we have asked the Group to support our request.”

The review group is chaired by Dr Alison Elliot, the first woman to be appointed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; whose permanent sidekicks are Highland historian Jim Hunter and Dr Sarah Skerrat, who last year led a study into community ownership of Scottish land.

They are three people who haven’t been averse to a spot of blue-sky thinking in their time. It certainly won’t be the craziest idea they will receive. So who knows?

Who would have thought 20 years ago that we would have a community right to buy enshrined in the law of the land? Albeit it is only a right to first refusal in the case of non-crofting communities, the review group may well have something to say about.

If the powers that be currently see the creation of thousands of crofts as a fairly barking notion, the SCF are not the only ones to have had it.

In 2008 Drew Ratter, the chairman of the old Crofters Commission, was singing from a similar, if more modest hymns sheet. He believed that 4000 new crofts could be created in the Highlands and Islands within the next 20 years which would have take us to 2028.

The old crofting acts had only permitted the creation of new crofts on land that was either already under croft and was being divided, or was contiguous to croft land, which hadn’t been every productive.

The National Trust of Scotland claimed  in 2000  that when it  established eight new crofts on its 6,200 acre Balmacara Estate that year, they were the first crofts to be created in 80 years. Which was probably about right.

But Mr Ratter was confident things would change because of the 2007 Act.  “Now, under the terms of the most recent legislation that has just come into force, new crofts can be created on land far removed from existing crofting communities.

"It makes sense on so many fronts. There are more people wanting to live on the land than there are crofts; there is a chronic rural housing shortage, and there is a growing demand for local food production."

He did his bit in that same year. The Crofters Commission, with him in the chair, approved the proposal by Ardfin Estate to create six new crofts on the Island of Jura.

But the popular Shetlander’s great hope was that many others would be established on some of the 1.6 million acres owned by the Forestry Commission Scotland, our biggest landowner. The development of forest/woodland crofts have been a long held dream of many, not least ministers.

It is 10 years since it was confirmed that the former Scottish Executive would allow the creation of new crofts on FCS land and seven years ago ministers unveiled a scheme. They seemed likely to herald the first new wave of woodland dwellers for generations.

Initially ministers had just existing crofting communities in mind. But The National Forest Land Scheme (NFLS) was to give community organisations, recognised non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and/or appropriate housing bodies the opportunity to buy or lease National Forest Land, where they could provide increased public benefits.

But progress has been slow. Even that is an exaggeration. A recent inquiry to FCS revealed that in 2006 the North West Mull Community Woodland Group purchased some land through the NFLS and subsequently, reckoning crofts to be a good idea, created eight new crofts, three of which have since been let.

And that seems to be about it, although other bodies do have plans for forest crofts such as Kilfinan Community Forest Company at Tighnabruaich and Sleat Community Trust on Skye.

But one of the big problems are Treasury Rules which north of the border are incorporated into the Scottish Public Finance Manual. These demand that best value to be achieved for any government owned assets that are sold.

And this has created a Catch 22 in our woods. Any community wanting to buy FCS land to create forest crofts would have to pay the market rate for what is in effect a commercial forestry asset and therefore could attract a significant price. Whereas if it was croft land, it would be worth a fraction of that.

In 2009 the east Sutherland village of Embo looked like being the first community to establish forest crofts on 400 acres of  local woodland. In January of that year the community body The Embo Trust’s  application to purchase the "Fourpenny Plantation" was accepted by the FCS under the NFLS.  New crofts were seen as the key to young local people being able to put down roots, and not be forced to follow generations of their forebears in leaving Embo.

Twelve crofts of about 10 acres each were planned, along with other activities. But the community had to find £370,000 for the 400 acres.

Contrast that to the £59,000 the West Harris Trust had to pay in 2010 for the 52 crofts and 16,000 acres of  the three government-owned crofting estates.

The main funding source, the lottery backed Growing Community Assets programme which had taken over from the first Scottish Land Fund in 2006, was reluctant to invest in assets already in public ownership, so Embo’s dreams have not been realised.

John Watt, the chairman of the Scottish Government’s new £6m Scottish Land Fund, is aware of the problem. He recently told the Herald:

“There is a lot of interest in communities wanting to acquire Forestry Commission Scotland land and woodland. I am told the team is working with several at the moment.

“That was one of the issues relating to the Growing Community Assets programme, because the lottery backed fund would not normally buy an asset already in public ownership. It was not seen as an appropriate use of lottery money, and that really has stymied a  lot of communities with aspirations to create  forestry businesses, recreational areas, affordable housing and woodland crofts.”

However he hinted things might change “This land fund has Scottish Government money.”

So there may yet be hope for those who want to go down to live in our woods tomorrow.

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