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Agenda: The land debate must be moved on from private good, community bad

I was disappointed by Angus MacDonald's Agenda column ("Landed estates are a great asset to Scotland's fragile rural economy", The Herald, January 10).

Exactly £17,517 of public money went into the purchase of Eigg, the balance of the £1.5m price being raised by public subscription.

Community owned estates are eligible for the same grants as private estates, the difference being that accounts have to be filed and amounts minuted in public records, as befits a charity. The same forms also have to be completed for the public bodies, usually by volunteers who make a huge contribution in kind.

The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust receives no subsidies for revenue items and maintains its two part-time staff from income-generating activities. Each of the four small isles demonstrates different types of land owner: private, NGO, government and community. Each receives sums from the public purse from time to time. The privately owned island of Muck recently received funding towards a hall and electricity scheme; most of us were very pleased. Mr MacDonald's comparators were poorly chosen since he selected Muck and then Raasay, a Government-owned island which has also received substantial public investment in recent years. He praised a private landowner at Dalwhinnie, where a recent survey showed 25% of houses to be vacant or holiday homes and where the school has been mothballed.

Eigg did gain EU, Lottery and public funding towards an internationally-recognised electricity scheme. Such funding requires the project to benefit the entire community, not the individual. This work was taken forward by the trust after the failure of a former private landowner to encourage the-then Hydro Electric Board to install a submarine cable. The benefits and troubles of the scheme are in community hands but, as for a private estate, there is also a substantial loan to be repaid. Consumers pay for electricity and the proceeds are re-invested locally.

Capital grants for infrastructure are available to many landowners in rural and urban areas across Scotland with the energy and determination to access them and the owners of Eigg and the volunteers should not be criticised for their success.

My real concern is that Mr MacDonald took the private good, community bad line (the converse is also outmoded). The success of Eigg since 1997 has been in the development of very small individual businesses, many made possible by the stability of our electricity scheme, given confidence by community ownership and sustained by hard work. People are returning to Eigg for the good life. Well, life is good but it's also modest and achievements are substantially through individuals' own and communal effort.

Between 1992 and 2010 the amount of public funds granted to assist with set-up costs and land purchase of community-owned trusts in Scotland was less than £14 million, equivalent to what farmers and landowners receive in agricultural support or subsidy in the UK every couple of days.

The Scottish 2011 census figures for the small isles show 84.6% of people being economically active as opposed to 71.5% in Highland and 69% nationally. Since 1997, the population of Eigg has grown, there is mostly full employment, there are new businesses, new houses being built by private individuals (not using public funds) and neighbouring communities also benefit from Eigg's national value as a tourism magnet. Most folk would rate this as a very good example, repeated elsewhere across the community-landowning sector, and all achieved by hard work.

There are much easier places to live than on a piece of land that is community owned. The reality on an island like Eigg is struggling to maintain a ferry service and medical services while witnessing the withdrawal of firefighting equipment and training when our fire service charity is providing equipment and training to Albania.

We have to move the land debate on from private good, community bad argument and learn from each other. The sad thing is, I thought we had.

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