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INSIDE TRACK: Community land buyout is a hard Act to enforce

It is not the biggest grant it has made since it was reconstituted a year ago, but the announcement on Sunday that the Scottish Land Fund (SLF) is to award £230,000 to the community-led Pairc Trust is significant.

It should ensure that early this year the crofting community in the south east of Lewis finally buys the 26,800 acre Pairc Estate after a decade of trying.

In addition to the SLF money £76,500 was awarded by Western Isles Council, and the same amount from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. So Pairc Trust is confident that with money from its own resources, it will be able to fund an offer to purchase the estate and associated leases for £500,000.

Assuming Barry Lomas, the Warwickshire-based accountant who owns the estate, accepts the bid and the community rubber stamps it in another ballot, the protracted, most difficult purchase will be completed.

It was shaping up to be the first 'hostile' buyout in a legal as well as human sense. After failing to achieve an amicable purchase, the community pursued it under Section Three of the Land Reform (Scotland) 2003.

As we have already observed (blogospherically), the Pairc saga has highlighted that this part of the Act is not the most efficient piece of legislation. With comparisons to the land grabs in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe it was bound to be tested in court. Mr Lomas of Leamington Spa sought recourse in Stornoway Sheriff Court and the Court of Session. He claimed he was being forced to sell by the Scottish Government as revenge for the Highland Clearances but his legal challenge was founded on his Human Rights being infringed. But a year ago three judges headed by the Lord President Lord Gill, dismissed the appeal.

This left the prospect either of further legal action or ministers using their powers to force through the sale. Progress away from this stand-off was thanks in no small part to David Cameron, veteran of the North Harris buyout and chairman of Community Land Scotland (CLS), acting in a personal capacity as an honest broker.

His own organisation, which represents community land owners such as Eigg, Assynt and Gigha, has already suggested a long-term solution. The expert group advising ministers on land reform has said that it will examine CLS's idea of a Land Agency to mediate between landowners and communities mounting hostile buyouts.

We don't yet know whether the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) will recommend such a body be equipped with compulsory purchase powers as originally proposed by CLS.

Between now and April the LRRG will be "refining" its recommendations which would leave ministers plenty time to make any announcements in the final months of the referendum campaign. After all Alex Salmond targeted a doubling of the present 500,000 acres under community ownership by 2020.

Meanwhile the £9m SLF itself is making its mark helping other communities gain control of assets across Scotland, whether it is land for sports fields in the Borders, a smokehouse in Wester Ross, 1500 acres of Argyll woodland or a lighthouse on the Moray Firth.

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