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Taking control of a vital asset

Some say the modern community land movement made Scotland start to think a little bit differently about itself.

On the other hand, there has been a sense that progress has stalled in recent years.

It hasn't stopped takeover talk in the Mull of Galloway, and now those on Barra and Vatersay are talking about controlling their own land.

Meanwhile, on Thursday in Glasgow, a 61-year-old Invernessian will chair the first meeting of the reborn Scottish Land Fund, carrying hopes that over the coming three years he will oversee the movement's revitalisation.

It is a job John Watt is uniquely qualified to perform. When the Scottish Office Minister Brian Wilson arrived on Eigg in June 1997 to celebrate the community's historic buyout of the island, he announced the establishment of a community land unit within Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to help other communities do likewise.

It was to be the first port of call for any community aspiring to become the local landowner.

Back at the HIE's Inverness HQ, Mr Watt, the man who was to lead the unit, was quietly going about his job as head of corporate planning.

With a doctorate researching rural development in the Atlantic provinces of Canada, and having been one of the driving forces behind the community co-operatives with the old Highlands and Islands Development Board in the late 1970s and 1980s, he was well equipped for the job.

Now he is recognised as one of the single most significant figures in the community land movement which has seen over 500,000 acres of Scottish land come under the control of the people who live and work on it. It has seen the halting and reversal of chronic depopulation in some of our most fragile communities.

But Mr Watt's first challenge couldn't have been more difficult: helping to carve out a sustainable future for the tiny community on the remote Knoydart peninsula.

It was a place that had a sad history from the unspeakable cruelty visited on it by the Hanoverian forces in 1746 through to the ownership by the Nazi sympathiser Lord Brocket.

After the Second World War owners came and went until, in 1997, the community-led Knoydart Foundation was established to try to buy the estate, but its owner decided it should be entrusted to businessmen Stephen Hinchliffe and Christopher Harrison.

Mr Harrison ended up in prison in Germany for fraud involving German shoe companies, the firm which owned the estate went into receivership with debts of £1.4 million and Mr Hinchliffe was banned from holding a company directorship for seven years and sent to prison for conspiracy to defraud.

This was the mess Mr Watt had to help clear up and in March 1999 the Knoydart Foundation, comprising Knoydart Community, the Highland Council, the Chris Brasher Trust, the John Muir Trust and Kilchoan Estate, bought the estate for less than £800,000 and ended the chronic uncertainty and decay.

Since then he and his team helped almost 100 communities buy their land or assets on them. Those they have helped speak of Mr Watt's calm professionalism.

The first Scottish Land Fund, established using Lottery money, awarded £13.9m to 188 community groups, which allowed them to buy or gain control of 173,000 acres of local land and create 186 full-time and 219 part-time jobs.

But HIE also made significant investment to back the Land Fund. Their most celebrated success was the island of Gigha. In 2001 the Land Fund gave the 90 or so islanders a grant of £2.5m and a loan of £1m to buy their island, while HIE gave a grant of £500,000. The population that stood at 98 at the time of the buyout now amounts to more than 150 while the school roll rose from six to over 20. More than half of the island's 40 tenanted houses have been completely refurbished while three wind turbines earn the community over £100,000 a year.

The Scottish Land Fund was wound up in 2006, and much of its work transferred to the Big Lottery Fund's £50m Growing Community Assets (GCA) programme, which had a wider remit than land purchases. From 2008 to 2010 it didn't accept any new applications and there were repeated calls to the Scottish Government from Highland MSPs to restore the Scottish Land Fund.

In June it was announced a new Scottish Land Fund would be established over three years with £1m to spend it in its first year, £2m in the second and £3m in the third. HIE and the Big Lottery Fund are to administer it.

The choice of chairman was seen as vital and the appointment of Mr Watt, with his quiet authority, was widely welcomed. But he is anxious to calm wilder expectations

"I don't think we will see many immediate headline buyouts. A Gigha would take up more than this year's budget and next year's as well.

"But 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, which would not normally buy an asset already in public ownership. That really has stymied a lot of communities with aspirations to create forestry businesses, affordable housing and woodland crofts. But the new Land Fund is willing to consider assisting communities to acquire public land."

He will still face the problem of Treasury rules which demand a market price for any sale of publicly owned assets, but adds: "We will see how that goes. Just a dozen acres can often transform local life.

"What we are about is helping empower local communities to become resilient, economically and socially. Critics of community ownership have painted it as a socialist measure which increases dependency. But to me it has been shown to be a liberating process.

"We have often seen some positive unintended consequences. When the people of Gigha bought the island they weren't doing it to install three money-making wind turbines. The people of Eigg didn't do it to create their own green energy grid.

"All these valuable activities occurred because the community had control of that vital asset - the land. It is money well spent. A recent study calculated all the public and lottery money invested in community ownership in the past two decades wouldn't have paid for more than 600 yards of the Edinburgh tramway. These communities have been worth that at least."

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