It can’t have been the easiest of weeks for people on the Applecross peninsula in the north-west Highlands, with local opinion publicly divided on the ownership of their land.
So there may well be a welcome for the news that emerged on Friday that the campaign group “Land Action Scotland – Reclaiming the Land for the People” will now be leaving Applecross alone.
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It all started in September when the group, headed by leading land reform advocate Andy Wightman, announced that 90 applications had been lodged, seeking membership of both the Applecross Trust (which owns 61,000 acres of that part of Ross-shire), and the Mount Stuart Trust, which owns 28,000 acres on the Isle of Bute.
The Applecross Trust is chaired by Richard Wills of Andover in Hampshire whose family, the Wills of tobacco fame, bought Applecross following the death in 1924 of the previous owner, Godfrey Ernest Percival Willoughby, the 10th Baron Middleton. The estate came under trustees 60 years later and in 2006 it was transferred to the Applecross Trust of today.
Wightman says: “The existing six members of the trust, including Charles Peregrine Albermarle Bertie who is now 80 years old and must retire as a director according to Article 73 of the articles of association of the trust, live in Berkshire, Edinburgh, Inverness, Newcastleton, Reading and Hampshire! Their only connection with the peninsula is that they own it.”
As companies with charitable status, the trusts have no share-holders, only members who are the directors, and there are no restrictions on who can become members. So the plan was to make them more locally accountable as none of their directors currently live in their respective communities.
The Mount Stuart Trust has since announced it will appoint five new directors, increasing the numbers on the board from seven to 12; that some of these appointments will be residents of Bute; and it will consider the 90 applications.
But the Applecross Trust has now confirmed it will not consider those who have expressed a wish to join, despite local MP and former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and local SNP MSP Rob Gibson being among the applicants.
The trust said “We have had many messages of support from the community who have made it clear that this campaign has been unwelcome.”
The day before the trust announced it was keeping its doors shut, an open letter was issued by resident Mark Stewart, claiming 110 had signed a petition supporting the trust. That would be a majority of the community, which has a population of around 200.
(This has been challenged locally with reports, for example, of one man saying he signed the petition because he was told by the person who brought it to him that 90 strangers were going to take over Applecross and his business.)
The letter also took a swipe at “prominent members” of the Applecross Community Company and the Applecross Community Council, who had supported the Wightman initiative. “It is important to note that there is significant cross-fertilisation of positions between these two allegedly community based organisations which, coupled with a total lack of consultation and communication, has led to a widespread perception of disenfranchisement.”
Alison Macleod, who is a member of both bodies, was one who spoke out about local frustration in dealing with the trust over community projects. But she has made clear she could only speak in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of the community council or the community company.
She said it was not correct to say that there had been no interest in Wightman’s idea. She had applied for membership of the trust and knew of at least three others locally who had done so.
However, Land Action Scotland has now announced on its website that it is withdrawing from Applecross: “The Applecross Trust has now refused all applications for membership. We regret the disruption this has caused in Applecross. This was a campaign directed at the charitable company that owns the estate. Had it been successful, local people would today be in a position (if they so chose) to apply for membership of the trust in the same way as they could do for many other charities.
"Instead, the company has taken over six weeks to respond and has itself been responsible for stirring matters up in the community. We will continue to work with any and all who seek a democratic future. Meanwhile, we look forward to finding out who the new director of the company will be when Mr Bertie steps down at the AGM.
“Our opening campaign to seek to open up membership of the Mount Stuart Trust and the Applecross Trust is therefore now over and Land Actions Scotland will be making no further attempts to seem membership of these two organisations. What individuals who have had their applications rejected might do, however, is of course entirely up to them.”
Euro-funding - will the Highlands and Islands benefit?
However deep the problems in the Euro-zone and despite the increasingly strident Eurosceptic voices in Westminster, so far there is nothing too toxic about Brussels as far as the Highlands and Islands are concerned - fishing apart, of course.
This week saw a delegation from the area visit the Treasury to talk about Europe. Highland Council Leader Councillor Drew Hendry and Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, both SNP, met LibDem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander to urge the Government to support their inclusion in a category of Transition Regions in the next round of EU Funds which will run from 2014 to 2020.
The proposal from Europe is that the regions of the EU be divided into three groups:
more developed regions who have more than 90% of EU average GDP per capita, which apparently is the most of UK. These areas would get 53 billion euros over the seven-year period, which would represent 15.8% of the EU Structural Funds budget and cover 307 million people.
down the bottom are the the “less seveloped” regions which have less than 75% of EU GDP. These areas could get 162.6 bn euros representing 68% of structural funds budget and cover 119.2m people. Interestingly, nowhere in Scotland would qualify for this category but it might include Cornwall and Scilly Isles, although that is thought unlikely.
but in the middle comes the Transition Regions with 75-90% EU GDP. They would get 38.9 bn euros which is 11.6% of Structural Funds budget and would cover 72.4m people. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, this middle group could include: Cornwall & Scilly Isles if they don’t get into the less developed category; Devon; Lincolnshire; East Yorkshire & N. Lincolnshire; Shropshire & Staffordshire; South Yorkshire; Merseyside; Lancashire; Tees Valley & Durham; and last but not least the Highlands & Islands
Mr Alexander, whose own Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey constituency would of course benefit, has promised to consider his fellow Highlanders’ arguments, but according to Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the UK government is not impressed by Europe’s plans: “Overall the EU budget proposals are too high by approx 100bn euros and are inconsistent with stabilisation of the EU budget.”
But to Angus MacNeil, it is a no-brainer: “It would cost the UK 4.7bn euros over seven years, but the gain would be 6.6bn euros over the same period, a net benefit of 1.9bn euros. This would mean 240million euros extra over seven years which, when match funded, would equal half a billion euros or a £380million shot in the arm for the Highlands and Islands economy over that period.
“This would be a great boost for the economy of the Highlands and Islands and with an improved economy would mean greater tax revenue for the Treasury at Westminster or Scotland.”
The fight is not yet won and long gone are the days when Highland politicians could return from the Brussels in victory, having got the Highlands and Islands into the priority funding pot which used to be called Objective One.
It meant of course that the area was one of the poorest in Europe, which was rather an unusual boast, but it did mean £260m of European aid being invested in the Highlands and islands in the six years to 1999.
But it brought its own problems. In 2009, the Scottish Government agreed to repay almost £10m of European funding because of flawed accounting procedures for some of the most ambitious projects in the Highlands and Islands financed by Objective One in the 1990s.
Those found wanting included the £20m Cairngorms Funicular Railway; the £6.6m Berneray Causeway; the £7m Scalpay Bridge; the replacement £2.65m Corran Ferry; and the £9m Inverness Airport terminal.
Yet again the devil was in the accountant’s detail.