We were reminded this week that the LibDems had identified the creation of a single police force as something they should strenuously oppose in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections.

Nowhere did they fight the idea harder than in the Highlands, where there certainly was opposition and fear that a Central Belt dominated police service would not be good news for such a rural force area. That certainly was the view within Northern Constabulary.

The force was one of the most sceptical about the amalgamation of Scotland police forces and in a survey of staff opinion there was an overwhelming vote against a single force, with 86.6% opposed it.

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Little good it did the LibDems. They were left with no mainland seats in what used to be the party’s heartland. The two most northerly seats fell to the SNP as Argyll had done in 2007.

Only Liam McArthur in Orkney and Tavish Scott in Shetland were left standing north of the Highland Line, and now represent two thirds of the parliamentary party, But it had nothing to do with the quality of the candidates or indeed their policies. The day that Nick Clegg had stood in Downing Street’s Rose Garden with David Cameron the year before announcing their coalition agreement, was the day that the LibDems were done for in the Highlands.

But to their credit they have not just abandoned their former causes. The news this week that none of the four deputy chief constables, who will be directly responsible to the Chief Constable of the Scottish force, Stephen House, were from rural Scotland, has rekindled the issue.

Rose Fitzpatrick is currently deputy assistant commissioner with the Metropolitan Police, but will be responsible for territorial policing in Scotland. Neil Richardson, of Strathclyde Police, is designated deputy to Mr House. Iain Livingstone, currently with Lothian and Borders will be responsible for crime and operational support. Meanwhile Steven Allen, also from Lothian, has been the Commonwealth Games and major events brief.

It wasn’t what Liam McArthur wanted to hear.

“I imagine constituents will be concerned to learn that under the single police force, there will be nobody at the top with experience of rural policing.  It seems that this centralised force will lose all the local knowledge and experience, to be replaced by Central Belt priorities.

“While the new deputy chief constables all seem well qualified, it is worrying that they are drawn solely from Strathclyde, Lothian and Borders, and the Met.  When the Police and Fire Reform Act was rushed through Parliament last year, I voted against the Bill because I believe a centralised force is ill-placed to respond to the particular needs of rural and remote areas. These appointments do little to persuade me otherwise.”

Certainly Mr House would do well to remember that for a long time Northern Constabulary has been able to describe itself as a high  performing  police  force  with  some  of  the  lowest crime  and  highest  detection  rates  in  the UK, largely because of the importance it attaches to community involvement. Some of the other constituents of the new unified force could learn a lot for the Highlands and Islands area.

But in one of those cruel quirks of timing, Mr McArthur’s comments were made the day before the eighth anniversary of the Nairn murder, which is held up by some as evidence of the need for police reform.

Banker Alistair Wilson, a 30-year-old father of two was shot dead at his home in the town on the shore of Moray Firth, by a man described as being approx 5ft 4in-8in tall, of stocky build and wearing a baseball cap and dark blouson jacket. He had asked for Alistair Wilson by name when his wife, Veronica, had opened the door to him early in the evening of Sunday, November 28, 2004. Mr Wilson came to the door, spoke to the man and at one point came back into the house with a blue or green A4 envelope. When he returned to the door, he was shot.

There was an early and highly significant breakthrough when a gun was found in a drain by a council worker.  But luck ran out pretty soon thereafter.

No motive has ever been established and 24 people with the name of Alistair Wilson were interviewed to see if it could have been a case of mistaken identity.

We will never know whether a single police force with all its assets, would have performed better as some have suggested. But Glasgow and Edinburgh have their own unsolved murders, and there are many in the highlands and Islands remain to be convinced about a single police force.

Alex Salmond's community challenge

So far Alex Salmond has not taken up Jim Hunter’s challenge, but has in his own way has turned it back on him. The Carnegie UK Trust commissioned Hunter, a renowned Highland historian and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, to write the story of the community buyouts over the last 20 years. In March, The Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops was published.

It argued that the limited amount of public money supporting communities in the Highlands and Islands has been well spent, particularly compared with the outlay on major public infrastructure projects. It was helping to ease, and in some cases reverse, the age-old Highland problem of chronic depopulation, and also helped to create employment.

According to the book, the £30m, from all public and lottery sources, that went to help communities buy over 500,000 acres of land from Assynt to Eigg and Knoydart to Gigha and South Uist, was less than 7% of the bill for a five-mile stretch of motorway completed in Glasgow in 2011. It wouldn’t have paid for more than 600 yards of the Edinburgh tramway and was the equivalent to what farmers and landowners get by way of agricultural support, or subsidy, in the UK every three or four days.

 The book argued for more communities to be helped buy their land.

But given the social and economic achievements across the buyouts, Hunter   was perplexed by the  minimal engagement by the four men who have held the office of First Minister since 1999. In the book he called on Alex Salmond to put that right.
Hunter said Michael Forsyth as Tory Secretary of State had visited the Assynt crofters in 1995 and Labour’s Jack McConnell followed in his footsteps in 2002.
”But there have been no subsequent such visits to places like Eigg, Knoydart, Gigha or South Uist – certainly no recent first ministerial equivalent of the trip Prime Minister David Cameron made in August 2011 to Cumbria’s Eden District where he saw at first hand something of the achievements of one of England’s community land trusts.

 “If Alex Salmond, the present First Minister, were to do as Michael Forsyth did, people at the community ownership front line would be given a chance to explain to the man in charge of Scotland’s government just what is needed by way of policy initiatives if the community land sector is to grow further.”

Mr Salmond has not yet taken up that challenge but on June 29 his government did announce a new three-year Scottish Land Fund with £6m to help communities to buy land.

Then the following month at a Scottish Cabinet meeting on Skye, Mr Salmond announced a radical review of land reform to   stronger communities and economic growth, Mr Salmond was talking Hunter’s language:

"Land reform is an important part of Scotland’s story. From the Crofting Acts of the 1880s and 1890s to the more recent right-to-buy legislation and support for community land purchase, significant progress has been made.

"We cannot underestimate the crucial part land reform will play in contributing to the future success of Scotland for the next generation. By improving the relationship between our land and people, we can create stronger communities and deliver the economic growth and fairer society that the people of Scotland quite rightly expect.”

And one of the three people he appointed to oversee this radical reform was Hunter himself. The group is chaired by Dr Alison Elliot who was formerly a lecturer in psychology, and is currently an Honorary Fellow at Edinburgh University’s New College. But she came to public attention in 2004 when she became the first woman to be appointed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

The third is Dr Sarah Skerrat, Senior Researcher and Head of Rural Society Research at Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC) who last year led a study into community ownership. It found it was contributing to the repopulation of rural Scotland by enabling residents to remain in remote areas and encouraging people to move to the countryside. It gave residents the opportunity to increase local employment and develop revenue streams through the creation of new business, build affordable housing, sustain rural schools and deliver basic infrastructure such as roads and electricity. In 10 days these three, officially christened “The Land Reform Review Group”, will head across the Minch to the island of Lewis, at the beginning of a fact-finding mission.

They will shortly be holding a series of meetings in the Western Isles and Lochaber – areas which, between them, account for most of the still growing number of estates and islands which have gone into community ownership during the last 15 or so years, although their brief also includes urban areas.

They will do what Professor Hunter told the First Minister to do, by visiting the Galson Estate, one of Lewis’s community-owned properties, and meet a number of people with a close interest in land management and land reform.

The following day, they will be in Harris where they’ll have an afternoon-long exchange of views with invited representatives of the many community groups who either own (North Harris and West Harris trusts), or are aiming to acquire, island estates such as Scalpay.

That evening (Tues Dec 11) in the Harris Hotel in Tarbert, Dr Elliot and her colleagues will hold a public meeting which, as Dr Elliot puts it, ‘anyone with views on land reform – for or against – is warmly invited to attend’.

On Wednesday 12 December, there will be a similar sequence of get-togethers in Lochaber where the public will have a chance to meet with the Land Reform Review Group at 7.30 in the Moorings Hotel, Banavie, near Fort William.

Stressing the review group’s independence of government, and their consequent freedom to reach their own conclusions on what further land reforms might or might not be needed, Alison Elliot said: “It’s important that we hear from, and meet with, people in different parts of Scotland. At the beginning of October we issued a Call for Evidence which has gone to many hundreds of interested parties and which is available to the public on our website. We expect, as a result, to get lots of written submissions about what should happen next. But we’re keen to supplement these submissions with as many face-to-face meetings and fact-finding visits as time and resources permit.”

So far the Land Reform Review Group have met a number of key organisations – such as Community Land Scotland, representing the community ownership sector, and Scottish Land and Estates, representing private landowners – and have visited community ventures and private estates in localities like Atholl, Comrie, Moray, Renfrewshire and Inverclyde.

Dr Elliot continued: “In Lewis, Harris and Lochaber – as well as in South Uist which I plan to visit the following week – we’re anxious to learn from people with first-hand experience of how community ownership has worked out in practice. We’re particularly keen to hear views about the various mechanisms put in place by the Land Reform Act of 2003 – and to gather opinions as to what could or should be done by the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to make community ownership easier and faster to achieve.”

Given the importance ministers are attaching to the issue, the Scottish Government expects a report on any legislative changes that are required to allow this to be taken forward, by ......the end of next year, 2013.

The Return of Horse power

Decades ago horses used to pull the felled timber from Scotland’s woods until the arrival on winches and tail-dragging machines. But it was good to see that equine extraction returned to Sutherland recently. Tarzan, a five-year-old Comtois, has been used to remove non-native larch trees from part of the Woodland Trust Scotland’s Ledmore and Migdale Woods near Spinningdale to avoid damage to sensitive ground flora, in what is a Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Apparently it is an ancient native pine wood of very high ecological quality, which supports a complex web of habitats and species. It contains a number of non-native larch trees which have grown up among the Scots pines.

The Woodland Trust Scotland is working with Scottish Natural Heritage to restore the woodland to a more natural composition over a number of years.

Eleanor Garty, site manager for Ledmore and Midale Woods said: “Conventional forest machinery can cause significant damage to ground flora. Even low-pressure tyres compact the soil, which in some cases can mean loss of sensitive plants.

"Horse logging causes significantly less damage. Any disturbance tends to be superficial, and in some cases the ‘scarification’ caused by the horse can actually help distribute colonies of rare plants around the woodland.

“We could just fell the non–native trees and leave them in the wood, and this is what we will do in some areas, where they are inaccessible, or far from the track. This has the benefit of providing deadwood habitat, which is vital for a range of species, such as fungi and insects.

On the other hand, timber is a valuable resource, and larch is a very durable wood, prized for a wide variety of purposes. So where we can, we plan to extract the trees that we fell and put them to good use.”

“Around 80 people came to the wood to watch Tarzan at work and local children crafted colourful hobby horses.”

Eleanor Garty added: “It was great to see so much interest in the event. You could see the children’s faces light up as soon as they saw Tarzan.”