Most crofters will have heard something about land reform and community ownership and its effect on the rural landscape. It has been in the spotlight over the past two years with the passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2016 by the Scottish Parliament.
Much of the debate surrounding Land Reform did not actually involve crofters and perhaps for crofting communities in Shetland the whole debate seemed somewhat remote. Land Reform certainly affects private landownership, and undoubtedly there are pressures on private landowners as a result of land reform legislation. However many of the provisions in the Land Reform Act related to agricultural tenancies rather than crofting.
One area within crofting communities which was affected by land reform was the crofting community right to buy and the push for community ownership may have the greatest effect within the crofting communities where there appears to be a greater willingness for landowners to sell. The crofting community right to buy was actually introduced as part of the Land Reform Act in 2003, which gave crofting communities rights to purchase their crofting estates. It has been very rarely used however and most community buyouts of crofting communities have taken place outwith legislative terms. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 sought to improve it and make the community right to buy much easier to use.
However it is probably the whole movement in land reform rather than any specific legislative provisions which will have a more dramatic effect and which will invariably encourage more community ownership within crofting communities.
As a firm, we have seen experience of this first hand by advising both landowners and crofting communities on the community and crofting community buyouts.
For example, we recently advised a crofting community in Sutherland on the purchase of a historic crofting estate in West Helmsdale. Garbh Allt Community Initiative Estate, an entity owned by the wider community, bought out the Sutherland Estates' crofting townships of Portgower, Gartymore, West Helmsdale and Marrel – some 3000 acres of what is largely croftland.
This purchase was on an amicable basis without having to resort to any legislative provisions. The legislation, I suppose, can provide a backdrop to encourage amicable sales.
This purchase is a culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication by members of this community, and we advised the initial body who took forward the feasibility stage. Once the community had decided they wished to proceed we advised the newly incorporated body, including advising on the purchase of the estate, the crofting, and the difficult mapping and registration of a crofting estate.
Plans being considered for the land, in an area which has suffered from low employment and depopulation, include new homes and using the land to give local people more opportunities.
Whether or not the crofting community buyout is the right thing for all communities is clearly something that remains to be seen. Furthermore, in Shetland there is a long history of owner/occupied crofters and crofters having already purchased their own individual crofts. Indeed, the individual crofter's rights to purchase remain whether or not the community has undertaken a purchase and it may not suit all crofting communities.
Furthermore it should not be seen as a panacea which will solve all of the problems with crofting (including the well documented legislative issues and problems), which will unfortunately remain whoever the landowner is!