For most of July, I was on holiday on the West of Scotland where, during my stay, I visited one particular island twice. This was Eigg, one of the Inner Hebrides, and an island with a remarkable story.
Eigg, having been passed through successive landowners since the 12th century, suffered notorious mismanagement in the 1980s and 1990s. This led the islanders to apply, unsuccessfully, to buy Eigg in 1995. After raising £1.5 million, they applied again in 1997, this time with success. This was an incredible milestone itself, but even more incredible was how the Islanders have since turned their fortunes around.
One small but significant step for the Eigg community was being able to control grazing in Eigg’s hills, allowing them to reduce soil erosion into the sea, formerly a major problem. The community has also expanded several woodlands and planted several new ones. But their most famous achievement was the foundation of Eigg Electric in 2008: established by setting up two hydroelectric dams, four wind turbines and a number of solar panels. Currently, 100% of the island’s electricity comes from renewables.This is, however, more than just one island’s success story, and the success of Eigg highlights the need for greater community ownership of land in this country.
The UK has one of the highest concentrations of land ownership of any nation, with 50% of registered land in England and Wales being owned by 36,000 people or 0.3% of the rural population. Taken by itself, Scotland has the highest land concentration in the world, with 432 families owning half the land.
In Norway, it’s a very different story. Norway’s pattern of land ownership consists largely of communes and smaller family-owned landholdings. Unlike crofters in Scotland, who lease land from private landowners, Norwegian farmers and their families typically own the land they farm on and boast a much more stable financial situation as a result. Perhaps then, we can aspire for Britain to be like Norway?
The good news is that there are many communities across Britain who are thinking along the same lines. Certainly, in Scotland, there has been a growing understanding that people can’t manage land for their benefit if they don’t own it- a movement aided in part by the rights-to-buy laws created by the Land Reform Act of 2003. In Glencansip and Dumrunie estates, bought by the Assynt people in 2005, work is underway to build new crofts – like those we would see in Norway, with farmers able to own the land they farm. In many ways, this movement has also been led by a strong environmental conscience, largely due to growing awareness of the Caledonian Forest and how much we have lost. The aforementioned estates are also looking to restore 40 hectares of hazel woodland, and last year we witnessed the buyout of two former conifer plantations: one in Loch Arkaig and another in Aigas. Both now subject to ambitious plans aiming to restore native broadleaf and Scots pine woodland. As of last year, half a million hectares of Scotland was in community ownership.
In England and Wales, however, there has been less progress. I can’t say why this is, but for whatever reason, and although there has been some progress in the form of a growing number of community woodlands, the call for community-owned land is less vocal. Perhaps then, it is time for a Land Reform Act for England and Wales – to provide an incentive for communities interested in owning their own land.
Like anything, community-owned land is not without risk, and it is entirely possible for communities to make a dog’s dinner of a buyout. But with an increasing number of communities engaging in discussions about land ownership and plenty of successful buyouts providing templates for success, there is plenty of promise for the future of community-owned land.