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HIGHLAND COUNCIL GIVE EVIDENCE ON LAND REFORM
Two senior Highland Councillors represented The Highland Council when the Justice 2 Committee of the Scottish Parliament met in Inverness to take oral evidence on the general principles of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill.
Convener David Green and Land and Environment Select Committee Chairman Michael Foxley answered questions from members of the Committee, having previously submitted in writing the councilís response to the Bill.
Councillor Green said he welcomed the opportunity granted at short notice for the Council to give evidence on an issue, which has been at the forefront of the Councilís deliberations for many years.
He highlighted the success at Assynt, Eigg and Knoydart, where crofters and community groups realised their economic and social potential because they had gained, through hard work, control of their own destiny. "They are an example to boost the confidence of others whose path to community control should be made easier with this impending legislation, " he said.
Councillor Foxley highlighted the need to ensure that the crofting community was in control of the mechanisms for the crofting community right to buy.
He said: "Land Reform is essential in the Highlands and therefore the many hurdles involved with a community purchase have to be reduced to ensure that the law enables local communities to buy their land simply and easily."
In answer to a question from Western Isles MSP Alasdair Morrison, Councillor Foxley explained that polling districts were too large a geographic boundary to reflect the area which the community was interested in purchasing. It was essential that postcode units were used as building blocks to reflect the geographic boundaries required by the community. For example, the Isle of Eigg formed a postcode unit within the polling district of the four small isles.
The Borve and Annishader Estate purchase, Skye, comprised three postcode units and an electorate of 59 people. However, it fell within two polling districts, including the town of Portree, and a total electorate of 2,336. Over 50% of this electorate would be required, under the proposed legislation, to support a local bid by Borve and Annishader for the land! This, he said, was very unlikely. Postcode units needed to be used a building blocks and a simple majority of that community should be used to action a purchase.
Other specific measures detailed by Councillor Foxley included the importance of partnerships, which were actively involved in the purchase of both Eigg and Knoydart. Almost half of land owned by the community had been purchased by mechanisms other than a company limited by guarantee eg. trusts, grazing committees, companies limited by chares etc. Alternative options should be permitted.
Much detailed questioning was put to both councillors on the crofting community right to buy fishings. Because of a theoretical risk to the security of title of the fishings, the council had suggested that this right be transferred from Part 3 to Part 2 of the Act. However, the Council also wanted compulsory purchase powers to be given to local authorities to purchase neglected fishings on behalf of local communities, as they were certain they could manage them better.
Councillor Foxley said: "So far, the information given to the Council on the threat to fishings has been anecdotal and hard evidence is required. It is also becoming clear by work recently undertaken by the Council that the number of salmon rivers contiguous with a crofting community amounts to a small fraction of the salmon rivers in the Highlands. It is often only a small part of the river, which could have the potential for a crofting community right to buy. For example, in Lochaber with 15 salmon rivers, only five have a part of that river contiguous with a crofting community and, from local knowledge, only one of these (currently for sale) is of interest to the local community."
The councillors agreed to present the further evidence to the committee on a number of issues in the future.
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