The 'Forever Projects': Learning from community ownership

Twenty five years ago, a determined group of crofters with an inspirational leader did what few thought feasible and fewer thought possible: They bought their own land. Centuries of absentee ownership and mis-management had left its toll on North Assynt.

An ageing population, little employment outside of seasonal jobs in tourism, and no access to land to build a house or start a business equated to little hope for the future. During the week all the high school age pupils left to go to school on the East coast. It was said it felt like anybody that ever mattered had either died or left long ago. But all that changed when the community took ownership of that land. The powerlessness that defined generations lifted, like a passing shower clearing Suilven.

Taking back control

Community land buyouts give people control over their own futures. The power to make their own decisions, make their own mistakes. To make land available for new houses, manage forestry in a way that creates jobs and benefits wildlife and tourism, to benefit from renewable energy or whatever the land could potentially provide.

What’s more, ownership gives communities a sense of confidence - that the never before conceived was suddenly realistic. Ever more ambitious enterprises can be ticked off – community owned broadband, marinas, shops, schools – and always with the profits staying locally.

There is though no immediate rural idyll created by community ownership. When the keys to the estate padlocks are handed over,  there is no automatic panacea, in fact the hard work is just beginning. Often the team of visionaries who led the buyout are burnt out by the struggle, which can take a decade or more to win.

Success breeds success

Frequently, it’s a new tranche of volunteer trustees that take forward the social enterprises, learning the ropes as they go along. Increasingly they are inspired by the accomplishments of their peers elsewhere on the next island, or on the next peninsula up the coast. Investors are heartened by successes, and the ability to borrow money at attractive interest rates can make wind turbines or micro hydro schemes lucrative.

There is a paradigm shift in how the community thinks – no longer is it about chasing grants, about a sense of deserving special treatment from an urban dominated nation. Now it’s about business, but business which serves the need of local people, not alien aristocrats or eccentrics.

The need to nurture young leaders

There are challenges. The directors of community land owning organisations are usually not representative of the communities they serve. There is a need to get younger people involved, which will require a change in organisational culture, in how meetings are held, and leadership skills developed in young people.

Not every social enterprise is successful, but then not every private business is either, particularly in locations which from a financial perspective are best described as ‘economically sub optimal’.  What’s important is that communities are learning from what works and what doesn’t work and using this, in the knowledge that they have a commitment to the land that goes beyond transient ownership.

The list of Community Land purchases now stretches from Gigha, to Lewis, to Easter Ross. These are ‘forever projects’, the fruits of which will be reaped by generations not yet born. There are challenges, but there is also immense commitment, and sense of pride in righting some the wrongs of centuries past.