Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Crofting historian says the system of land tenure faces fight for survival

Published in The Herald, 10 August 2009
Definitive endorsement from the crofting authority of the plans and efforts being made by this Scottish Government.
The historian who charted the origins and development of crofting is questioning whether the unique system of land tenure he has spent most of his adult life championing will survive much longer.

Professor Jim Hunter has become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for crofting in the face of the bitter dispute that has erupted over successive governments' proposals for reform.

Mr Hunter, who has served as the founding director of the Scottish Crofters Union, is a staunch advocate of the relevance of crofting.

A debate has been raging since the previous Labour and LibDem Scottish Executive launched a crofting reform bill. The government was forced to abandon large sections of the bill in September 2006 and a committee of inquiry was launched into crofting under Professor Mark Shucksmith.

His report formed the basis of the current draft bill. Public consultation ends on Wednesday. Among the bill's provisions is the requirement that any house built on land taken out of crofting will have to be occupied as a principal residence for more than six months a year, an attempt to stem the demand for holiday homes that has long distorted the housing market in the Highlands and Islands.

However, the Scottish Crofting Foundation has attacked the bill as "oppressive" and the Crofting Rights Emergency Action Group, which was set up last year in north-west Sutherland, is campaigning against it.

Mr Hunter said: "More than 120 years ago, a British prime minister, William Gladstone, did something that none of his modern successors, whether in London or Edinburgh, would contemplate for a moment.

"He excluded the free market from large parts of the Highlands and Islands by taking away just about all the powers that landlords had previously exercised over crofts and crofters.

"Families who could previously be evicted by landlords with no more than a few weeks' notice were given perpetual security of tenure and their rents, formerly set at high levels by their landlords, were henceforth - and are still - fixed by a state-appointed tribunal."

However, Mr Hunter said the market had reasserted itself, with more people wanting to have homes in crofting localities.

"Understandably, many crofters are taking advantage of this, by selling their land as house sites or, sometimes, by selling, in effect, their crofts. Of course, the controls imposed on crofting in Gladstone's time are supposed to make this type of market in croft land impossible."

Mr Hunter continued: "When the Shucksmith inquiry team undertook one of the most exhaustive inquiries ever mounted into crofting, they were told over and over again by crofters that, unless this market in croft land was brought under the same sort of stringent controls that were long ago imposed on crofting landlords, crofting as we've known it for generations will soon cease to exist. I'm convinced that, without the sort of actions Shucksmith recommended and which the Scottish Government is trying to introduce, crofting of the traditional sort will soon be no more.

"It's virtually impossible for young people, often for local people of any age, to get into crofting. They're simply being outbid at every turn. So the question, at its most basic, is this: Do crofters wish to secure the future of crofting by subjecting it to renewed controls of the kind that have kept crofting in being for so long? Or do they want, as individuals, to have the right to profit from a less and less controlled market in croft land? Judging by what's being said by many crofters, there certainly isn't a consensus in favour of more, and much tougher, controls.

"If I had a croft and if I had the chance of selling chunks of it for large sums, I'm by no means certain that I'd prefer to keep that croft in existence for a future generation.

"If what's happening now continues, crofting has had it. That doesn't mean there won't be flourishing communities in the Highlands and Islands 50 or 100 years from now. But they won't be crofting communities, and crofting, by then, will be just as much a part of history as the days of clans and clanship."

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