Islanders' dreams of land ownership hit by £59,000 hitch

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A LANDMARK community takeover has been thrown into doubt because of difficulties in buying the land from the Scottish Government.

Crofters in West Harris aim to become the first to buy land owned by the state under proposals first introduced a decade ago.

They want to build new houses and crofts and develop land to attract new families and halt population loss with just one child under school age left in the area.

However, the deal has stalled with the government insisting it must pay the market value for the land and the community unable to afford the 59,000 asking price.

The West Harris Crofting Trust says it is ironic that, while other community land buy-outs from private landlords have been successful, it has hit problems when the seller is the government.

Neil Campbell, the trust secretary, said: "The government, in whatever guise, seems perfectly happy to give grants to communities to pay to absentee landlords but they are not prepared to give us money which we are going to immediately hand back.

"The whole situation seems ironic. Surely the money could be found from somewhere. For the cost of one MP's expense claim we could buy an entire estate, and we would then give them back the money the following day."

The trust recently saw the community on Rum effectively gifted land on the island owned by Scottish Natural Heritage without money changing hands.

The 134 residents on the 4,500-acre estates of Borve, Luskentyre and Scaristavore indicated in May last year their intention to take over the land.

It would be the first sale of state-owned crofting land under the Crofting Estates Act of 1997 introduced by the then Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth.

Since then no estate has been handed over, largely because the government is seen as a good landlord. But the West Harris crofters feel development is now needed to tackle depopulation, lack of jobs and scarcity of housing.

Forty-seven per cent of the population is over 65. Of the 89 houses in the West Side, 41 per cent are holiday homes or self-catering cottages.

The trust wants to build six new crofts and ten affordable houses, a caf and a marine museum, and expand broadband access.

It also has plans for a small hydro-electric scheme, which would generate about 33,000 in income annually.

So far only about half the purchase price has been raised through community efforts and the promise of a grant from Western Isles Council.

A request for funding, submitted with a business plan, to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in March has had no formal response. Lottery money is no longer available to purchase estates for communities.

Alasdair Allan, the Western Isles MSP, said he is working to solve the problem.

Roseanna Cunningham, the environment minister, said: "We are keen to transfer the estates to West Harris Crofting Trust and are exploring a number of different avenues to facilitate this."

John Watt, director of HIE's strengthening communities team said: "HIE has had close dialogue with the West Harris Crofting Trust and we are actively reviewing the Trust's funding requirements."

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