Hundreds of Scottish islanders to vote on buying estate from Surrey-based landlord

Hundreds of islanders in the Outer Hebrides will vote next month on whether they want to buy out their estate from their Surrey-based landlord.

Around 700 residents of Bays of Harris, which covers most of the south end of the island, will take part in a ballot following years of discussion over the future of their community.

The estate, which covers 27,000 acres and 274 crofts over 28 townships, is worth about £1.26 million, according to the latest valuation.

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Bays of Harris is owned by Rob Hitchcock and family, who are based in Surrey, with the estate bought for £5,000 by Mr Hitchcock’s grandfather in 1925.

John Maher, chairman of the Bays of Harris Steering Group, said a community buyout would allow residents to address pressing issues of depopulation and lack of affordable housing, which he described as “the number one concern” now exacerbated by a rise in holiday homes.

He said: “The Hitchcocks have been described as benign landlords. A lot of people who have lived here their entire lives say they have not had any issue with them.

“I have been asked a lot, quite rightly, about how the community would be under the buyout and how we would develop the estate.

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Around 700 residents of the Bays of Harris will vote next month on whether they want to buy-out their estate from the private owners, whose family have held it since 1925. PIC: John Maher.

“This question is never put to the current landlord.”

Mr Maher is the former drummer of punk band The Buzzcocks and moved from Manchester to Harris 20 years ago where he now concentrates on photography and the restoration and upgrade of VW engines.

He said: "I suppose from their point of view, the estate is an investment. It is like their pension plan. That is all well and good, but that sort of investment should be in a painting or a classic car instead of people’s lives. This is a community and there is an opportunity for that community to do better things.”

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Mr Hitchcock owns no buildings on the estate, which has an income of around £80,000 a year – the majority which is generated through rental income for telecommunications masts.

Mr Maher said: “People might feel slightly differently if the landlord had a presence and created jobs, but that is not the case here.”

Mr Maher said he believed many of those initially “on the fence” about the buyout were now “waking up” to opportunities, particularly since a feasibility report found the venture would be financially viable.

However, he said there were vocal opponents to the move.

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The estate has lower rates of children and young adults and higher numbers of those aged 60 and over.

Creating more housing is regarded as key to being able to attract families and workers, with some companies struggling to recruit given lack of available properties. Three schools have closed since 2000.

If the buyout goes ahead, it is hoped to build four new affordable homes by 2027 and improve the condition of existing homes, particularly in terms of energy efficiency.

The Scotsman attempted to contact Mr Hitchcock through his Stornoway-based factor.

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Mr Hitchcock earlier told the Stornoway Gazette he was willing, in principle, to “take very seriously” a potential sale to the local community if the majority of residents wanted it.

The purchase, if approved, will be paid for partly by the Scottish Land Fund – a £10m pot created by the Scottish Government to support community land ownership.

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