MSPs heap pressure on Crofters' Commission with criticism of bill

THE board of the Crofters' Commission has come under pressure to resign following the publication of a report by MSPs on the way forward for crofting.

Parliament's environment and rural affairs committee today releases its findings on the Crofting Reform Bill after taking evidence at five meetings this year.

While it backs proposals to create new crofts, tackle neglect of croft land and interposed leases - where landowners can deny crofters assets - it says much of the bill should be scrapped. In particular it says a section on the restructuring of the commission should be dropped and that consultation restarted immediately.

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Since being launched in March, the bill has come in for fierce criticism with many critics saying the proposed legislation is largely unnecessary and will do little to stop the speculation of croft land.

MSPs heard that crofts or croft tenancies can be sold or assigned for over 100,000, which is fuelling the second home market and forcing young people out of the area. While most crofts are handed over to family members, some are sold to the highest bidder and there is concern that the bill proposes less scrutiny of assignations.

Critics, including Brian Wilson, the former government minister, say this could lead to widespread buying and selling of crofts, resulting in the depopulation of some communities and the destruction of the crofting system.

Mr Wilson said of the report: "The whole thing has turned into an indictment of the Crofters' Commission and its failure to implement its regulatory role. I think they [the commission board] should now consider their positions."

The report says: "The biggest issue raised in evidence was a concern that a developing liberal property market in crofts is undermining the protection of crofting as a resource for the future... There is a widespread perception that the bill opens crofting further to these market pressures, and is likely to undermine crofting."

Critics have also been cool on "proper occupier" plans to give the commission new powers to ensure owner-occupiers and tenants use the land effectively.

The committee also says it is "very disappointed" with the response of the commission and Rhona Brankin, the deputy environment minister, to calls to have assignations regulated more thoroughly and the commission's power of veto applied more actively.

The MSPs say guidance needs to be given to the commission on the issues of dampening the market in croft land, absenteeism, neglect and assignations both to family and non-family members.

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Critics of the commission during the evidence-gathering sessions included the National Trust for Scotland, which said the commission's work is regarded as "inconsistent and ineffective". The Scottish Crofting Foundation also gave an example of the "long-term regulatory failure" in one township where 11 out of 19 croft holders are absentees despite demand from prospective new entrants.

The report adds: "The committee was struck by the range of negative comments and the depth of frustration and long-standing dissatisfaction expressed by witnesses about the commission's practice."

It also said it was "astonished" a proper register of crofts has not been produced despite it being a statutory obligation on the commission for over 50 years.

Rob Gibson, the SNP's land reform spokesman, said the bill offers no vision for the future of crofting and said successive governments had failed to ensure the commission does it job.

The committee report does support moves to create new crofts outside the traditional seven crofting counties. At present there are over 900 people on the waiting list.

The Crofters' Commission said it cannot comment until it has studied the MSPs' report.