Comment: A matter of trust and treasures

AS A charity, the National Trust for Scotland is rare in having been given legislative backing on behalf of the nation for its core conservation role.

Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, left, could become vulnerable to a new threat of forced land purchase  if not now, then in succeeding generations.  
Picture: Robert Perry
Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, left, could become vulnerable to a new threat of forced land purchase  if not now, then in succeeding generations. Picture: Robert Perry

This is found in two unique powers: Inalienability, which means that important heritage sites are held by the Trust on an inter-generational basis and protected against third party compulsory acquisition; and Conservation Agreements, where the Trust can contract with private owners to bind their successors to protect the natural or historical significance of a property against unsympathetic development.

The Trust has been careful in exercising its responsibilities. We are regularly called to intercede in land use decision-making at a local level and do so without any vested political or commercial interest – all we seek is the best possible outcome for the heritage that belongs to this and future generations.

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Most people recognise and appreciate the success of the Trust in conserving some of Scotland’s most treasured places over the last 83 years. As the largest membership organisation in the country, the subscriptions received and our success in raising and leveraging funds for conservation reaffirm our mandate.

We naturally have interests in legislation affecting land ownership. We fully appreciate the groundswell towards community control, however, we have concerns that the “problem” is not always well defined and that there may be unintended consequences for the national interest. Concepts such as inalienability and conservation agreements could appear a hangover from a feudal past – or be seen as crucial tools to protect the national interest against development creep or the commercial exploitation of heritage assets. The need to consider the community interest in heritage conservation was recognised in past legislation. For instance, the 1993 Crofters Act permits the sale of crofts, but also ensured the Trust’s purposes were considered in any relevant transactions.

2003 legislation, supported by the Trust, and which brought welcome reform of access rights, extended the crofting right-to-buy to entire communities, but made no reference to testing the conservation interest represented by land held inalienably for the nation. The question arises: was this a shift in policy or an oversight?

Thus far the Trust has not challenged requests to transfer ownership of crofts on its properties due to respect for the rights of crofting community members. But one result is that the ownership of 18 per cent of Iona, acquired for the nation in 1979, has passed into private hands. The ability to protect this land from subsequent sale and development is lost and our ownership of the remainder “for the nation” is no longer absolute.

We recognise we need to earn the right to manage land effectively and balance the needs of communities and the nation. The model township community at Balmacara is an effective partnership of interests in another crofting area. But the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill (proposing an extension of rights to buy) makes no reference to the Trust’s statutory rights, and the speculative Absolute Tenant Right to Buy (testing the idea of forced sales to tenant farmers) further diminishes the concept of long-term stewardship for the wider community of interest.

Where, on your behalf, the Trust owns and protects a spectacular area of countryside, such as Torridon, or a designed landscape like Culzean, prospects of forced purchase of land introduce a new threat – if not now, then for the next generation. This is a real and significant risk unless the Trust’s special powers are recognised and appreciated. Why does this matter? What we are seeing now, in the context of new national planning guidance where there is a “presumption in favour of development”, is increasing pressure to source cheap, developable land in attractive (and hence sellable) areas. This often means places with heritage value previously sheltered from urban sprawl or commercial interest. This results in challenges to inalienability and conservation agreements.

To urban and rural communities across Scotland this should give rise to concern. Our 2013 “Land That We Love” survey of 1,700 people found that 72 per cent of respondents felt they had “no influence” in the management of their local landscape in the face of development. As pressure builds on green space and much-loved local heritage, inalienability and conservation agreements could be seen as last lines of defence. But the expense of maintaining these should not be underestimated.

These outcomes are not due to malice aforethought. The problem is that there has been little or no regard for the consequences of heritage management alongside concerns for human rights and equality in land management. Our fear is that, as new legislation is developed in response to recommendations of the Land Reform Review Group, this may be overlooked again. The Trust has no problem with appropriate development or community ownership so long as there is no threat to the wellbeing of Scotland’s heritage.

If the people of Scotland conclude that inalienability and conservation agreements are no longer fit for purpose, we will accept this with good grace and conduct a fundamental re-think of our role.

However, if these tools, designed for public benefit, are lost through a neglectful lack of interest, without any serious debate, then we may all have cause for regret.

• Pete Selman is director of strategic development at the National Trust for Scotland,