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Are community buyouts the utopia that they're made out to be?

The Assynt Foundation's Glencanisp Lodge is being leased to a hotel chain for £30,000 pa

This week an article in the Scottish Mail on Sunday announced that the Assynt Foundation, one of Scotland’s most high-profile community buyouts, has gone bust.

The Foundation’s assets include 44,000 acres of land, which was bought in 2005 at a cost of £2.9 million – using £2.2 million from the Scottish government. The group were one of the first to make the most the SNP’s land reform act, which gives communities first refusal if their estate is put up for sale.

In 2020, the Assynt Foundation received another £870,000 of taxpayer’s money from Forestry Scotland to plant trees across 625 acre of its land: the plan was to make money by selling carbon credits. But now, it would appear that the Foundation’s trading arm has gone bust, owing £170,000. According to the Scottish Mail on Sunday, the latest annual report reveals “the hopeless financial position of …Assynt.Biz” and that the board have decided to “accept advice to close Assynt.Biz down and to sell off its few assets to raise money to pay creditors… before applying to have the company struck off.”

The Assynt Foundation’s assets include Glencanisp Lodge, a Victorian hunting lodge which was originally going to be run as a wedding venue. It underwent a £1.25 million makeover, before being relaunched as a luxury B&B. Now, the board say that the foundation “lacked the skills and resources to make a financial success of it.” But someone else is willing to pay to give it a go; a Wiltshire-based hotel chain have agreed to rent the lodge for £30,000 a year, on a 25-year lease. Even with this income, the foundation still have a way to go even just to break even on the amount of money they’ve received for tree planting. In fact, of their £68,000 turnover in the year 2018-19, £45,000 was public cash.

So what does this indicate for other community buyout projects in other parts of the UK? In Scotland, the SNP government have been keen supporters of community buyouts including on the islands of Eigg and Gigha, the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, and most recently, the Old Forge pub in Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula – Britain’s most remote pub. Many of these were only viable thanks to vast sums of money from the taxpayer – which is all well and good if the taxpayer is happy to fund this money (and one can assume that, by voting the SNP into government, they approve of their land reform agenda) and are happy that this is a sound investment.

But is it? The worry with so many of these community projects is who is making the decisions or running the projects – and do they know what they are doing? The former executive officer of the Assynt Foundation Gordon Robertson – himself an experienced estate manager and chairman of the Highland Region of Scottish Land & Estates for 15 years – stated that: “Planting of native woodland was one of a number of initiatives included within ten-year cash flow projections that I had produced… This capital must be used to create income-producing jobs and enterprises. It was all set out in the projections but the board has decided not to share this with the community.” One of these other initiatives must have been Glencanisp Lodge which, as we have seen, is not a viable business for the foundation.

The other high-profile community buyout is at Langholm, on land formerly owned by the Duke of Buccleugh. This buyout has been done in two stages; the first, a £3.8million sum which purchased 5,200 acres and six properties. The second phase is hoping to purchase a further 5,300 acres. But do they have the knowledge or the expertise to manage the land and business? In a recent article in The Times, it was stated that the Langholm Initiative were developing their management plan and looking at ways in which they could diversify. The ideas posited included “interactive courses on wool production, a dark-sky observatory, camping sites and new housing on the moor.”

Will this be enough to support the salaries and management costs needed to cover the running of an estate like Langholm – particularly if they are planning on doubling the size of their current holdings? The community buyouts which have gone before haven’t exactly painted a portrait of financial viability. And that’s where the question has to be asked: will these community-owned estates be reliant on the tax-payer – and donations – for eternity? If so, is this something that should be encouraged?

Private estate owners are demonised by Scotland’s SNP government, but at least they are able to fund and cover their own costs and – in many cases – the evil, rich landowners choose to plough hundreds of thousands of pounds of their own money into their estates and the local economies. While projects such as Langholm are attempting to encourage young people into the community – hence the idea of new housing on the moor – surely the best way to encourage younger people and families into these remote, rural areas is by offering gainful employment?

It is clear that the now-famous statement that half of Scotland's rural land is owned by under 500 individuals doesn't fit into the SNP idyll of Scots owning their own country – and that's understandable to a certain extent. But government (read: taxpayer) and charity funds can only go so far. This is surely another business model that simply doesn't make sense.


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