Chicken George and Harris speculation

Fury in Harris over land speculation in Luskentyre flows directly from a Crofters Commission decision to ignore strong representations from the community landlords, the West Harris Trust, five years ago.

Thursday, 9th September 2021, 8:53 am
Abandoned by the roadside... the camping pods are so large that they couldn't get past the grid into the village
Abandoned by the roadside... the camping pods are so large that they couldn't get past the grid into the village

In correspondence seen by the Gazette, the Trust pleaded with the Commission for a role in determining the tenancy of 1 Luskentyre – which could now have 14 structures built on it to accommodate up to 60 tourists at a time, if the latest planning application is granted.

The plans, due to be discussed later this month, have brought to a head concerns about over-development in areas of natural beauty and a market which puts crofting tenancies far beyond local reach, often for speculative purposes.

The owner-occupying tenant of the croft, Andrew Bartlett, has applied to install eight glamping pods in addition to three for which he already has consent.

Last year, Mr Bartlett’s partner, Teresa Atkinson, told a gushing article in Scotland on Sunday: “When we came to see the (original croft) house, we turned around and looked at the view and thought ‘we have to have it’.” Shortly afterwards they sold it and it is now rented out as a holiday home.

The four person pods are so large that the first to arrive could not pass through the cattle-grid pillars at the entrance to the village and is now stranded in a lay-by off the main road.

Mr Bartlett – who alighted upon Harris in 2015 – quickly acquired the tenancies of two crofts on the island with the approval of the Crofting Commission. He had previously lived in Orkney where he and his brother ran a burger and kebab shop, under the name Chicken George..

Their company Chicken George (Scotland) Ltd was dissolved in 2016. Prior to that, Mr Bartlett and his brother were directors of UK Blending Ltd in Clacton-on-Sea which they founded in 1999 to make flavourings for crisps. Andrew Bartlett disposed of his stake in 2016, as he arrived in Harris with investment plans.

West Harris Trust was deeply suspicious of what was happening – and with good reason. In February 2016, the Trust wrote to the Commission saying they had previously raised with them the tenancy of 1 Luskentyre following the death of the tenant, an elderly lady who for practical purposes had died intestate.

In fact, her will left the croft to a Harris person who predeceased her and then no family agreement could be reached about assignation to a potential family nominee. As a result, the executors of her estate were free to sell both house and crofting tenancy as one on the open market, subject to Crofting Commission approval.

The Trust’s letter stated: “It is now being reported locally that the tenancy has been approved; could you confirm if this is the case and if not could you also confirm what consultation would take place with the Trust (and the local grazings committee) prior to a formal decision.

“The Croft was advertised on the market for offers over £220,000. We understand the final offers to be over £250,000. As you can imagine this will prevent any young local crofters securing a Croft and it is fair to say the directors were aghast at the price being asked.

“It has also been reported locally that the successful prospective new tenant has only recently purchased another Croft in North Harris (Maruig). If this indeed the case it is clear evidence of speculative purchase of Croft tenancies. I would be pleased if you could confirm that the Trust and local community will have the opportunity to comment on this assignation request”.

Five days later, the Commission’s Finlay Beaton confirmed the tenancy was still in the name of Miss Marion Mackinnon and must be resolved by the Executor by November 2016, within two years of her death. The prospective tenant could either use “the assignation route” or else “proceed under Section 11” of the 1993 Crofters Act “where the Executor of the deceased crofter gives notice of the transfer … to the Landlord who will accept the transferee as tenant”

Mr Beaton asserted that there was “no legal requirement nor is it Commission procedure to consult with landlords or committees as standard.”

The Trust greeted this letter with dismay and asked for clarification of the Commission’s position. “Will the Commission have a role in approving this assignation or not? We don't quite follow the references you have made to the 1993 Act; the wording seems to suggest that the Landlord is notified and has to accept the proposed tenant?

“Also, if this is the case, how does this square with the stated Commission policy to discourage multiple tenancies/Croft collecting or even the basic suitability of the proposed tenant … (we were) always under the impression that the Commission was the final arbiter in the transfer of a tenancy”The Trust response asked: “Does the Commission have a view on this or the fact that the proposed purchaser has recently purchased another Croft. Will the Commission establish, in those circumstances, if plans submitted to acquire one Croft have been complied with before approving the purchase of a second tenancy?”Mr Bartlett continues to be listed on the Register Crofts as owner occupier (i.e. his own landlord) of 1 Luskentyre and 5 Maruig.

The Gazette has sent a list of detailed questions to the Commission about the circumstances in which Mr Bartlett acquired two croft tenancies, almost simultaneously, with their approval and in the face of specific warnings about land speculation.