Ministers ‘block’ Bernera buyout plea

Leaders of the proposed Bernera community buy-out believe they are up against entrenched opposition within the Scottish Government to reform of right-to-buy legislation.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 24th June 2022, 9:00 am
The community have been frustrated in their attempts to buy the estate.
The community have been frustrated in their attempts to buy the estate.

This follows a Holyrood debate when the Minister who responded sent out a “must try harder” message to Bernera within the existing crofting community right to buy law, which has never been used successfully to complete a purchase.

John Porteous, who has been involved throughout the long struggle, said: “It has been obvious all the way through we have been fighting the German landlord but we now believe there are two obstructive parties – the landlord and elements within the Scottish Government who are trying to stop reform of Section 3”.

Section 3 of the 2003 Land Reform Act was intended to allow community buy-outs to proceed where there is a hostile landlord, with majority support from the crofting community. However, it has long been evident that landlords can frustrate it through delaying tactics.

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Mr Porteous said: “We were all disappointed that Alasdair Allan did not make more play of the need for changes in the Act during the debate”. However, he recognised that Mr Allan previously sent “a strong letter” to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Mairi Macallan, but received “a very dismissive response really saying that we should use the legislation as it stands”.

The same line was taken in last week’s debate by the Minister, Tom Arthur, who said that the Section 3 is “a powerful bargaining tool” and added: “Other crofting communities have tried and been successful … the most obvious answer lies in the belief and tenacity of the community itself”.

This has not gone down well on Bernera where there was an 85 per cent vote in favour of a buy-out seven years ago but progress has been frustrated by the landowner, Cyran de la Lanne-Mirrlees, a student in Frankfurt.

Mr Porteous said: “We have got to flush out the Government’s attitude to Section 3 and they seem to be saying that nothing needs to change. However, there are crucial amendments that need to be made if the Act is to be used in the way it was originally intended”.

He said that the landlord – as demonstrated in the Pairc buy-out – is allowed to “keep coming back an unlimited number of times with nit-picking objections to the application, without even saying what they are”. Mr Porteous said there should be a limitation to “two or three responses then they don’t get another chance”.

He also suggested that eligibility to vote should be on a straightforward post-code basis rather than “ridiculous” rules about occupation of land which has boundaries with the estate. This is a particular factor on Bernera because of a history of “free gift” crofts which means one-eighth of the electoral roll are prohibited from voting in a ballot.

Following last week’s debate, Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant expressed disbelief at what she had heard from the Minister. She said: “There is something seriously wrong when a community asks for help because the legislation isn’t working and the Government responds by shrugging its shoulders and saying ‘try harder’. She called for “urgent legislation” to strengthen Section 3.