I was in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, on 19 and 20 September 2013 for the Scottish Crofting Federation’s annual Gathering. The theme of this year’s crofting conference was Common Grazings: Utilising Potential.
The conference was ably chaired by Derek Flyn and well organised by Patrick Krause and his staff from the Federation. A good and diverse range of speakers made for a very interesting and enjoyable conference. I am not, in this review, going to cover all the talks that were given but will focus on those that had a crofting law aspect as this is, after all, a crofting law blog.
Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, should have been the keynote speaker but parliamentary business detained him in Edinburgh and his place was taken by David Barnes, Deputy Director of Agriculture and Rural Development.
David told us that the Crofting Commission has a focused not diminished role. Some, I would suggest, might argue with a focus in the wrong places!
Over 80 new crofts have been created in the last 5 years. Mention was made of crofters being allowed to be absent with good cause. My experience does not bear this out. But then my view of good cause may be quite different from that held by the Crofting Commission.
The Scottish Government were disappointed by the number of voluntary registrations on the Crofting Register. Not that surprising. Apart from a token discount for community registrations there was no real incentive to do it voluntarily.
David Barnes referred to the “specific and acute problem” with the 2010 Act that created a flaw in decrofting procedures and resulted in the 2013 Act to remedy that. The Scottish Government were very aware indeed that this is far from being the only issue with crofting legislation. They will be carrying out a consultation later this year. They need to take their time. Owner-occupiers who are not owner-occupier crofters and cannot decroft without the consent of neighbouring landowners may take a different view about the need to take any more time over that particular issue.
On the question of what form legislative reform might take David Barnes asked: “Do we look for where holes are and put patches on them or do we have a root and branch rewrite?” This question is one that is likely to tax MSPs in the coming months (or years perhaps depending on how much time will actually be taken over it).
My own view is that there are pressing issues that need be dealt with sooner rather than later and others where time can be taken. We may need at least two Bills: one within the next year (patching holes) and a more comprehensive one (possibly a rewrite) to follow in the fullness of time.
Julia Aglionby from the Foundation for Common Land told us of some of the differences between Scotland and England & Wales. In England & Wales a shareholder is a commoner. In England & Wales all renewable payments go to the landowners and none to the commoners. Compare crofting shareholders in Scotland who receive 50% of those payments. Less than 5% of common grazings in Scotland are signed up to schemes to assist them. In England more than 80%. Why? We didn’t get any clear answers.
John King of Registers of Scotland gave an update on the Crofting Register. There are 300,000 transactions that pass through Registers of Scotland each year before the new Register of Crofts is counted in. Professor Shucksmith recommended a map based Crofting Register and that is what we now have. The Crofting Register is free to view online. 29 common grazings have been registered on the Crofting Register to date. This is much better than I ever expected by this early stage. 9 crofts have been registered to date. Most with plans produced by crofters themselves. Registers of Scotland can help by providing crofters with OS maps to plot their croft on. Derek Flyn referred to Registers of Scotland having been user friendly with the Crofting Register.
Alister Danter of Business Gateway discussed management structures for crofting communities and mentioned the possibility of crowdfunding.
Iain Maciver from Community Land Scotland told us that freehold land is often favoured over common grazings for development because of crofting issues that arise. Soumings are now relevant more than they were in the past when renewable developments take place on common grazings.
Whilst we were in Stornoway Town Hall other crofting activities were taking place around Lewis for the school children participating in Crofting Connections. The children also sat in on some of the sessions in the Town Hall.
I enjoyed the Gathering and am already looking forward to next year’s one.