Tag Archives: Mangersta Common Grazings Committee

The end game?

Have we reached the end game in the crofting commission crisis?

Is it time for the First Minister to declare checkmate?

Many crofters and other interested parties have been wondering for some time why the crisis within the Crofting Commission has been allowed to trundle on for so long. Why they ask is Colin Kennedy still in post as Convener of the Crofting Commission despite many alleged breaches by him of the code of conduct and calls for his resignation from fellow commissioners, representative bodies, the press and crofters.

He has stated that “hell will freeze over” before he resigns. It was suggested that if he didn’t jump he would be pushed. A good few weeks later and no jumping and no pushing to be seen.

The latest move in this bizarre game is that Colin Kennedy has made a formal complaint against Fergus Ewing MSP, the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting. It has been reported by the BBC that Mr Kennedy “accuses the Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing of being in breach of the ministerial code“.

This is rather ironic given the numerous accusations over a number of months from various parties against Mr Kennedy for his purported breaches of the code of conduct for members of devolved public bodies.

This brought about some thoughts on the issue on Twitter tonight:-

A reference to Colin Kennedy retaining an active interest in and being part of the decision making process in the Mangersta and Upper Coll cases despite complaints being made against him.

A reference to Colin Kennedy’s reasons for his behaviour in response to the complaint made against him by former committee members at Upper Coll Common Grazings.

Thus Mr Kennedy’s latest move may not have been as smart as he thinks. He may want to drag the agony out for everyone and cause more pain and anguish along the way. He may wish to pull others down with him. The reality is that such behaviour is not helping the greater good of crofting and the day to day regulation thereof by the Crofting Commission.

The Oban Times reported, in December 2006, that in a sheriff and jury trial at Oban Sheriff Court concerning a shotgun allegation against Mr Kennedy’s agricultural tenant, John Brackenbury, on the Isle of Coll:-

various police reports, about matters on Coll, were read to the court and one said Mr Kennedy was “not averse to confrontation” and added that “by his own admission his actions can antagonise the situation”.

The Oban Times also reported that the defence agent, Mr Nelson:-

put forward evidence in his lengthy cross-examination of Mr Kennedy, which had brought the farmer’s character into question.

He produced a tabloid press report, from the mid-90s, which said fellow islanders at that time called for Mr Kennedy – who was once banned from the island’s only hotel bar – to be banned from having a shotgun, claiming that he “has awful fits of temper”.

Strathclyde Police have received repeated complaints from Mr Kennedy and Mr Brackenbury, over the years, and Mr Nelson produced extracts from police subject sheets, recorded by unnamed police officers, relating to Mr Kennedy.

One stated: “He is of the personality type which seeks to utilise a verbal steam-roller through any contrary argument or viewpoint.”

The report continued: “That he has been an efficient farmer and businessman is beyond question but that very success has engendered a singular arrogance and a persona which ill-fits a small island community where toleration and cooperation are pre-requisite.”

Another police report called Mr Kennedy “an extremely stubborn individual who made it quite clear that he is intent on taking his revenge upon a number of individuals who he believes have previously wronged him”.

And yet another police subject sheet, dated October 4, 2005, said: “Taking aside the 20 years of civil disputes with Mr Brackenbury, Mr Kennedy has recently embarked on a civil complaint with almost every occupant in Arinagour and his lawyers have sent letters claiming £20,000 from each of them, as compensation for their gardens and houses being built on his grazing land. This has caused considerable anguish upon Coll, especially with the elderly.

10 years later and this behaviour appears to have moved from the Isle of Coll to the corridors of Great Glen House and Holyrood.

It is not behaviour befitting anyone in public office and we have surely now reached the end game. If Mr Kennedy thinks he has cornered Fergus Ewing it is time for the First Minister to swiftly move forward and declare checkmate. After all the Queen on the chess board, with an army of support behind her, is much more powerful than a lone ‘King’.

Brian Inkster

Sunday Politics Scotland: Chaos on the Croft

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Gordon BrewerSunday Politics Scotland on BBC One Scotland this week looked at the crisis in the Crofting Commission.

Presenter Gordon Brewer introducing the topic said:-

Now Chaos on the Croft.

The body responsible for protecting and regulating Scotland’s crofting is embroiled in some dramatic internal politics of its own.

As Len Cooksley reports pressure is increasing on the head of the Crofting Commission to resign after the Scottish Government became involved.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Crofter and tractor

Len Cooksley:-

Scotland has nearly 20,000 crofts overseen by the Crofting Commission.

After suspending two local grazing committees on Lewis on the grounds of financial missmanagement it was forced into a u-turn.

There were claims the commission were both heavy handed and may have acted illegally.

Now the Scottish Government’s got involved. It called on the commission and its convener, Colin Kennedy, to apologise.

Last week Mr Kennedy walked out of a commissioners meeting. Those that remained issued that apology and then passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Kennedy.

The First Minister gave her take on events in parliament earlier this week.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Nicola Sturgeon MSP - First Minister

Nicola Sturgeon MSP:-

I note that crofting commissioners have unanimously called on the convener to resign.

The Scottish Government have requested further information from the convener in relation to last week’s events.

While the Government would not ordinarily intervene in the internal operations of an independent statutory body the legislation does give Scottish Ministers power to act if required.

Len Cooksley:-

MSPs are watching developments with interest.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Tavish Scott MSP

Tavish Scott MSP:-

There is no doubt that there has been a fall out amongst commissioners and that has been caused by the behaviour of the convener of the Crofting Commission.

What this organisation needs now is a new convener, a reconstituted board and the ability to get back what it is meant to do and that is work for crofters right across Scotland.

Len Cooksley:-

We understand Mr Kennedy has no plans to resign but would make no further comment.

The implication is clear: either he jumps or he’ll be pushed.

Gordon Brewer:-

Well earlier I spoke to Brian Inkster who is a lawyer and blogger specialising in crofting matters.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Brian Inkster - Inksters Solicitors

Gordon Brewer asked:-

Well the crofting commissioners have no confidence in their leader. He won’t resign and the Scottish Government is threatening to get involved. What on earth is going on?

Brian Inkster answered:-

Well it all goes back to December time last year when they decided to put out of office a grazings committee in Lewis. The first one was Mangersta and then subsequently into 2016 they put out two other grazings committees: one in Upper Coll and the other in Lochaber.

Gordon Brewer:-

Right but what I don’t understand is that Mr Kenedy the man who is the commissioner is accused of issuing edicts on things like payments over common grazings and peoples backs are up about this. But how can he do that surely the commissioners have to decide to do this.

Brian Inkster:-

Well the commissioners should be deciding to do it. It looks as though he has been instrumental in pushing these issues forward.

There were three sort of main issues I suppose.

The first one was payment by grazings committees to shareholders in common grazings of monies that had come into grazings funds. His argument was that these monies had to be paid out immediately. So there would be immediate payment to the shareholders and if monies were required back to maintain the common grazings they would issue a levy onto the shareholders.

Nowhere in the law did it say that these immediate payments had to be made and indeed it just didn’t make any kind of logical or common sense approach to deal with it in that way.

Subsequently there were two other issues.

One was that he was seeking to stop common grazings committees receiving SRDP funding – which is really grants from the governmnet to assist in the maintenace and improvement of the common grazings.

And latterly there was an issue around VAT registration where it was being said that common grazings could not be VAT registered whereas historically they always have been.

Gordon Brewer:-

Right, now, what happened? At some point the commissioners had a vote of no confidence.

Brian Inkster:-

That was just over a week ago in Brora. That was on the back of Colin Kennedy walking out of a meeting. He closed the meeting and walked out on the basis that the commissioner for the Western Isles said he was no longer declaring an interest in the Western Isles cases which he had previously done and was now wanting to vote on any issues concerning the Western Isles.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Brian Inkster and Gordon Brewer

Gordon Brewer:-

On the face of it you would think that if the commissioners have no confidence in him he has to go but he doesn’t does he because he was elected?

Brian Inkster:-

He was elected and there is nothing in the law that says if the commissioners have a vote of no confidence he must go. One would imagine that if all the commissioners are against you, if the Scottish Crofting Federation, NFU Scotland, MSPs across all cross parties and the press are all saying it’s time to go you would think what is the point of clinging on here.

Gordon Brewer:-

The Scottish Government has threatened to become involved. What can they do?

Brian Inkster:-

In terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993, Scottish Ministers have the power if they consider that a commissioner is unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member or unsuitable to continue as a member they can then remove a member from office.

Gordon Brewer:-

Now, Brian Inkster, just to give us a little sense of what the background to this is because it is quite complicated. But is the issue underlying all this the use of land and the fact, for example, wind farms wants to come in or housing wants to come in and it is about whether the common ground is allocated to the community the funds from it or to individuals.

Brian Inkster:-

It is linked to the funds that come into a common grazings. On a common grazings, especially as you mentioned wind farming, so in recent times the potential for larger sums of money to come into a common grazings exists. And it is linked to the distribution of those monies and there was an insistance on the part of the convener that those monies had to be paid out as soon as it was received. That there was no ability to hold onto the money to use it to spend on improvements within the common grazings. The Scottish Government said that was not the correct view in law.

Gordon Brewer:-

Alright, we will have to leave it there. Brian Inkster thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Brian Inkster:-

Thank you.

Gordon Brewer:-

Well earlier I spoke to Colin Kennedy. He is the Crofting Commission boss who is in the middle of all of this controversy. I spoke to him on the telephone from Coll.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Colin Kennedy - Convener Crofting Commission

Gordon Brewer asked:-

Are you going to stay in the post?

Colin Kennedy responded:-

I have no intention of resigning.

Gordon Brewer:-

Why not?

Colin Kennedy:-

As matters stand, I believe the commission have acted wholly within the law at all times and until such times as we have legal advice to the contrary, I will maintain my position.

Gordon Brewer:-

But the Scottish Government has said it has the power to get involved. If they do get involved and say you have to go you will have to go won’t you?

Colin Kennedy:-

That will be the case, yes.

Gordon Brewer:-

So just to be clear on that. If the Scottish Government says look given that your commissioners have voted no confidence in you we don’t think you can stay in post you will have to resign.

Colin Kennedy:-

That may be the case.

Gordon Brewer:-

Why are you so determined? You walked out of the meeting didn’t you, the other week? Why have you fallen out with all of the commissioners?

Colin Kennedy:-

No I didn’t walk out of a meeting.

I formally declared the meeting closed in light of an advancement by a commissioner supported by the deputy accountable officer that they had obtained information from the standards commission which I requested sight of prior to determination which failed to materialise.

Accordingly given the nature of the business at hand I had no alternative other than to formally close the September meeting of the Crofting Commission prior to my departure.

Gordon Brewer:-

Okay, but the commissioners have said they no longer have any confidence in you. Which is not brilliant from your point of view is it?

Colin Kennedy:-

I am unaware of the commissioners having said they have no confidence in me.

Gordon Brewer:-

You are not aware of that?

Colin Kennedy:-


Gordon Brewer:-

So as far as you are concerned what? The Crofting Commission is carrying on its work as per normal?

Colin Kennedy:-

Well I would suggest at this moment in time that the Crofting Commission conducted a meeting on 28th September which is in non compliance or in accordance with the standing orders of the Crofting Commission and therefore it would appear in my view to be ultra vires.

Gordon Brewer:-

So right. If they still have confidence in you why would they do that?

Colin Kennedy:-

I couldn’t comment on what they do at informally constituted meetings.

Gordon Brewer:-

So right. You think that they still have confidence in you but that they have held an ultra vires meeting without you for reasons that are inexplicable?

Colin Kennedy:-


Gordon Brewer:-

The substance of this is about you, they allege, that you made various determinations about things like payments in the form of edicts – that they weren’t really consulted.

Colin Kennedy:-

Absolutely incorrect.

At no time under my leadership have any decisions been taken without full endorsement of the board and based on legal advice.

And if I could comment prior to those decisions as per the board minute of 15 September 2015, prior to taking any of those decisions a formal request was made to the Chief Executive to obtain legal advice to support the papers presented to the board on which the board took the decisions.

Gordon Brewer:-

Alright Colin Kennedy we have to leave it. Thank you very much for joining us.

Colin Kennedy:-

Thank you.

N.B. For a limited period (29 days) you can watch this episode of Sunday Politics Scotland on iPlayer (at about 54 minutes in)

Image Credits: Sunday Politics Scotland © BBC Scotland

Shackles lifted on Murdo Maclennan

Murdo Maclennan - Crofting Commissioner (Western Isles)

Murdo Maclennan – Crofting Commissioner (Western Isles)

The Stornoway Gazette, has revealed that Murdo Maclennan, Crofting Commissioner for the Western Isles, is pleased to now be free to publicly declare his position on the common grazings crisis in the Western Isles after the shackles applied, when he confirmed a declaration of interest, were finally lifted.

In the online article Murdo Maclennan admits that the past few months have been difficult as both Mangersta and Upper Coll have endured very public struggles. He is quoted as saying:-

It has been very difficult for me being unable to give my opinions on the ongoing matters in Mangersta and Upper Coll but now my declaration of interests have been lifted.

It is important to say I was being held back by these declarations, but I can speak now.

The Constable (Mr Colin Souter) installed in Upper Coll should complete his work as quickly as possible and the move to have a new committee in Upper Coll should happen as quickly as possible.

I would hope despite all that has happened that there can be a drawing of a line under it to move forward together, and like all committees, we will need to work with the commission for the benefit of crofting in the future in these areas.

There are lessons learned on the commission side absolutely. In terms of Mangersta I have asked why it has taken six years to resolve? That will be open and transparent to everyone. The way matters were handled and whether a grazings officer could intervene at an earlier stage to bring communities together.

The Stornoway Gazette article points out that last week at the Board meeting at Brora Golf Club Mr Maclennan led a motion, which was seconded and agreed by officials, calling for the resignation of the Crofting Commission’s Convener, Colin Kennedy.

This followed Mr Kennedy walking out of a meeting after he refused to accept Mr Maclennan’s withdrawal of his declaration of interest.

It goes on to quote Mr Maclennan as saying:-

I had sought to represent publicly the Western Isles crofters involved by asking for the papers and being able to take part in the discussions later on in the meeting,

But I was denied that by the convener and after taking advice from the officials present, my position was sustained, that I could have access to the papers which led to him closing the meeting.

The board did continue to meet and we had a full day of business. I did move that the board state, through a motion, in my opinion it was the convener’s position to retire due to the situation. This was seconded and also received the unanimous vote of the board.

It is a question of accountability and responsibility for all that has gone on in the past six months.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

It is good that Mr Maclennan no longer has a conflict of interest and is able at last to take an active role in important issues concerning his own island community.

It is also heartening to see that he was instrumental in leading the motion calling for the convener’s resignation.

Mr Maclennan says that the grazings ‘constable’ Colin Souter should complete his work as quickly as possible and the move to have a new committee in Upper Coll should happen as quickly as possible.

However, what work does Mr Souter have to complete? I don’t think the majority of shareholders at Upper Coll want him to complete anything for them anymore.

In the case of Mangersta the ‘constable’ there was removed very swiftly indeed. Should the same not happen at Upper Coll?

What move needs to be made to have a new committee in Upper Coll? Is that not in effect all done and dusted by the actions taken by the shareholders themselves some weeks ago?

It looks like the Commission is unnecessarily prolonging the agony for the crofters of Upper Coll.

Colin Souter should step down immediately, without any further delay, and let the crofters get on with it themselves.

That happened in Mangersta. There is no good reason why it cannot and should not happen in Upper Coll.

The six crofting commissioners (including Mr Maclennan) who now oppose Mr Kennedy should ensure that this happens without further delay and preferably by close of play tomorrow at the latest. This would demonstrate that the shackles have well and truly been lifted.

Brian Inkster

Few tears should be shed

WHFP - 30 September 2016The latest edition (30 September) of the West Highland Free Press contains a strong editorial concerning the events in Brora last week. It is entitled Crofting Commission: No tears for the end of the Colin Kennedy era. We reproduce it here as an important part of our archive on ‘The Common Clearances‘:-

By walking out of a Crofting Commission meeting in Brora yesterday (Wednesday) because everything was not going his own way, Colin Kennedy abandoned the convenership in the same disgracefully arrogant manner with which he has held the position for the last 15 months.  Few tears should be shed.

Last week crofting minister Fergus Ewing instructed the crofting commissioners to make a full public apology to the Lewis grazings committees which earlier this year, they summarily and possibly illegally dismissed from office.

In other words, according to the crofting minister, throughout this whole sorry affair the Crofting Commission has been completely wrong in both its legislative interpretation and procedural actions.

The commission was wrong to consider that the locally-elected grazings committees at Upper Coll and Mangersta had been constitutionally at fault.  It was also wrong to sack them.

There can be few graver charges laid at the door of crofting’s regulatory body.  Its punishment is to publish a humiliating confession of its sins, and to submit to a review of its practices by Scottish Government officials.

More than anybody else, Mr Kennedy spearheaded the assault on the grazings committees.  In doing so he at least demeaned and possibly also subverted his office.

If one thing was certain following Mr Ewing’s intervention before Wednesday’s meeting in Brora, it was that Colin Kennedy could no longer stay on as convener.  All that remained was the manner of his leaving.  It could have been gracious or it could have been petulant.  It was of course the latter.

The remnants of the Crofting Commission was left to compose its letter of apology.  Once that task was completed, before dusting itself down and attempting to resume normal and responsible service, it must tie up another loose end from Mr Kennedy’s convenership.

The commission should instantly remove its constable, Colin Souter, from Upper Coll.  The imposition of Mr Souter on that part of Lewis was a grossly insulting over-reaction.  He should never have been sent there in the first place.

In the words of the Scottish Crofting Federation’s Fiona Mandeville, Constable Souter “has no place in crofting, is aggravating bad feeling and is standing in the way of democratic process”.

Colin Souter’s continuing presence on the east side of Lewis is reminiscent of the Highland authorities’ response to the 19th century land war.  It has no place in the 21st century.

Colin Kennedy was elected to the Crofting Commission by the crofters of the south-west Highland constituency.  He was then elected to the convenership by his fellow commissioners following their vote of no confidence in the government-appointed chair, Susan Walker.  He is walking proof of the fallibility of democracy.

But if free votes have bad outcomes, they can also correct their mistakes.

If Mr Kennedy hangs around, stands and is re-elected by the voters of Lochaber, Argyll and Bute, Arran and Cumbrae and the Small Isles next March, that will be their right and their responsibility.  We hope, however that the crofters of the south-west Highlands have enough decency and sense to choose an alternative.

Other commissioners should and doubtless are taking long hard looks at their positions.

They have all been complicit, to one degree or another, in this fiasco.  Murdo MacLennan was returned from Lewis with the biggest vote of all.  For all of his experience and affability, Mr MacLennan has not defended the crofters of his own constituency from his convener’s excesses.

If, as we have often suggested, the size of the Western Isles crofting constituency was property respected and it had two or three elected commissioners, Colin Kennedy might have found some opposition within the commission’s ranks – and the grazings committees of Upper Coll and Mangersta might not have been dragged through the mire.

As things stand, Murdo MacLennan is the only Western Isles representative on the Crofting Commission.  In this important instance, however reluctantly and for whatever reasons, he has failed his voters.  If he also stands for re-election, he might not expect many voters from Upper Coll next spring.  Whether or not the crofters of the rest of Lewis stick with him is their decision.  We suggest that it is time for a change there also.

It may not be his worst offence, but Colin Kennedy’s Crofting Commission has given ammunition to those who will suggest that crofters are incapable of managing their own affairs.

Crofters themselves can refute that charge.  Six months from now they will once again be asked to vote for crofting commissioners.

In the elections of 2012 the turnout was low.  In both the Western Isles and in Skye and the West Highlands, only half of crofters bothered to vote.

That turnout should increase significantly next spring.  Crofters everywhere know by now how much is at stake.  The least they can demand of their commissioner candidates is that they refrain from mounting concerted attacks on grazings committees.

Decisive Ministerial intervention in crofting crisis is now required

West Highland Free Press - 16 September 2016In a hard hitting editorial in the latest edition (16 September 2016) of the West Highland Free Press it was made clear by the editor that he considers that the Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction and that Colin Kennedy’s continuing tenure as Convener must be in doubt.

I will reproduce the editorial in question here followed by some of my own thoughts on the matter

The Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction

The self-created crisis within the Crofting Commission has gone past the point where it can be healed internally.  Public and decisive ministerial intervention is now required.

On the most mundane but incendiary points which lit the blaze, the Crofting Commission can be pronounced quite wrong.

Grazings committees should have the right to determine in which manner their income is spent, under the law and to the benefit of the community.

Grazings committees such as those at Upper Coll and Mangersta should not be obliged instantly to distribute funds as dividends and then reclaim the money in order to finance improvements.

Without those commonplace – and previously widely accepted – permissions, west-coast crofting in particular would suffer.

Grazings committees, which are the voluntary foundation of the system, would become almost impossible to establish.  It should be pointed out here that crofting commissioners are paid £8,600 a year for four-and-a-half days’ work a month, and the commissioner’s convener is paid £20,300 for an eight-day month.  Grazings committee member are paid nothing.

Crofting would become even less of a communal activity and even more of a private, individual enterprise.  It beggars belief that a large reason for the recent dictatorial action by the Crofting Commission was the fact that Upper Coll grazings committee made assets available to infrastructure projects which benefited not only crofters but also the wider community.

In the three years of its existence the present Crofting Commission has managed to lose three of its seven members, and its chief executive Catriona Maclean has now packed her bags and moved on to happier pastures.

By any standards, this is a failing institution.  The response of the new crofting minister, Fergus Ewing, has been inadequate.

Last month Mr Ewing wrote a private letter to the commission’s controversial chair, Colin Kennedy.  In that letter the crofting minister told Mr Kennedy that he and the Scottish Government “wholly disagreed” with the Crofting Commission’s actions and attitudes towards grazings committees.

Most importantly, Fergus Ewing wrote that as crofting minister he considers that the law “does not require the immediate disbursement or pay out of funds by a grazings committee”.

In other words, Colin Kennedy’s interpretation of crofting law had been wrong from the start.  As a result all of his subsequent actions had been, at best, invalid.

This private letter was then leaked to the veteran BBC Highland correspondent Jackie O’Brien.  It seems probable that Mr Ewing authorised the leak in order to shore up his credentials with crofters.

That also was unacceptable.  As crofting minister Mr Ewing has a duty to be open and transparent in the exercise of his responsibility.  He is not just another interested observer.

He also has a duty to the crofting community to ensure that its governing body adheres to best practice and does not trample crofters into the ground.  Colin Kennedy’s Crofting Commission is currently preparing “draft guidance” for grazings committees.  We hope that Fergus Ewing is fully involved in that exercise.  We wait to see whether that guidance will follow the Kennedy or the Ewing version of legislation.  There can be no compromise.  It is difficult to see how Mr Kennedy can emerge from the process with his £20,000 part-time post intact.

This unpleasant chain of events should not shake our belief in democracy.  We continue to believe that the entire Crofting Commission should be elected by crofters rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees.

Many hundred of crofters in large parts of the Highlands and Islands cast their votes ill-advisedly three years ago, and a lot of them will now realise that.

Thanks to the democratic system, they will have the chance to put things right at the elections next spring.  We hope that they, and the many crofters who previously chose not to vote, will take that chance.  In the long as well as the short term, the future of crofting is at stake.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

I must wholeheartedly agree with this editorial in so far as the need for “public and decisive ministerial intervention”. Indeed I suggested that in my first blog post on this sorry saga back on 25 April 2016. There have been calls since by the Crofting Federation and by crofters for the same thing. To see the West Highland Free Press support the same calls is heartening indeed and must add to the pressure on Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, to do something about it.

The jury is still out as far as I am concerned about the idea of the entire Crofting Commission being elected by crofters “rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees”. The problems at the Crofting Commission seem to lie at the door of elected commissioners or perhaps an elected commissioner. Two of the government appointees (who by all accounts were very able and capable commissioners) have resigned in recent times and have yet to be replaced.

The calibre of elected commissioners may be very much down to those willing to put themselves up for election rather than the will of the crofting electorate.

With the Crofting Commission in its current mess there is a good chance that there won’t be many level headed crofters volunteering for the task of clearing that mess up come the 2017 elections. Possibly another solution is required. Answers on the back of a postcard please to Fergus Ewing MSP.

Brian Inkster

What the Grazings ‘Constable’ didn’t do

What the Grazings Constable didn't do

Was the wrong list entered into the constable’s little black book?

With all the fuss over the apparent failings of successive grazings committees over the years at Upper Coll attention has been drawn away from what Colin Souter should actually have been doing himself assuming that his role as grazings constable was a legal as opposed to an illegal one.

As disclosed in my last post the letter of ‘appointment’ from the Crofting Commission addressed to Mr Souter stated:-

The appointment is for 6 months from the date of the Order. However the intention is that this should be a short term measure and once any outstanding actions are discharged, that you arrange a meeting of shareholders at which you will resign and a new committee will be elected by the shareholders to manage the grazings in accordance with the Regulations and the Act.

This letter also stated that:-

Your principal responsibility as Constable will be to discharge any outstanding actions required to ensure the duties imposed under the Crofting Acts and the grazings regulations are fulfilled.

This in effect was referencing the fact that following their removal from office the former committee highlighted to the Crofting Commission a list of matters that needed attending to.

Whilst the Crofting Commission erred in law (surprisingly knowingly) in appointing a grazings constable to attend to these matters it may be that their intentions in so doing were in good faith and to ensure that the list of matters highlighted to them were in fact attended to. Anyway, that appears to be the remit given to Colin Souter.

However, his report issued to shareholders on 29th August does not mention any such activities. In light of this shareholders at Upper Coll have, not surprisingly, stated:-

This constable has interfered in things he should not have and left undone the things he should have.

They have asked:-

But what has he not done?

And they have provided a list of what that might be:-

  1. Has he processed the IACS for the village?
  2. Has he submitted an application for the Agri-Environment Scheme that could have taken in some funding to the village?
  3. Has he worked out a Summer and Winter Grazings Timetable?
  4. Has he progressed the Croft Registration for 30 shareholders that had been well advanced before the committee were dismissed?
  5. Has he progressed the feu requests from couples desiring to build and live in Upper Coll?
  6. Why has he not been actively pursuing the Crofting Commission for the reimbursement by them of the money paid out by Upper Coll in feu dispositions. An instruction by the Crofting Commission to Upper Coll Grazings Committee that has since been proved illegal!
  7. What efforts has he made to heal the tensions and differences experienced within the village? Surely that should have been one of his first tasks!

If these matters have not been actioned then it would appear that Mr Souter has failed in the remit given to him by the Crofting Commission.

If that is the case then clearly the time has come for him to step aside and let those that know what need to be done do the necessary on behalf of and for the benefit of the shareholders.

If he has in fact dealt with these matters then he should be reporting that fact to the shareholders and resigning as constable as the Crofting Commission indicated should happen in their letter of ‘appointment’.

As indicated in my last blog post such a ‘resignation’ is what the similarly illegally appointed grazings constable at Mangersta Common Grazings saw fit to sensibly do.

Although arguably Colin Souter cannot resign from an illegal position that gives him no status or authority in the first place.

But the ‘resignation’ (as was the case in Mangersta) may have symbolic significance.

As suggested in my last blog post it may at least draw a line under his interference in the workings of a common grazings where the vast majority of the shareholders simply wish to get on by themselves with controlling their own destiny and their own finances.

Let’s hope that common sense prevails. Although, unfortunately, common sense does not often feature in this Common Grazings debacle.

Brian Inkster

The Wrong Grazings Committee!

The Wrong Grazings Committee (Grazings Constable gets confused)

Eh by gum, Gromit, no one told me that they appointed a new grazings committee every three years! Pass the cheese please.

It was reported in The Scottish Farmer this week that:-

New evidence has been revealed that appears to justify the Crofting Commission’s unpopular intervention in the financial affairs of a common grazings committee.

This ‘evidence’ was presented in a letter to shareholders in the Upper Coll Common Grazings by the grazings ‘constable’ Colin Souter. A grazings ‘constable’ illegally appointed in my view, and in the view of others including, ironically, the Crofting Commission themselves.

Many of the allegations made by Mr Souter actually, it transpires, relate to decisions made by shareholders when previous grazings committees were in power. Not the latest one which the Crofting Commission summarily removed from office for producing five years of financial statements prepared by an accountant rather than five years of “audited” accounts as demanded unfairly by the Commission.

Actions by past grazings committees cannot be used as evidence to justify the removal from office of a grazings committee that had no part in those actions.

Indeed it would appear that Mr Souter has been spending his time (and presumably as a result the shareholders money) trawling through the history of Upper Coll Common Grazings attempting to find fault wherever he can. His efforts in this regard go way back before the five year ‘audit’ period sought by the Crofting Commission.

Indeed the two main issues highlighted in the report by The Scottish Farmer date back to 2008/09. There have been three new grazings committees at Upper Coll since then!

Gordon Davidson reports in The Scottish Farmer:-

Top of his list was an application lodged with Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar seeking a grant under their Unadopted Road Upgrade Scheme, seeking £10,000 of matched funding to be spent on upgrading the landlord’s Ghearraidh Ghuirm private road.

In doing so, the former committee undertook to spend £20,000, including the CNES grant, of shareholders’ money on upgrading this section of road and also accepted the subsequent road maintenance obligation, in perpetuity – a decision of clear benefit to prospective few [sic – should have been “feu”] buyers, but with no apparent link to the maintenance or improvement of the common grazing.

“Thus, the spending of shareholders’ money in this way, was outwith the power of the committee at that time, meaning they acted outside of the law and the legal protection normally afforded,” noted Mr Souter.

This is what certain shareholders at Upper Coll have to say about this particular matter in a letter issued to shareholders in response to the one issued by Mr Souter:-

He accuses the then Grazings Committee of match funding the improvements to the Gearraidh Ghuirm Road behind Donald Campbell’s Garage. This is grossly untrue. The village did not put any money into this. The Councillors then in office helped facilitate the financial match funding from sources including contributions from residents. The village used some of this money to repair the road going out to the quarry, which in fact was an aid to the shareholders using the quarry and the peat-road! This was in 2008!!

Gordon Davidson also reports in The Scottish Farmer that Colin Souter:-

also found that the former committee had, in 2008/09 sought to earmark areas of common grazings land to be sold off as housing plots, and paid for the feu design work out of shareholders’ grazing funds, again acting outside of the law.

I asked shareholders at Upper Coll about this and was told that it was to allow crofting families in the township to remain in the township by allocating to them house sites on land that was not much use for grazing purposes. Any costs associated with that would be more than recouped when house sites were sold and compensation on resumption received.

Indeed consent to the sale of one such house site was raised as an agenda item at the meeting in November 2015 attended by the Crofting Commission, including Convener Colin Kennedy. This was approved at that meeting by the shareholders present. Of course the resumption application would be advertised in due course giving all and every shareholder the right to object should they wish to do so.

The house site under debate in November 2015 was, rather ironically, allocated to a relation of Ivor Matheson who brought the original complaint against the grazings committee and was so vocal in this week’s Scottish Farmer in support of the actions of Colin Souter which suggest this enterprising initiative on the part of the 2008/09 grazings committee to have been unlawful!

Ultimately shareholder funds are there to be utilised as shareholders want them to be. If all shareholders are happy to divert funds into a scheme on the common grazings that will result in benefit to members of the shareholders families, strengthen the crofting community and ultimately give a financial return what is wrong with that?

I do not believe that even Ivor Matheson would be looking for repayment of his share of the £520 (i.e. £12.38) spent on the feu design work given the benefit that small payment has had to his family.

It is clear that Mr Souter is making assumptions left, right and centre without appraising himself of the true facts. He is meddling in matters that are of no concern of his. He appears to have a goal, possibly at the behest of the master(s) who appointed him, to find fault with the former committee to justify his existence. He forgets he was illegally appointed and, like the Crofting Commission, has not been able to justify with reference to statute or case law the validity of his appointment. He forgets that grazings committees are appointed every three years and he cannot point the finger of blame at the last committee for the actions of their predecessors.

Ultimately, however, Mr Souter has produced a list of petty ‘faults’ most of which can be dismissed out of hand. He has certainly failed to produce the ‘gamechanger‘ that his master(s) may have wished him to find but that he had no remit to ever look for in the first place.

It should also be borne in mind that the initial action by the Crofting Commission against the former grazings committee at Upper Coll that ultimately resulted in the ‘appointment’ of Mr Souter centred around their misinterpretation of the law. A misinterpretation that the Commission have been reprimanded for by Fergus Ewing MSP and apparently has been accepted as such by them.

It has become a farce (although arguably has been for some time). Mr Souter and his master(s) look more ridiculous by the day over their handling of this whole sorry affair. In the process it is not reflecting well on the Scottish Government who have overarching responsibility for crofting.

In the letter of ‘appointment’ from the Crofting Commission addressed to Mr Souter it is stated:-

The appointment is for 6 months from the date of the Order. However the intention is that this should be a short term measure and once any outstanding actions are discharged, that you arrange a meeting of shareholders at which you will resign and a new committee will be elected by the shareholders to manage the grazings in accordance with the Regulations and the Act.

So the Crofting Commission saw the ‘appointment’ as short term and possibly expected it to have come to an end by now. Mr Souter’s duty was “to discharge any outstanding actions“.  It is unclear whether he has in fact even applied himself to such a task and I will look at that in a further blog post. He appears, on the face of it, to have concentrated on a forensic examination of the history of Upper Coll Common Grazings. Something that he had no remit to do even if he had been legally appointed as a grazings constable.

The majority of shareholders at Upper Coll who attended a meeting convened for that purpose (there being no dissenters) have made it clear that they want nothing more to do with Mr Souter. They want to form a new grazings committee.

Mr Souter should respect the wishes of the shareholders who he supposedly represents. He should now do the honourable thing and ‘resign’ from his role as grazings ‘constable’ without further delay. He does not actually need to arrange a meeting of shareholders to do so, he can simply send them a letter or advise the Crofting Commission of his decision to do so and let them advise the shareholders accordingly.

This is what the similarly illegally appointed grazings constable at Mangersta Common Grazings saw fit to sensibly do.

Although arguably Colin Souter cannot resign from an illegal position that gives him no status or authority in the first place.

But the ‘resignation’ (as was the case in Mangersta) may have symbolic significance. It may at least draw a line under his interference in the workings of a common grazings where the vast majority of the shareholders simply wish to get on by themselves with controlling their own destiny and their own finances. They want to do so for the benefit of a community that Mr Souter and his master(s) appear intent on destroying.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers © Aardman Animations

Who are we supposed to believe?

Whose riddles are the right riddles?

Whose riddles are the right riddles?

A guest post by the Crabbit Crofter.

Over the last five months “the public” has become more and more confused by the Crofting Commission’s changing statements, retractions, and now silence on the subject of ‘The Common Clearances‘. So whose fault is it the message is so confused?

The Crofting Commission seems to have the right intention. It has a button you can click on its website called Openness. It boldly claims “We aim to provide high quality services and information to all members of the public.” So how is it getting on with its aim?

First. Who should be making sure we were given clear messages about such an important topic? And lo and behold Crofting Commission has a handy Framework Document [PDF]. It became operational just about when everything started to go wrong with the common grazings furore so a shame everyone seems to have forgotten what it says. It covers the period April 2016 to March 2018. The introduction says:-

This framework document has been drawn up by the Scottish Government (SG) in consultation with the Crofting Commission. It sets out the broad framework within which the Crofting Commission will operate and defines key roles and responsibilities which underpin the relationship between the Crofting Commission and the SG.

How handy. It tells us lots of useful stuff. It sets out who is responsible for communicating with the public. Guess who it is? The Convener of the Crofting Commission. The Framework Document states one of the Convener’s “particular responsibilities” is:-

Representing the views of the Board to the general public

So how has Convener Kennedy been getting on with this “particular responsibility”? Since the 2016-2018 Framework Document came into force, there have been:-

  • various interviews on Radio nan Gaidheal and An La, BBC Alba (TV) with Commissioner MacLennan, including one where he was challenged by the interviewer Donald Lamont on why he hasn’t done more to help Lewis grazing committees. Mr MacLennan explained he couldn’t talk about Mangersta or Upper Coll because he had conflicts of interest. In the Upper Coll case because he had some sort of link with the solicitor representing Upper Coll in the Land Court case.

It could be argued Mr MacLennan as a Gaelic speaker was used for these interviews rather than Convener Kennedy. But, guess what?  There have also been:-

  • An interview in English with Commissioner Swan after the meeting in Mangersta on 17th May on Aithris an Fheasgair, Radio nan Gaidheal.
  • An interview in English with Chief Executive Catriona MacLean on Radio nan Gaidheal, and An La, BBC Alba, after the meeting attended also by Convener Kennedy (and Commissioner MacLennan) in Stornoway with the CNES Joint Consultative Committee, on 13th June.
  • Statements at the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Crofting in June by Commissioner MacLennan and Chief Executive Catriona MacLean (in English). Convener Kennedy was notably absent when the big topic of the Commission’s self-inflicted common grazings crisis was on the agenda and obviously politicians and the general public would be demanding a clear statement from the Commission. Strangely Commissioner MacLennan seemed to have forgotten about his reluctance to talk about the issue because of a conflict of interest in the two Lewis cases.
  • Interviews with Commissioner MacLennan following the board meeting on 17th August, carried on Aithris an Fheasgair and An La in Gaelic and in a BBC Highland report in English. These interviews were almost unintelligible. They left the “general public” in a worse state of confusion than if there had been no interviews at all by anyone.

There have also been numbers of statements –

  • The famous Convener Kennedy statement on how to manage common grazings finances, now removed from the Commission’s website but available on the Crofting Law Blog.
  • statement from Vice Convener MacDonald on 8th June contradicting the previous statement from the Convener but with no explanation if it was his own views or those of the whole board who had agreed to disagree with their Convener on the issue.
  • The famous Open Letter from Chief Executive Catriona MacLean still available on the Commission website. It contradicts the Convener’s previous statement, but claims no such statement was ever made. So which of the Convener’s or the Chief Executive’s statements was the views of the board? We have to assume the Convener’s since it is his “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public.
  • report from Jackie O’Brien on Good Morning Scotland (Radio Scotland) who hadn’t managed to get an interview but had got a statement from Convener Kennedy prior to the board meeting on 17th August. The Convener’s statement was extraordinary because it disagreed with his Minister. And it stated the Convener’s position on the matter before he allowed the board to have a democratic discussion. But then the Convener didn’t make any attempt to convey the views of the board to the general public after the board meeting. Why not? Instead we got something almost completely unintelligible from Commissioner MacLennan no-one has been able to decipher yet. So what were the views of the board? Since it is his “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public we must assume it was the Convener’s statement before the board meeting.

All of this leaves the general public totally confused. Which of these contradictory interviews and statements from five different people (Vice Convener, two Commissioners, Chief Executive, Convener) over the past 5 months is the opinion of the board?  The Framework Document tells us we should only listen to the Convener because he has “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public. But he has consistently refused to give interviews. And his two public statements baldly state grazing committees have to pay out all money immediately to shareholders and can keep none.  So there you have it. It looks like he is in conflict with his Minister. And with his board. And his Chief Executive. Not to mention crofters.  No wonder we are all so confused and angry.

Crabbit Crofter

Guest Blogger Bio: A crabbit crofter who wishes the weather was better & Scotland produced more of its own food. He believes in a just & honest world, full of integrity & decency.

Image Credit: The Riddler – Batman Forever © Tim Burton Productions and PolyGram Pictures

Cabinet Secretary “wholly disagrees” with Crofting Commission Convener

Fergus Ewing v Colin Kennedy

A clash has begun between Fergus Ewing MSP and Colin Kennedy

Breaking news on BBC Radio Scotland this morning:-

The BBC has seen a letter written by the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, that says he “wholly disagrees” with the Crofting Commission’s stance on Common Grazings Committees and the distribution of funds received by them.

BBC Scotland reporter Gary Robertson said:-

The Scottish Government is going head to head with the Convener of the public body responsible for crofting.

In a hard hitting letter seen by BBC Scotland the rural affairs secretary, Fergus Ewing, has told the Convener of the Crofting Commission that he wholly disagrees with his handling of a bitter dispute over shared land in the Western Isles.

BBC Scotland reporter Jackie O’Brien has seen the correspondence and Gary Robertson asked her what the background was.

Jackie O’Brien said:-

Well this has been a protracted and slightly complicated dispute involving the way that the ground crofters share is managed through what they call common grazings committees which are made up of crofters.

Now earlier this year two committees on Lewis, one in Mangersta and the other in Upper Coll, were removed from office by the Crofting Commission.

This happened after questions were asked over financial records and some transactions including the fact that the Upper Coll committee had not distributed or as they call it disbursed income from croft house sites to individual crofters but had put all of the money into a crofting township fund instead.

Now the Commisssion in the meantime appointed what they called constables to manage the land whilst committee accounts were investigated.

One of the committees has been reinstated but there is still annoyance and outrage over the way that this whole affair has been handled. Some say it is belligerent and unlawful and there have been calls for the resignation of the Crofting Commission Convener, Colin Kennedy.

Gary Robertson asked:-

So what exactly does Fergus Ewing say in this letter?

Jackie O’Brien responded:-

Well the rural affairs secretary has been trying to calm the waters and has been quite diplomatic on this to date. But there is no sign of it in this letter which I have seen that he has sent to Colin Kennedy.

He confirms that contrary to Mr Kennedy’s views the Crofters (Scotland) Act does not require the immediate disbursement or pay out of funds by a grazings committee. He says that as it currently stand the Scottish Government sees little merit in the Crofting Chairman’s views which he says he wholly disagrees with.

The letter goes on to say that the Government’s view is diametrically opposed to Mr Kennedy’s and that it is not sustainable for the Scottish Government and one of its public bodies to take opposing interpretations of the law.

Gary Robertson then asked:-

Any response from Colin Kennedy himself?

Jackie O’Brien confirmed:-

I did speak to him last night. He is adamant that he has done nothing wrong. He claims that all of the decisions which have been made have been made during/since he has been Convener have been based on papers supplied by the Commission’s executive.

He has also insisted that not a single matter on this has ever had to go to a vote or at board level and he says that all decisions are taken by means of reasoned debate and consensus.

Gary Robertson then asked Jackie O’Brien:-

What is your sense of the implications of this clash?

Jackie O’Brien responded:-

Well the contents of this letter shows the Government is clearly pointing the finger at Mr Kennedy who is an elected Convener. This is backed up by the fact that Fergus Ewing has said in his letter that he is also very concerned about the risk that policy decisions may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s board. This implies that not everyone on the board supports the way things have been handled.

Now the Commission’s board does happen to be meeting today, and in his letter Fergus Ewing has asked for its position on the matter to be made clear after this meeting. But he warns that if the Commission continues to subscribe to an entirely different view he will then have to consider what action to take. It is not clear what that action could be but that could put further pressure on him to resign.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

The Scottish Government clearly takes the same view regarding the law on the common grazings debacle taken from the outset on the Crofting Law Blog. It is good that they have done so and made their position clear in such strong terms.

The law on the matter has in my view been fairly clear. It is also, it transpires, clear to the Scottish Government.

Why has it been so unclear to the Crofting Commission?

Despite repeated requests from me to the Crofting Commission asking them to justify their position with reference to statute and case law they have failed to do so. They have simply ignored me. If they had papers from their executive that backed up their position in law surely they would have referenced those to me.

The Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, suggested in a meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum that the law on the matter would follow “in due course” after the Commission had drawn up new guidelines for grazings committees to follow. Putting the cart before the horse was never a good idea!

The Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, has said to BBC Scotland that the Commission were following advice given in papers produced by their executive. Oh no they weren’t! The Crofting Commission specifically ignored the advice given by the executive and appointed grazings constables in circumstances where they knew that to do so was illegal. How many other times has this happened?

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that a paper [PDF] was considered by the Crofting Commission at a February 2016 Policy in Development meeting. In that paper it was, somewhat alarmingly, stated:-

There is a degree of irony in that the Commission may be requiring grazing committees to adhere to regulations while not being clear about the procedure it is itself employing in directing this.

Thus did the Commission actually have papers from the executive to consider when making some of their decisions or were they simply making it up as they went along?

We also, of course, know that the Commission has chopped and changed its position on the matter, tried to hide the fact they have done so and ultimately made a massive U-Turn. Does that demonstrate having done nothing wrong?

In light of the stance now taken by the Scottish Government against the Convener surely his tenure in office must be in question more so than it ever was. Especially if he continues with the adamant view that he has done nothing wrong when all of the evidence that has so far come to light would perhaps suggest otherwise.

The Crofting Commission are having a board meeting today. On the agenda [PDF] is ‘Grazings committees – a practical approach to the management of common grazings’ with a paper on that topic for discussion. A practical approach would no doubt be a welcome approach from most crofters. But let’s hope the Commission have now got a clear understanding and grasp of what the law actually is when applying a practical approach.

A little bit of humbleness, signs of regret and an apology would not go amiss at today’s meeting in light of the letter from Fergus Ewing.

A statement from the Crofting Commission on the outcome of today’s meeting is awaited with bated breath.

Brian Inkster

The cost of the Common Clearances

The Cost of the Common ClearancesIn my last post I revealed how much the grazings constables (appointed illegally in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including knowingly by the Crofting Commission itself) were being paid.

But what has been the overall cost of the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission that has been dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘?

A Freedom of Information request has disclosed that as at 1 July 2016:-

  • Colin Kennedy, Marina Dennis, William Swann and David Campbell (all Commissioners) together with a member of staff travelled to Stornoway to attend a meeting of the Mangersta shareholders on 16-17 May 2016 at an overall costs including flights, accommodation and subsistence of £2,005.
  • Donna Smith (Crofting Commission member of staff) and Colin Souter (‘Grazings Constable’) went to visit Upper Coll shareholders on 23 June 2016 at a cost of £852.40.
  • The cost of the ‘grazings constables’ as disclosed in my last post was £5,886.85.
  • Thus adding these figures together gives a total cost of £8,744.25.

But that figure is very much the tip of the iceberg.

There was an earlier visit to Lewis by the Crofting Commission to meet shareholders at Upper Coll before the decision was taken to remove the grazings committee from office.

There is the huge number of hours spent by Scottish Government officials, Crofting Commission officials and Crofting Commissioners on the debacle.

There is the legal expenses incurred by the Crofting Commission which reputedly includes the engagement of external counsel.

One of the grazings constables purports to still be in ‘office’ carrying out wholly unnecessary and dubious activities that he will no doubt still be paid for.

All costs that could and should have been avoided and better spent on the legitimate and proper regulation of crofting.

But perhaps more significant is the human cost. Something that cannot be quantified in pounds, shillings and pence. The devastating affect that the Crofting Commission has wrought on crofting communities with accusations of financial impropriety that have ultimately been withdrawn or still remain hanging.

One final observation: Why did the Crofting Commission meet the costs of their Convener, Colin Kennedy, attending the meeting in Mangersta in May 2016? He was not officially supposed to be there, he had a conflict of interest that was acknowledged but he insisted on attending albeit in silence. Was he doing so in a personal capacity rather than an official one? Whatever the position should the Crofting Commission have been meeting his travel and accommodation costs? A question (amongst many others) for Audit Scotland to answer perhaps.

Brian Inkster