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.