People and Government – More than the Sum of their Parts

September 14, 2010

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One of Britain’s leading community ownership advocate invited Prime Minister David Cameron to visit the Scottish Isle of Gigha to see his plan for a Big Society already a reality.

Professor Hunter described large tracts of land held in private hands as often being treated as little more than “play-things”, and talked of the positive changes brought about on Gigha as being an example of what community ownership can achieve.

Gigha was bought by its residents in 2002 for £4 million.  The Scottish Land Fund provided a £2.5 million grant and a further £1 million loan.  Highlands and Islands Enterprise provided an additional £500,000 to complete the community buy-out.  Since the change in ownership, he said, Gigha’s previously declining population has risen by over 50 per cent.  The primary school roll, just six in 2002, is now above 20.  There are also growing numbers of people in their twenties and thirties, the most economically active age group.  Eighteen new homes have been built for rent, and nearly a dozen privately-operated businesses have been established.  Gigha is also home to the country’s first community-owned, grid connected wind farm, which brings in more than £100,000 a year to the community. 

“Such achievements”, Professor Hunter stated, “show what a shame it is that land reform has come to a standstill.

”Professor Hunter argued that, while some may call community ownership ‘Stalinist’, nothing could be further from the truth.  Putting people in charge of the land on which they live provides a huge boost to self-belief, both individually and collectively, and releases “entrepreneurial effort of a type that has no outlet in situations such as that prevailing previously on Gigha”.

Moving on to explain how well the land reform movement’s vision fits in with the UK Government’s policies, he acknowledged that many feel the concept of a Big Society asks too much of people and that volunteers may be difficult to find.  But, he said, these people were found in Gigha and, with the right help, can be found elsewhere.

Professor Hunter called on governments to provide support and encouragement for community endeavour by being pro-active rather than simply creating opportunities.  He suggested that, as well as a tremendous effort on the ground, the ownership of Gigha and many other communities would have been impossible without Scottish Government backing.  “Today”, he complained, “much of this backing has gone – or is in jeopardy.”  He said Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) was facing budget restrictions and “there’s a perception right across the Highlands and Islands that the priority given by HIE to community development is lower than it was.”  He also called for the Scottish Land Fund, wound up in 2006, to be re-started, suggesting that Scotland needed to create an equivalent to the Shetland Oil Fund – this time imposing a tiny levy on renewable energy generation just as the Shetlanders had done for the oil flowing through Sullom Voe in the 1970s.

“Across all of the Highlands and Islands – home to a high proportion of Europe’s wind, wave and tidal power potential – we need to benefit likewise from renewables,” he said, proposing a proportion of Crown Estate Commission revenues from offshore renewables be channelled into a new equivalent of the former Scottish Land Fund.

Professor Hunter called on the UK Government to rewrite the Treasury rules, increasing the ease and speed with which state-owned assets can be transferred, describing as “a nonsense” the much cited argument that “Treasury Rules cannot be got around”, stating that such rules could be changed tomorrow were the political will to exist.  A combination of the will of the people to participate and the will of government to actively support them is, he said, the key to the success of not only community ownership, but the wider idea of a Big Society.

Professor Hunter told his Festival of Politics audience that he was optimistic that the future will bring change and that the Prime Minister’s Big Society agenda represents a real opportunity to develop community ownership.  “Should David Cameron wish to see the benefits it can bring, he needs look no further than the Isle of Gigha,” said Jim Hunter: “I think he’d be much taken by what he’d see.”