The comedian Al Murray has developed several niches in his career, such as his quintessentially English pub landlord or his feckless Harry Hill sidekick. Another niche that he spends some of his Twitter time exploring is #notnews, i.e. stories that he or his followers have found in the news that are decidedly not newsworthy. Do have a look if you want some anodyne news coverage. I will be channelling the #notnews niche in this blog, indeed this blog could carry the less catchy hashtag #notlandreformnews. I shall offer two #notlandreformnews items, based on a recent trip to a Scottish island.
Story #1: A community shop
The spectacular Inner Hebridean Isle of Jura, nestled between its more populated island neighbour, Islay, and the Kintyre peninsula, has a small but healthy community engaged with industries such as hospitality, distilling, fishing, estate management and other leisure tourism. As at October 2012, Jura has a single general store (pictured below).
I snapped this picture on a visit to Jura and Islay last weekend. It has been reported in the press (and I can confirm this anecdotally) that the shop’s current owners are wanting out. Taking the press at face value, it would seem the store is just not financially viable for them. Apparently, no other private operators are waiting in the wings to swoop for the shop, so Jura might just be losing its shop. This would leave residents of Craighouse (the village on Jura, on the east of the island) a hefty round trip via land and sea, first to the ferry terminal on the west of Jura, then a ferry to Port Askaig over the Sound of Islay, then (potentially) a trip to Islay’s principal town Bowmore, another ten miles away, for certain provisions.
This would have a huge impact on the community, which is why the Diurachs (as they are known, based on the Scots Gaelic name for the island, Diura) are considering taking on the store themselves. Good luck to them.
This is #notlandreformnews.
The potential community buyout of the shop is feted as an impending success story for land reform. It is nothing of the sort, if you mean the narrow sense of the community right to buy contained in Part 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. That legislation does put communities in a slightly healthier position when bidding for local assets as compared to competitor non-community bidders, in that the community has a right of “pre-emption”, that is a right of first refusal, so they will get the first bite. But what if there is no competitor? In such a situation, the right of first refusal is redundant. This is no more a land reform story than when the village shop in Upper Bayble, Point (on the Isle of Lewis, where my granny lives) shut and no-one took on the business. Of course, there is a wider issue of community vitality, but there is not a narrow land redistribution point at issue. The “registered” rather than “pending” registered community interest in land (Number 149 on the RCIL) provides a community carapace of sorts, but only from another buyer swooping.
I know nothing about the shop’s history, its pricing policies, or indeed how popular it is. What is immediately apparent is it has taken the current owners’ dissatisfaction with the business to allow the community to have an opportunity to take over what might be a key asset for them. Sure, the Diurachs could even have opened up a rival store at some point in the past and there is nothing in particular that stops them doing that now or in the future, in much the same way as a community owned and operated ferry between Craighouse and the mainland seems to have been a success. That may be so, but the current example of Jura’s shop might be Raasay’s pier or [insert Scottish location and key asset thereof] in the future. Does the current statutory framework change that? No.
Story #2: A stag weekend
Whilst on Jura, I engaged in a spot of shooting with some friends over for a stag. The stag I am speaking of is a former flatmate, who is to be married to his doe next weekend, whilst the shooting we engaged in only damaged some clay pigeons. As such, anyone who objects to bloodsports can read on without cursing the writer’s brutality, but please consider yourself suitably warned that bloodsports feature heavily in the rest of this blog. One of the very kind individuals who helped us with our clay shooting also explained, in broad terms, how deerstalking on the island works. Jura has seven estates, which will employ numerous Diurachs and I have no reason to doubt they are well run businesses. Others who know more about Jura have blogged about the island’s estates, such as the Ardfin estate which changed hands two years ago (at a time when it employed five local people). Part of the estates’ respective business models will see keen hunters pay as much as £400 to shoot a stag (or so I was told), taking the head and antlers as a memento. This price seems to accord with figures quoted for the Ardlussa estate. The meat stays with the estate for butchering and onward sale (which seems a fine arrangement for the estate – someone pays you to kill a beast, and you get to keep the haunches for onward sale notwithstanding).
This is #notlandreformnews.
Perhaps I am pushing my own subject matter a bit here, especially considering this second point has not exactly been picked up in the national press, but do compare that (just for a moment) with the desire of the Diurachs to have their own shop. If securing a community shop is proving to be a challenge, for whatever reason, what chance would the community have of getting their hands on an estate, or perhaps even part thereof? In my ridiculously simplistic analysis such estates seem to be very good at making money. Why would (or should) any estate owner want to sell up?
Clearly, there are massive policy arguments to be had there: management expertise and bringing jobs for the area vs. community control and all that that entails (good or bad). There are then a fair few human rights considerations, not to mention all the property law theory considerations that counsel against rights of ownership that are fickle or fragile. But rather than go into them, all I would ponder is this. When we are talking about smaller-scale land reform stories like the possibility of a community owned store in Craighouse, are we being distracted from other land reform stories that are worth looking at just a little more closely?
Of course, none of this is supposed to imply that community store story is not important, far from it. An update on a Jura community website posted today advertises that a meeting is scheduled for next week about the purchase and the Scottish Government will be represented at it. I wish the islanders well.
So what else did I do on Jura? A distillery tour, some fantastic food and a few games of darts. The usual for a (pre-wedding) stag party, I suppose. It is certainly worth a trip and there is every chance I will be back there when not in the whirlwind of a lads’ weekend to give the place a closer look, and perhaps even visit the former residency of Eric Blair (aka George Orwell). If and when I do make it back, a more exact empirical study than that which this blog offers might just be the order of the day.
Finally, I should perhaps acknowledge this blog might be a little too clever by half of me, considering I recently noted the amount of words I have contributed to land reform. I will thus contribute no more by not talking about it #postmodern.