The land struggle at Pairc, on the east coast of the Isle of Lewis, has rumbled for some time. In fact, it is tricky to know from which date to start the story. For present purposes, I will exclude the 19th century Pairc deer raid and the post-Lord Leverhulme auction of the outlying districts of Lewis to the highest bidder, by starting in 2003. That is the year the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was passed by the Scottish Parliament.
This legislation incorporated the absolute crofting community right to buy. By “absolute”, I mean “not pre-emptive” or “not a right of first refusal”. The crofting community right to buy is absolute because it can be exercised by a suitable community body to acquire certain croft land even when the landowner does not want to sell that land.
The Pairc community is the only crofting community that has been steered towards the statutory scheme in its quest to acquire land. Other communities, like Galson and South Uist, managed to reach an understanding with their respective landowners, with the shadow of the absolute right to buy looming in any negotiations.
As the Pairc community steered through the statute’s sections, court proceedings relating to: a) the compliance of the right to buy with the European Convention of Human Rights; b) the validity of a quirky legal device called an interposed lease; and c) exactly how much land was eligible to be purchased were instigated. The Land Reform Act was also amended to allow a community to buyout an interposed lease as well. The net effect of all of this legal activity is that the community is still primed to buy the land, subject to one more legal action by the landowner at Stornoway Sheriff Court.
Now, the BBC reports that the landowner has “offered almost all the land in a deal that would see the court case dropped.”
Has the landowner thrown in the towel? Not quite, it seems. “The amount of money [the community] would pay for the land would be higher than that involved in the hostile buyout.”
That last extract highlights the flexibility of avoiding the statutory scheme. The (often mutual) benefits of a voluntary sale would include:
- the inclusion of more (or at least different) land in the transaction (i.e. not just land held under croft tenure, common grazings and something the statute calls “eligible additional land”);
- as touched on in the extract above, flexibility over price. Admittedly, the community is apparently paying more than the statute’s valuation mechanism would provide, but it may save on court fees and other legal costs;
- flexibility as to what entity acquires (i.e. there is no need for the community to be embodied by a company limited by guarantee, as the Land Reform Act demands); and
- avoidance of other compliance issues, such as those relating to mapping.
The BBC reports that a decision from the community about the landowner’s offer is expected next week.
One final, flippant observation. If the community does vote for the voluntary purchase, spare a thought for this legal blogger and Land Reform Act analyst. A vote in favour of the proposal would deny me a juicy court case to write about.
UPDATE (22 November 2013): The BBC now reports that an “amicable” (or at least a non-hostile) deal has been reached. So, less litigation to write about for me, but a little bit of tranquility now seems to be on settling the rugged Lewis terrain as between the current owner and the community owner elect.