Professor James Hunter (Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Highlands and Islands) has written a new and rather important book, From the low tide of the sea to the highest mountaintops, which marks the advance of community ownership in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Jim Hunter is famous for having written The making of the crofting community, which has been in print for 35 years). In recent years, communities in certain remote parts of Scotland have taken ownership of more than half-a-million acres, an area equivalent to that of an English county such as West Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire. In places long characterised by contracting economies and shrinking populations, community ownership has resulted in new homes, new businesses, greatly enhanced self-confidence and the attraction of lots of new residents. It is a remarkable success, a breath of fresh air.
I’m not long on fresh air myself, having spent my entire career in inner city regeneration. And a lot of that in bars. But I had my own first experience of community ownership when working with local residents to regenerate Paddington. When we started to open up jobs and training opportunities to the local community, I found some staunch allies in the shape of the good peeps from Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH), the resident-controlled landlord of about 650 homes which was founded out of the campaign against Dame Shirley Porter’s sale and demolition of council homes begun in the 1980s. And it would seem that the constitutional model used by WECH is much the same as that used by the Scottish community land transfers in places such as Gigha and Assynt and Eigg in the Outer Hebrides.
Bizarrely, there is much that urban communities in England and rural communities in Scotland can learn from each other’s experience. The model is based on a company limited by guarantee where the residents are the members and they elect the directors. And this (shared) model is, on the whole, rather successful and perhaps should be picked up as a response to other distressed communities. I guess if it can work as well for an inner city council estate as it can for a remote Scottish island, then surely it can work anywhere.
UKR is trying to forge a commercially sustainable regeneration vehicle that can address market failure in some parts of certain inner city areas. And we are working with Ross Sturley and others to try to match inward investors with regeneration projects throughout the UK, whether at MIPIM or at EXPO, or indeed at a trade fair we have yet to invent. But the extent of the problem out there is manifest. The love that dare not speak its name in civil servant circles is “managed decline”, and it is a stark fact that certain parts of this great country of ours need very radical solutions indeed. The theme of yesterday’s blog was that serious times call for serious measures. William Hague on the R4 Today programme this morning said “This has been a very unified but very serious conference. The prime minister’s speech will, of course, reflect that…The world has changed. It is tougher. It is not going to change back to how it was 10 years ago – we have to reform education, welfare, have a tax system that attracts people back to this country.”
Will this include giving control to residents of their homes and their land? It must surely be a better solution than “managed decline”?