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Lewis community free to buy estate

A crofting community in the Western Isles has secured the right to buy their land.

Pairc Estate: Residents on the Isle of Lewis will be able to buy their land
© STV

The Scottish Government has given the green light to a hostile buy-out of a crofting estate in the Western Isles.

The Pairc community on Lewis has been awarded the right to buy their 20,000 acre estate following a seven-year battle against the landowner who does not want the sale to go ahead.

Owner Barry Lomas is now considering legal action which could delay the purchase for years, in what could become the first real test of the Land Reform Act.

He is entitled to launch a fresh judicial review against the Scottish Government, alleging that the Land Reform Act breaches individuals’ human rights under European laws. Mr Lomas is considering documents he received from the Scottish Government on Monday and is expected to comment later.

The legislation has never been used in a hostile bid since it was introduced by the former Labour administration. Elements of it was found to be flawed which hampered the Pairc bid and required changes to the law.

The community also secured the right to buy the renewable energy rights for the land. These rights had been hived off by the landowner to a third-party entity he had set up, ensuring that he would retain the profits from the proposed development, even if he lost ownership of the land.

No planning permission has been granted yet for Scottish and Southern Energy’s proposed £200m giant wind farm on the Pairc moor which would have -  had it been approved before the buyout bid - inflated the value of the land well out of reach for residents and effectively killed off their chances.

Almost 400 people currently live on Pairc Estate, which covers 26,800 acres, has 11 townships and 208 crofts.

Community body Pairc Trust says a compulsory buyout will regenerate the ailing economy,  creating new job that will boost the local population and revitalise the community spirit.  As well as the renewable energy scheme, the Trust plans to build affordable homes as well as a camper van site and holiday facilities and intends to develop a ranger service.

Environment minister Roseanna Cunningham said: “After serious scrutiny and deliberation, the complex issues surrounding the Trust’s application have now been fully analysed and I can grant approval for the Pairc Trust to go ahead to purchase the land.

“The plans the Trust has should help inject new life into the area, rejuvenate the economy and boost the fortunes of all those who live, work and visit this spectacular part of our country.

“I wish them good fortune in raising the money required to purchase the estate and every success in shaping their own destiny.”

Historic step

Pairc Trust chairman, Angus McDowall, said: ‘This is an historic step forward for our community, and sends an unambiguous message to the landlord that the economic and social development of Pairc in the interests of the whole community should be ranked above private financial gain.

“It is a complete vindication of the persistence which we and the whole community have shown over so many years in trying to exercise our rights under the Act in order to plan a better future for local crofters and residents.

“But it is only a start. We will now be contacting the landlord with a view to resuming discussions about a possible voluntary transfer of the whole estate.

"This has always been our preferred route. We very much hope that, in the light of the minister’s decisions, the landlord will now be prepared to enter meaningful negotiations about arrangements which would transfer to the community all the normal powers of a landlord."

Western Isles SNP MSP, Alasdair Allan said: “I am delighted that the Scottish Government has taken this decision.  The right decision was made today and I hope that Mr Lomas will now accept a fair price for the land and let people in this part of Lewis get on with their lives.
 
“The community in Pairc have made strenuous efforts over the last six years to reach an amicable settlement with Mr Lomas, but this has proved impossible. 

“Now ministers have agreed to the Pairc Trust pursuing a ‘part three’ application to buy out the land and its associated interposed leases.

“This is the bit of Scotland’s land reform legislation that allows a ‘hostile’ bid to be considered, and this is what I hope will now proceed, once the land has been independently valued.
 
“There is still an opportunity for Mr Lomas to reach a voluntary settlement and allow the people in Pairc the chance at long last to be their own landlords.  Either way it is clear that people in the district are no longer prepared to see their community decline and now want the power to create a better future for themselves.”

Western Isles Council leader Angus Campbell said: “This is good news for the people of Pairc and the Outer Hebrides. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is a long-time supporter of community land ownership.

"It has been the Comhairle's contention over many years that putting the community in charge of its main economic asset - its land - will result in significant social and community regeneration. We have therefore supported community land organisations through-out the Hebrides and as a result we are now seeing significant new investments and new projects happening on all the community-owned estates.

"It is for these reasons that the Comhairle has supported Pairc Trust over the past six years. The Pairc Trust has an imaginative and well-thought out plan in place for the development of the Estate and we need to see that plan put into effect for the benefit of the whole community.

"The Comhairle wishes the Pairc trust every success in turning its visionary plans into reality.”

An independent valuation will be set in motion this week to establish a purchase price and the community would then have six months to secure the funding. Without a legal challenge crofters could take control of the land by Christmas.

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