16:12 Informal session opened. The Convener (Sarah Boyack): I thank the three volunteers who would like to give comments. I invite Alan MacIntyre, Ray Michie and Alex Macarthur to come to the front. We had a similar informal session in Stornoway, where I asked people to give their opinions and said that I would become agitated if they went on for too long and that I would let them know that that was happening. We want to hear general views on the bill, although we are more than happy to get a flavour of what people think about its detailed provisions. Alan MacIntyre is the first on my list of speakers, for no particular reason. Alan MacIntyre: I have made a lot of notes but will try to keep my comments brief. I believe that I can submit my notes in written form. The Convener: Yes, as long as you do so within not too many weeks. We will be able to read your notes before we reach our conclusions if you submit them in the next week or so. Alan MacIntyre: I will rustle up a diatribe over the weekend. First, I want to talk about having a free market in croft tenancies. It must be remembered that the free market reigned supreme in the Highlands between the middle of the 18th century and the end of the 19th century, and we got the Highland clearances. That would not happen under the proposed legislation, but it has been said before that the introduction of a free market in croft tenancies could end crofting as we know it. It has been suggested that a free market in croft tenancies could be effectively regulated by the Crofters Commission, but I am not sure that it effectively regulates crofting at the moment, with a mere 17,500 crofts. The Taynuilt situation has been mentioned. In that case, an owner-occupied croft 6 miles from here was put on the market for offers over £60,000. The prospective purchaser phoned the Crofters Commission and asked whether he would have any problems with decrofting the site for housing. He was told that there would be no problems. The reason was not that the site was zoned for housing but that the proposal was classed as peripheral development because houses had already been built on the croft next door. Even if the Crofters Commission had objected, the fact that it was peripheral development would have overridden the fact that the land was not zoned for housing in the local plan. Sixteen houses are now being built there. When the first three decroftings for house sites were applied for, I wrote and objected. The person who bought the sites was a friend of mine, by the
way, but I suggested that the person was not a crofter but was a land speculator who had no interest whatever in crofting and agriculture. The Crofters Commission’s response was to decroft the three house sites and to say that the rest of the croft was then viable. I do not know what justification it had for decrofting the other 13 house sites, but that is what happened. I am not sure whether the committee is making the distinction between an owner-occupied croft and a tenanted croft. If members want to see what will happen if a free market in croft tenancies is legitimised, all they need to do is to look around here, where the majority of crofts are owneroccupied. Another example is a 30-acre owneroccupied croft on Mull that was put on the market at offers over £50,000 and sold for £110,000. That is happening all over the place. The Crofters Commission states that the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993
“empowers the Commission to require the owner of such a vacant croft”—
that is, an owner-occupier—
“to submit proposals to re-let to a suitable tenant where we consider that this would be in the general interest of the local crofting community. In practice the Commission will normally support owner-occupiers who will live on and work the land”.
However, in practice, the Crofters Commission never asks the landlord of a vacant croft—that is, anyone who buys an owner-occupied croft—for reletting proposals. For example, in the Taynuilt case, the commission claimed that the landlord would have nominated a tenant who would then have colluded with the landlord to put the housing through, but that is not true. The Crofters Commission can reject the landlord’s nominated tenant, or, if the landlord does not nominate a suitable tenant within three months, the commission can impose a tenant on the landlord whether the landlord wants them or not. The commission could have imposed a tenant who wanted the croft for sheep rather than for houses and the landlord and planning authority could not have done anything about it. The case might have gone to the Scottish Land Court, but the landlord would have had an agricultural tenant. I am concerned that the Crofters Commission is unaware of, or is unwilling to use, the many powers that it has. The Convener: Thank you. If you want to set out your thoughts in a bit more depth, we are keen to get comments in writing. If you did that over the weekend, the timing would be reasonable. Ray Michie: I had better declare an interest: I am a long-term member of the Scottish Crofters Union, now the Scottish Crofting Foundation. Although I do not have a croft, I worked on crofts in
Carloway on Lewis and in Camus Tianabhaig on Skye and I am married to a crofter’s son, so I have a great interest in ensuring that we keep our crofting areas going and viable. I, too, am worried about £200,000 changing hands. I believe that it is dangerous to allow that to take place. Crofting is a regulated system and to let a free market emerge would definitely lead to the end of crofting. I wrote to the minister, Ross Finnie, on the issue. He said—not in his reply to me but in comments reported in the press—that crofters should be allowed to realise their assets. However, if crofters all realise their assets, there will be no crofting left. We know that the crofting communities help to create a stable area, be it in a township, on an island or wherever. I remember when it became possible for us to buy crofts. There were feu duties then and the real reason for getting rid of the feu duty was to get rid of the vassal-landlord situation that was talked about at the time. Fortunately, we were able to buy the crofts at a reasonable price. The Crofters Commission must be much more proactive than it has been. It must take a greater interest in what is going on. I also agree that youngsters should get the first choice, so that we can get them into crofts. Crofting takes place in the Highlands and Islands. The crofting areas help to sustain the culture of the area, including the traditions, the way of life, the values and a stable community, but most of all they help to sustain the Gaelic language. That is important, not only for the Highlands but for Scotland and for Europe. The Scottish Parliament has already stated that it supports the Gaelic language and will do everything that it can to foster and develop it. Sometimes a Government department does something that will make it more difficult for the policy that has been adopted to be taken forward. If the bill leads to a free market, that will go against what the Parliament has done for the Gaelic language and the culture of the area. I hope that the committee takes that into consideration. The Convener: Thank you very much. Your comments were succinct and to the point. Alex Macarthur will now comment. I understand that you have sent us a written submission. Alex Macarthur: Yes, I have. The Convener: There is no need for you to go through the whole submission. Members will know to look out for your submission and to attach it to the comments that you make this afternoon. Alex Macarthur: Right. My comments this afternoon will be the same as those in my submission. Can I mention them quickly?
The Convener: Yes. I just mean that you should not read your submission out. Cut to the chase and we can read your full submission afterwards. Alex Macarthur: My points refer directly to the Crofting Reform etc Bill. My first point concerns paragraph 5(b) of schedule 1, on membership of the Crofters Commission, which refers to
“at least one person who can speak the Gaelic language.”
I suggest that that should be changed to two persons. I am thinking of the Executive’s Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. The suggestion is that the Crofters Commission should have nine members—I think that that might be the current number. I feel that there should be at least two members of the commission who can speak Gaelic, because a Gaelic member might take ill occasionally or become pregnant and it is important that a Gaelic person is present at a hearing or whatever. Secondly, page 126 of the consultation paper on the draft bill refers to decrofting. It states that the relevant sections of the bill
“require a crofter who is applying for a decrofting direction whilst still the croft tenant to inform the landlord of the application”.
I feel that making the crofter inform the landlord if they want to decroft a house site is a delaying tactic, and could cost money, as the landlord could charge £300 to £400 for handling the application, and could do so twice. At the moment, first there is planning; secondly, there is decrofting; and then the ground is purchased from the landlord. The bill suggests that the landlord must be approached first. That could be a delaying tactic and it could be expensive for the crofter. Page 180 of the consultation paper on the draft bill states, in relation to schedule 2:
“Paragraph 2(5) allows the Land Court, in authorising a tenant to purchase croft land, to direct that the costs of the action be borne by the tenant.”
That already happens, so it does not need to be in the bill at all. The Convener: Thank you for telling us exactly where the points that you have criticised are located in the bill. That is extremely helpful. I thank the three people who have taken part in the informal session for being prepared to come forward this afternoon to add their comments to our discussions. That is helpful. We wanted to open up the discussion so that we did not hear only from people whom we had invited. 16:25 Informal session closed.