This blog post is by Simon Boendermaker, a recent LLB (Hons) graduate of the University of Aberdeen. Comments from Brian Inkster, Hon. Secretary of the Crofting Law Group, and Malcolm Combe follow.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Crofting Law Group Annual Conference, this year held in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, thanks to the generosity of the Group providing free student tickets and subsidised travel and accommodation.
As my Honours courses at the School of Law included both the Rural Law and Law of Leases courses (co-ordinated by Malcolm Combe and Douglas Bain respectively), I did not want to miss the opportunity to take part in an event which appealed to my interests. Alongside this, the programme for the conference featured an afternoon of events dedicated to common grazings, which had been the subject of considerable controversy in crofting communities in the previous twelve months. The opportunity to see vigorous debate between the newly elected crofting commissioners and representatives of the Upper Coll and Mangersta grazings committees, who had been sorely affected by the actions of their predecessors, made for a captivating agenda.
The conference took place in the picturesque surroundings of Lews Castle, the ideal setting to soak in my first visit to the Hebrides. However, there was little time to admire the scenery as a packed schedule of events began with a warm welcome from Iain Maciver of the Stornoway Trust (the community landowner of property in and around Stornoway), followed by a brief introduction to the day’s events from Duncan MacPhee, vice chairman of the Crofting Law Group.
As the programme of the conference would focus on crofting law reform, Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, gave a brief video outline of the stance of the Scottish Government on current legislation. Ewing highlighted that the Scottish Government agreed with the views of crofters that the law was in need of reform, expressing sympathy with the view that legislation had become overly complex for the average crofter. He also revealed that the Government was engaging with crofters over the direction that reform would take, with one approach being to consolidate legislation into a simpler Act or alternatively to adopt a clean sheet approach and developing a completely new legislative framework. However, his comments were tempered by his acknowledgement that the government currently has several “legislative priorities” which meant that crofting would be balanced alongside several competing interests.
The clean sheet approach which was mentioned by Fergus Ewing was rejected by Patrick Krause and Russell Smith, chief executive and chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation. Both noted that legislative reform was low on the list of priorities of the average crofter and that they were generally concerned with areas of practical concern, such as decrofting (that being the term used for taking land out of crofting regulation) and assignation (transfer). Smith noted that a clean sheet approach would risk “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Much discussion followed the next item on the agenda, when Duncan MacPhee revealed he had successfully arranged a standard security (the Scots law term for a mortgage) over an entire croft without the need to decroft the house and restrict the scope of the security to the decrofted land alone.
Bill Barron of the Crofting Commission discussed “a year like no other” for the Commission, stating that the previous board of the Commission had witnessed deep personal splits, which had led to it failing to act as a corporate body. Barron said he was keen to learn from the mistakes of the previous year, where members of the Commission had made individual regulatory decisions which had resulted in the breakdown of trust between individual crofters and the Commission. With regard to crofting law reform, Barron insisted that the Commission would work with the Government to ensure that any new legislation would support opportunity for new entrants, an area which urgently required examination to secure the future of the sector. Finally, he expressed a hope that, with time, the Commission would be trusted to work for crofters once again.
After lunch, where I was able to speak further with Barron about his plans for the future of the Commission after the previous twelve months, Brian Inkster gave a presentation on the controversy surrounding the Commission. A complete chronology of that could take up several blog posts: Inkster’s Crofting Law Blog provides exactly that, so those interested in further reading on that topic are directed there.
The final portion of the day gave crofters a chance to discuss the current situation surrounding common grazings. Calum Maclean from Upper Coll gave a passionate account of the previous twelve months from the perspective of the grazings committee on Upper Coll. He could not understand how Barron and the new Crofting Commission could be expected to win back the trust of ordinary crofters when they had done little to actively address the effects of the decisions of the previous Commissioners in 2016. However, he was able to finish by stating that ordinary crofters did not want to abandon the current framework but that serious work would be required to secure the future of the sector.
The lively debate provoked by the afternoon’s discussions continued well into the evening, when I spoke to several crofters who had attended the conference over dinner and gained some invaluable insights from these conversations. A desire for reform was evident and it is clear that stakeholders will need to undertake serious engagement to secure the bright new future that crofting is desperately in need of.
After writing my dissertation on agricultural holdings, I was able to draw a number of parallels throughout the day between the situation of crofters and issues faced in the agricultural holdings sector, where secure tenants also benefit from a parcel of rights (some which are particularly strong, perhaps even stronger than the rights of the landowner). All of this has ongoing implications for the wider rural sector. For my part, the conference and indeed the discussions over dinner brought to life some of the issues that had been discussed in my law degree. Thanks again to the Crofting Law Group for providing me with the opportunity to attend this year’s conference. I would not hesitate to recommend future conferences to other interested students.
Comment from Brian Inkster
We have been running the assisted places scheme to our conferences for law students at the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde for a few years now. It has been very well received by the Universities. It gives their students an opportunity to find out more about crofting law, a subject seldom touched upon at university. It is hoped that this exposure to crofting law may encourage those students to become tomorrow’s crofting lawyers. The Crofting Law Group will continue the assisted places scheme for next year’s conference which will be held in Edinburgh.
Comment from Malcolm Combe
The University of Aberdeen is very grateful to the Crofting Law Group for the support it gives to students from across Scotland. Whilst some courses at the Scottish universities touch on crofting matters, even with the best will in the world there is no way we could replicate a programme of events akin to the Crofting Law Group Conference for students to benefit from. We look forward to working with the Crofting Law Group in future, and if any other conferencing organisations would be interested in offering a similar student support scheme we at the School of Law would be delighted to hear from you.