By RYAN TAYLOR
A PLEDGE for extra support for rural communities was made in the Scottish Parliament this week, when environment minister Michael Russell unveiled the government’s plans for the future of crofting.
The proposals follow the release earlier this year of the inquiry report into crofting by Professor Mark Shucksmith, which recommended a range of radical changes to give crofters a better future.
In the end, Mr Russell’s proposals fell short of the recommendations. However crofting leaders gave them a cautious welcome yesterday.
Key among the report’s recommendations are that:
*Highlands and Islands Enterprise take a lead role in the development of crofting communities;
* The Crofters Commission should be reformed to include a register of crofts, with six area committees to take overall control;
*An occupancy condition on land taken out of crofting tenure should be set up to end speculation on croft land for second homes, and help sustain communities.
The proposals will go to consultation before a draft crofting bill is drawn up and presented to the parliament.
Perhaps most welcome for crofters was Mr Russell’s decision not to move forward proposal to abolish the Crofters Commission.
The recommendation was met with scepticism among Shetland crofters, who felt the commission was an ideal body to deal with conflicts among communities.
Crofters Commission chairman and former SIC councillor Drew Ratter said the experience the commission had would be sadly missed if it had been abolished.
“I think the Crofters Commission as an organisation is one which contains a vast amount of valuable experience and capacity to serve crofting, and I’d very much have regretted it if its abolition was taken forward.
“I welcome the fact that’s not going to happen. It’s very positive in the long run for the people who work in the commission and the commissioners themselves, who are probably the best commissioners I’ve ever worked with.”
He said he would be working with crofters, the minister and others to examine how the recommendations can be taken forward.
“It’s also interesting in that it’s picking up on significant issues like absenteeism.”
Chief executive of the Scottish Crofting Foundation Patrick Krause said most crofters would welcome the proposals, despite having some niggles over the abolition of a scheme to hire out bulls to crofters for part of the year who wouldn’t have enough pasture to keep them all year round.
On that front, he said bulls would be sold to crofting communities, and the problem of wintering would be addressed by putting a measure into the Scottish rural development programme.
“We had a cross party group meeting with the minister afterwards, which was very productive.
“Our feeling is on the positive side. Of course there are going to be some negative aspects like the fact the bull scheme is going to be phased out. Crofters won’t be happy about that.
“We’re really pleased they are talking about having more local involvement.
“In some areas crofters have been very cautious about this because we can’t have crofters governing crofters. We put that in our response to the Shucksmith report.
“On the positive side, if it is done properly, of course local people should be involved in the decision making process in their area. It’s an essential part of rural development. We shouldn’t be governed from the top. There has to be participation.”
He welcomed the news the Crofters Commission would not be abolished.
“We didn’t want the abolition of the commission, but we wanted it to be reformed and get it working properly. The danger was it was taking away a body specifically for crofting, and crofters appreciate the value of that.”
He added of “monumental” significance was a move to bring all previous crofting legislation under one consolidated bill.
“It’s something lawyers have been asking for because there is a mass of crofting legislation.”
The news hasn’t been welcomed by everyone, however.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott criticised the government for ignoring key recommendations put forward by Professor Shucksmith.
“I am disappointed that the government chose to ignore the sensible recommendations of the inquiry that could really help active crofters.
“The Shucksmith report argued for targeted agricultural support for the crofting counties.
“The report recognised the importance of livestock production – cattle and sheep – to the future strength of the industry in the crofting counties.
“I am surprised that the Scottish Government chose to ignore these proposals, particularly as they had widespread support across the industry and across political parties.
“I am not clear what was achieved by the whole exercise if the government ignores the most important recommendations that could help crofters with the rising cost of fuel, fertiliser and feed.”