In January, I got to listen in to a hugely inspiring community meeting. The people of Wanlockhead near the north eastern border of Dumfries and Galloway were taking the first steps towards owning the land around them. The mood of the meeting was hopeful, upbeat and empowered.
It was with that meeting in mind that I enthusiastically went to another community meeting this week, this time in Moffat, slap bang in the centre of the South. Andy Wightman and I ventured down to hear about the potential purpose of the Gallow Hill from the landowner, Lord Johnstone. He had volunteered to sell the formerly wooded hill to the community and a group had been formed, a feasibility study produced and a valuation undertaken. This meeting was to formalise the group of local supporters and form an organisation that could apply for funding.
The meeting opened with Tom, a man who described himself as a “relative local” having lived here for a mere 15 years. He set out the story so far. The hill directly behind the town had long been a place for local folk to walk but in recent years the trees had grown thick and dark and most recently had been felled, leaving a barren hillside. The landowner had no plans to sell the land on a commercial basis but consulted with the community council to see if there was an interest amongst local people to take on the land. A steering group had formed in response to the offer and plans developed for consultation. The consultation had received 241 responses, of which about 72% were positive, 25% against and 3% undecided.
After Tom’s introduction, a quick round of questions highlighted some concerns. One person asked “but who would own it if we took it on?” Another asked whether the consultation response was really enough of a mandate in a town of 3000 people. Behind me there were whispers of of “but what kind of woodland would it be” and “what about the deer”.
Catherine Francis from the Scottish Land Fund was then introduced. She spoke of other communities across the country who had taken on similar challenges. Of Glengarry Community Woodland where the local people had started a micro enterprise with woodfuel and begun educational and recreational activities on their own terms. Of the Crook Inn just outside Tweedsmuir, an old favourite of mine growing up in Broughton, bought out by the community and in the process of becoming a new hub for local people. And she spoke of Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust which had taken on 615 hectares of forest in a joint venture with commercial forestry firms but where the community had replanted native woodlands.
South of Scotland SNP MSP Joan McAlpine followed with encouraging tales from Lochmaben and the Mull of Galloway. Both projects not far from Moffat where local people have taken on land and assets for their own use.
After the speakers had had their turn, it was over to the rest of the folk in the room to have their say. Whilst there was an obvious cohort of support for the project and of folk who just wanted to get on with setting up a group, others asked questions around flooding and about liability and responsibility amongst the community if things went wrong. Others pointed to another piece of land which had purportedly been poorly maintained by the council. A mood of “why bother” was countered with “would community ownership be any worse than what we’ve got”.
To me, community ownership is not just inspiring but natural. For a group of people living in a place to have some say over how natural resources are used for the benefit of everyone seems like a normal thing that everyone should have. But I often have to remind myself that this sort of collective endeavour is not natural to a lot of folk, largely because of the failure of our local democracy.
Lesley Riddoch often tells the story of a village hall up north where the light bulb had gone. A local man who was using the hall complained that the council hadn’t come and replaced it, to which Lesley asked “why don’t you just do it yourself?” She was met with a blank stare. A legacy of being done to, of having power kept just out of reach and the two sides of the same coin that are responsibility and empowerment.
In Moffat it seemed that for some people, a change of ownership and specifically community ownership felt unnecessary when the Laird had let them walk the hills for generations. For others it felt irresponsible to take on new land when common good land along the way had been left unattended by the council.
But to me all these worries are easily addressed. For those uneasy about taking on responsibility, the answer is simple – don’t join and let those who want to, carry the load. For those questioning why anyone should bother, one only has to look at what Moffat has already achieved through community ownership to see its success – the Town Hall we met in is owned by the community, as is the museum, the theatre and the wildlife sanctuary. What’s more, communities across Scotland are proving that community ownership can bring enormous benefits. Economic regeneration through job creation and new businesses; tourism; the protection of natural land and assets; health and wellbeing improvements and a stronger sense of community.
I hope that the Friends of Gallow Hill manage to take this project to its next step and to realise such benefits in their own community. And for those who doubt its merits, I hope they give the project a chance and give their time, care and experience for the benefit of all.