Lessons from Assynt 1

This morning’s post contained 2 items of particular interest. The first was a citation to attend the High Court for jury service on 1 December.

The second was a glossy set of sales particulars for the Glencanisp and Drumrunie Estates in Sutherland. This is the 44,400 acre estate being put up for sale by the Vestey family. What’s particularly interesting about this turn of events is that the sale had been put on hold at the beginning of September following an application to register an interest in the land by a community body, the Assynt Foundation. Accompanying the sales particulars was a note from CKD Galbraith saying that the Application to register interest had been withdrawn and that the sellers were therefore free to re-commence marketing.

What’s going on? Well the whole story cannot be told just yet but here’s the essence. The original application to register an interest was drawn to the attention of the owners, the Vestey Trust. Despite making conciliatory noises, the Vesteys took exception to this and lodged objections. Interestingly, despite the views of other landowners in other cases being published on the Register of Community Interests in Land, the Vestey letter was not made public. However, I understand that it challenged the application on a number of technical grounds. The Vesteys also appeared to challenge the role of the Scottish Executive, who, despite not being supposed to offer advice to any interested party on any specific application, generated the appearance of doing just this through the Community Land Unit of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It became clear that, were Ministers to accept the application, the Vesteys would mount a legal challenge. Fearing the outcome of such a challenge and recognising deficiencies in the original application, the Assynt Foundation appears to have concluded that their best interests are served by withdrawing the original application and submitting a new one. The estate, upon hearing of the withdrawal, promptly began their marketing campaign once more though it is understood that this will again be stalled pending the outcome of this second application.

This is clearly a messy situation. Important lessons become evident, however.

Firstly, communities wishing to register interests in land need to understand the complexities of the legislation and ensure that their application is robust enough to withstand determined scrutiny by landowner’s lawyers who appear, from other applications, to be keen to point out any shortcomings.

Second, communities need sound and independent advice. The Community Land Unit is placed in an awkward situation here since it is part of the Civil Service with civil service lines of communication to Edinburgh (and thus not independent), cannot on its own account provide legal advice, and faces potential conflicts of interest since staff in the Unit also administer the Scottish Land Fund, advise communities on making applications to the Fund, and draw up recommendations to the Committee that makes the decisions on such applications (I declare an interest here as a member of that Committee).

Third, communities face real problems in obtaining information on landownership. Without detailed maps, any application can be challenged by the owner. Communities need to ensure they obtain the best quality information available and present it in a way which demonstrates that they have taken all reasonable efforts to ensure its accuracy.

Fourth, landowners will, if they feel so inclined do everything in their powers to frustrate a successful registration.

In due course, I hope to be in a position to report more fully on this case. at present, some of the details need to be withheld in order not to prejudice the existing process.

The Scotsman newspaper ran two stories which appear to have sprung directly from parties connected to the estate. The first was an opinion piece, Thorny Issues in a Boggy Land [link no longer working April 2022] opinion piece by Katie Grant on the 25 October and the second was a newspiece, First Land Buyout descends into Chaos [link no longer working April 2022] which appeared today and flagged up the possible legal challenge.

Both pieces contain perfectly reasonable concerns but demonstrate that landowners are perfectly willing and able both to seek to weaken an already weak piece of legislation and to garner publicity undermining the cause of land reform.