Community ownership offers us a say in our future. And that is what makes it essential
Since it was announced in October that residents of the Isle of Ulva, along with those on neighbouring Mull, would be given the opportunity to attempt a community buyout of the island, there has been a great deal of interest from all over the globe. Articles have featured in newspapers and online in the likes of Australia, France, Singapore and the UAE. There has been great support for the project, but also a certain amount of criticism – land reform can be a divisive topic.
For Ulva and our community in particular, community ownership would be a massively positive step for several reasons. It offers the opportunity to reverse the social and economic decline of the island, and to secure the future of our fantastic primary school. It would enable us to provide housing with security of tenure, and to protect the island’s diverse natural environment whilst still ensuring it remains accessible for everyone to enjoy. We would have the ability to shine a light on Ulva’s historical importance, both the island itself and its former residents. We could create new business opportunities for new residents, while offering security to existing ones. And most importantly of all, it would give local people a voice.
One of the most important things community ownership offers residents in the case of Ulva, is a security that does not exist under private ownership. As shown by the population decimation over the past couple of centuries, islanders are at the mercy of the landlord. The sale of Ulva came out of the blue to residents, who had no inkling about the intention of the owner to sell until photographs were taken for the brochure. The current residents’ leases expired in November last year, meaning we are now on a rolling month by month tenancy. Any new owner is under no obligation to let the islanders remain in their homes. Security of tenure would be assured for current and future residents through community ownership, and the importance of this cannot be overstated. If you offer people security, they are more likely to be invested in the island and contribute to its ongoing upkeep and success.
Housing provision is another significant opportunity presented. In a time when the UK is chronically short on housing, it is frustrating to walk around and see homes unoccupied and neglected – the majority of Ulva’s housing stock is not lived in. Community ownership would mean the refurbishment of the built infrastructure on the island – allowing families, couples and individuals to move back to the island, supporting both the local primary school and the local economy.
Ulva contributes to the Mull economy predominantly through tourism and fishing, and this is another aspect to which community ownership is vital. We are committed to the environmental sustainability of Ulva, and making sure access is assured for locals and visitors alike. Ulva has a great deal of historical and environmental importance, which would be protected through community ownership. The sale of the island comes with a small piece of land on Mull which includes the pier and access to the island via the ferry. A private owner would be perfectly entitled to shut down the ferry and prevent access to the island, as well as stopping the use of the pier by the many fishing boats currently reliant on it.
Despite the reasons above, the question for some still remains – why is a community purchase so essential, compared to a philanthropic private purchaser, willing to enact all the hopes and dreams of the islanders without any public cost? It all comes down to certainty. Yes, perhaps we would get lucky and a white knight would ride in and save Ulva. But when the thirty-six page sales catalogue did not feature a single mention of the thousands of tourists who visit every year, and was marketed as a private playground retreat, this seemed highly unlikely. Even so, a private buyer with the best intentions is still the sole owner, with the residents at their mercy of their decisions. Private ownership may have been the norm in Scotland for centuries, but historically this has not ended well for the people. Ulva, in common with many other areas, has seen its population decimated – in the case of Ulva from more than 600 in the 19th century to only six residents today.
If a community can put forward a sensible, sustainable and affordable business plan, why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to own their land? Land reform legislation is available to communities like ours precisely because of this question. It is no longer solely about who has the most money to buy a chunk of Scotland, it is also a judgement call about what owner will act in the best interests of the community. In a lot of cases, it may be private ownership – but in the case of Ulva, a community buyout is the correct solution. The road ahead will not be easy, we are under no illusions about that; despite the hard work, the inevitable differences of opinion, and the pressures that community ownership will entail, I believe that the people who live and work here are best placed to run the island. All we are asking for is the chance to shape our own future, and provide opportunities for our children and generations to come. Community ownership offers us a say in that future. And that is what makes it essential.