Community shopping is growing. The Eigg Island, 10 miles off the west coast of Scotland, has been in the hands of its inhabitants for 25 years this year. All told, across the Highlands and Islands, more than 216,100 hectares of land – more than half a million soccer fields – belong to, or are managed by, the people. Assets range from estates to shops, gas stations and lighthouses, according to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, a development agency.
Human-owned assets carry more than a hint of romance; that’s why fans buy football clubs. Communism was supposed to work that way. Israeli kibbutzim came closer, but today sit mostly in private hands. As the Eigg Islanders see it, they have replaced a system that has fostered insecurity and instability – in terms of jobs, housing and business – with a sustainable and productive way of life that has led to fewer young people sticking to sticks.
Political will is strong. Land redistribution is being promoted by both the ruling Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens. So too national pride. It resonates especially in the Highlands, plagued by coercion centuries ago clearances.
But romance needs to be tempered. Taxpayers underwrite much of the funding via grants. This has the unintended consequence of inflating prices. Post-acquisition development costs, often high, hold a heavy burden on the new owners. Sometimes it’s just too much. The new owners of Gigha – God’s Island – had to basement assets years after their 2002 purchase to pay off debt. Ironically, the more disadvantaged the area, the greater the need for funding and the more difficult it is to raise.
Harvesting produce from rural land, like anywhere, creates a challenge regardless of ownership. Also, community ownership may not embrace everyone. Human nature means that a small group eventually takes the reins. Big dreams – wind farms that provide electricity to everyone, vast nature reserves of hunting estates – disappear on the altar of compromise. Eigg has so far hatched a successful sustainable life under community ownership, but not all outcomes are so rosy.
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