HC Deb 01 May 1996 vol 276 cc1110-7 12.57 pm
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

The Isle of Eigg was bought from Mr. Keith Schellenberg in April 1995 by a still mysterious German—allegedly a "fire energy" painter, called Marlin Eckhard Maruma, of Stuttgart. He is understood to have paid about DM4 million, which is about £1.6 million. Mystery also surrounds where he got the money from.

This man's purchase of the island, and subsequent descent to it in a helicopter was surrounded with ballyhoo and promise. A fast ferry was to be introduced; holiday cottages were to be built; a sports hall and swimming pool would be constructed. There would be a medical centre; there would be horse breeding, and a fish farm would be developed around the lodge. Security of tenure was promised to tenants. The village hall site was to be sold to the community.

Now, 13 months on, only one thing has happened. The estate livestock—about 1, 000 sheep and 70 cattle—have been sold, at an inappropriate time, to pay the stockman, who now has no stock.

I shall quote passages from letters in a continuing correspondence between the Government and myself about Eigg. I begin with a letter from myself to the Secretary of State on 29 August 1995. It reads: I am increasingly concerned about the future of the Isle of Eigg. I realise that the purchase of land is not regulated by the state, but, in this case, there is a small and precarious community whose life is very much bound up with the behaviour of the landlord. I wonder what consideration has been given to the situation by the Scottish Office and if it has included consideration of purchasing it for the nation. A reply came from the Earl of Lindsay, not from the Secretary of State. The letter is interesting because it encapsulates the Government's attitude to this issue. The Minister's letter of 21 September 1995 reads: I am in no doubt that the system of private ownership of land which prevails in Scotland is the most effective way of achieving a good quality of life for all who live in Scotland. It would not only be undesirable but also impracticable for the Government to seek to purchase large areas of Scotland or to impose detailed management prescriptions on privately owned land. I shall quote next from a letter sent by Lord James, our dear, beloved Minister of State, who I think is responsible for the highlands. But perhaps that is a task that the Under-Secretary of State has inherited. I see that the Minister nods. It is probably the only time that he will nod during the debate. On 3 April the Minister of State wrote: As you know"— these letters always include "as you know", but I seldom do. When I am told, I often find the information difficult to believe. After "As you know", the letter reads: the Government are firmly committed"— they are always "firmly committed", not merely committed— to the removal of unnecessary and anti-competitive restrictions. The introduction of any regulatory mechanism governing who should be allowed to own property would be inconsistent with this policy. Let us consider more closely the Government's responses. We have the letter from the Earl of Lindsay about it being undesirable but also impracticable…to purchase large areas of Scotland". I did not suggest that the Government should consider purchasing large areas of Scotland. No one has made that suggestion. I am asking the Government whether they are prepared to take some action in the few, but concerning, instances when a landlord behaves irresponsibly and insensitively and thereby puts a community at risk. That is what was asked. The Government chose not to reply to that question.

Incidentally, the Earl of Lindsay's letter of 21 September ended as follows: I know it must be unsettling for the people of the island and I shall continue to watch developments. Doubtless the Minister has. He has certainly done nothing else. He, the Scottish Office and the Government have watched a community be put at risk, yet they have taken no action. At the same time they have excluded any of the solutions on offer.

Again, I shall quote the Earl of Lindsay, the Under-Secretary of State. The quotations may be boring for some, and I apologise to them, but at the same time they are interesting to me and others. On 25 March, the Earl wrote to me on behalf of the Secretary of State. The letter reads: You suggested that the Government might purchase Eigg, or allow the local community to do so, should the island be put on the market. We do not consider that it would be appropriate for the Government to purchase the island, but we would not stand in the way of the islanders acquiring the land if they so wished. Big deal. How magnanimous.

Oddly enough, I did not ask the Government whether they would "stand in the way". I told the Secretary of State that there were proposals for a community buy-out, which might be a good solution. I explained that raising the money would be difficult. I observed that if the Scottish Office could in some way act as a guarantor, that might make such a buy-out feasible. I asked the right hon. Gentleman to give that some thought. The Government's evasion is a bad way of treating the islanders, bearing in mind the patient and polite persistence of someone such as Karen Helliwell, the secretary of the Eigg residents association, on whose behalf I advanced the argument.

I return to the Earl of Lindsay's letter. I apologise to my hon. Friends for so doing. His final sentence is one that my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) would describe as "a cracker". The Earl wrote: As you know— here we go again— we are committed"— he did not write "firmly committed", only "committed". Weakness is creeping in. The letter continues to tell me that the Scottish Office is "committed" to the sensitive and sustainable development of rural areas. All that I can say in reply to that is, "Rubbish." The Government are committed to the removal of any restrictions on the landlord's actions and opposed to any regulations, or central action, that might protect tenants or crofters, or any individuals living on an estate, in this instance Eigg. How can a Government who are pressing for unfettered deregulation be committed to the sensitive and sustainable development of rural areas"? As a Liberal. I applaud private initiative. I believe that it should be encouraged. By the same token. I see the state as having a duty to protect the weak and defend the exploited. Such action may require regulation or intervention. The Government have done nothing but watch.

What could they do? First, they could buy, as Rhum was bought. One of the national community instruments could be used to manage the island, as Scottish Natural Heritage manages Rhum and as the National Trust manages Canna, gifted through the generosity of that remarkable man John Lorne Campbell, who died, full of years, last week.

Secondly, the Government could underwrite a local community buy-out. As I have said, the Government have not responded to that possibility. Thirdly, the Government could urgently send a representative to Eigg so as to obtain a clear picture of what is certainly a fast-deteriorating situation, and then act directly on behalf of the community to negotiate with Mr. Maruma, who no one seems able to find. I am certain that the Germans would help the Government to find him. We know that he exists; he is in Stuttgart. Only the Government have the power, authority and resources to act in such a way. Neither councillors nor hon. Members can match the Government's powers in this respect.

Fourthly, and lastly—I give the Minister a little warning—in the short term, the Government should act to protect development funds that may lapse or have lapsed because of Mr. Maruma's neglect. I refer especially to the money budgeted for the hall and the prospect of funds for the millennium forest project, which should be reinstated. I am sure that the Minister knows that the project could not be proceeded with, given Maruma's failure to sign the requisite documents, despite the deadline being twice extended.

The people of Eigg look to the Minister to help them in a situation where only the Government can act. I do not intend to enter wider, long-term areas. I am sure that the Minister knows that what has happened in Eigg has happened before, as it happened in Raasay, which is still very much in my memory. Dr. Green was popularly known as Dr. No in those days. We know that Knoydart is again on the market. It is not enough for the Government to say simply that they will watch. They must act.

1.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Kynoch)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) on securing this debate on the subject of Eigg, which is in his constituency. He has been on his normal form and most entertaining, but somewhat cynical in some matters.

I have considerable sympathy for the position in which the Isle of Eigg's residents find themselves. Small islands such as Eigg point up in an especially prominent way the problems facing many rural communities in the highlands and islands, where there is a need for all sections of the community to work together to common ends.

The Government wish to encourage such an approach, based on partnership between local residents and the main Government Departments, Government agencies, the local authority and private and voluntary bodies operating in the region. We believe that the way forward lies in promoting partnerships, not in introducing, as I suspect the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber might wish, new regulations on the purchase and sale of land.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I am interested in what the Minister says because the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) has raised a significant point. Is the Minister saying that the people of Eigg should have no legal redress? Surely, landowners' responsibilities should be matched by duties, and there should be some mechanism for legal redress.

Mr. Kynoch

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I believe not in regulation but in deregulation. That is a significant difference between Conservative and Opposition Members. Clearly, the island's owner has a responsibility not only for the environment, but for looking after his asset.

May I just recap? As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber said, Eigg is one of the group of islands west of Mallaig known as the small isles. Each island—Eigg, Rhum, Muck and Canna—has its unique features, different landownership and other characteristics. Each is outstanding for its scenic and natural heritage qualities.

Eigg's economy has traditionally been based on crofting, with some larger farms, forestry and inshore fishing. I am glad that, more recently, efforts have been made to increase tourism to that beautiful part of Scotland. The islanders have taken the initiative in developing new enterprises such as a tea room at the pierhead, craft goods and accommodation for visitors.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

As the Minister mentions the efforts to promote tourism, which, as he rightly points out, are extremely important to the economy of fragile islands such as Eigg, may I draw his attention to the concerns of people on the Sleat peninsula on the Isle of Skye? Despite the fact that there is an improved service between Mallaig and the Isle of Skye, Caledonian MacBrayne's summer schedules do not allow people to make day trips to the small isles. The good efforts to promote tourism and to help the island of Eigg in that respect have been thwarted by Caledonian MacBrayne's inability to get its schedules in order. Will the Minister do something about that?

Mr. Kynoch

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, about 10 days ago I chaired a meeting of the Scottish tourism co-ordinating group in Inverness, where all the relevant interests associated with tourism meet regularly to discuss how they can work better together to ensure that we build on our remarkable success with tourism in Scotland. We are trying to ensure even better co-ordination on transport links both within Scotland and to Scotland so that we can build on that success, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman's comments.

It is important that we have good transport links, but, equally, it is important that we have good facilities for tourists when they get there. That is why I wanted to refer to the moves by Eigg's population to build something to attract tourism to their island. On that front, I recommend that they work closely with the local enterprise company and with Highlands and Islands Enterprise to find out what assistance and co-ordination they can achieve in their efforts to achieve even greater success.

There is an active community life on the island. All that augurs well for the locally based economic and social development that we wish to promote through the partnership measures set out in the rural White Paper. The Government believe that there can be merits in local communities taking greater control over their own future, including in—

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kynoch

I wanted to try to get through a response to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber and I understood that the tradition was that, if hon. Members wanted to intervene in an Adjournment debate, they should give notice in advance. I have not had prior notice and therefore I have been more than generous in having local interventions—the constituency of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) certainly adjoins that of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber.

Sir Russell Johnston

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Kynoch


Sir Russell Johnston

I am sorry to intervene. I say with some hesitation, but gently, to the Minister that we have 15 minutes left and I doubt whether he will take the whole lot. We have that time because the last debate ran short, so we should take advantage of that to allow other hon. Members to take part.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. These are half-hour Adjournment debates and the traditions of such debates are exactly the same in the mornings as they are late at night. These are not the one-and-a-half hour Adjournment debates where there can be adequate interplay, but strictly half-hour constituency Adjournment debates.

Mr. Kynoch

I follow what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and shall proceed accordingly.

The Government believe that there can be merits in local communities taking greater control over their future, including, in some cases, by the purchase of land where they can raise the money to do so. The Government's crofting initiative, whereby the Secretary of State's crofting estates are available for sale to individual crofters or to crofting trusts, is a demonstration of that.

In the case of private estates, the Government do not favour compulsion or new regulations to intervene in the land market, but their agencies stand ready to assist local communities in particular circumstances—for example, where projects that are developed with the backing of local people merit priority. It is, of course, open to any community to bid to acquire an estate in the same way as any other party.

We are all aware that crofters in Assynt set up a trust to purchase the North Lochinver estate to ensure that its future development would be in their best interest. If the people of Eigg wish to follow that route, I wish them every success, but, as far as I am aware, the island has not been put on the market. I commend the islanders, however, because I understand that they are already looking to put together a funding package against the possibility that it is offered for sale.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber made light of and was slightly cynical on the subject of raising funding. It is clearly not easy to raise funds, but I know that the islanders will benefit from the experience of the people in Assynt and that they have already, I understand, been in touch with the new Highland council. I hope that they will have included also Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Clearly, they need first to produce a business plan. I understand that they are well advanced in that, for which I commend them.

Mrs. Ewing

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kynoch

With respect to the hon. Lady, I understood what you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, said regarding Adjournment debates and, with the hon. Lady's agreement, I should like to proceed.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber gave me some indication last night of the efforts of the former Highlands and Islands development board. I recall that the board developed plans in the late 1970s to intervene in the management of private estates where that management was regarded as being inconsistent with the interests of the wider community. However, such draconian powers have never been tested, and I do not think that they are the correct approach. The Government's approach is to encourage local communities to work in partnership with Government Departments, Government agencies, local authorities and private sector bodies. Such an approach is at the heart of the measures that were announced in our rural White Paper in December.

Rural policy in Scotland is about the livelihoods of rural communities, the countryside and the lives of those who live and work there. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the people of Eigg?"] As far as I am aware, Eigg has a largely rural community to which rural policies relate, and those policies should be applied so that the people of Eigg can benefit.

The future of rural Scotland should rest with the people in the rural communities because they are best placed to understand what is most needed in their areas. We are determined to encourage and empower rural communities to achieve a prosperity that is shaped by their own priorities. The White Paper on rural policy for Scotland brought together the many and diverse activities that are already under way to support Scotland's rural communities. It drew into one document our policies for rural communities and how they are put into practice. Working in partnership has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of our approach to rural Scotland.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

This is flannel.

Mr. Kynoch

The hon. Gentleman speaks about flannel. We believe in partnership but, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman believes in the state taking over ownership, which is why he is so closely allied to the Labour party. As we all know, the Liberal Democrat party is in bed with the Labour party but its members do not like saying that in parts of Scotland, because it would be electorally disadvantageous.

The White Paper contained more than 25 commitments to action, ranging from new research on rural schools and rural crime to the publication of a discussion paper on the coast and planning guidance for small towns. It also contained three linked proposals for a framework for rural development in Scotland and a system that would help local people to take action on their own behalf. The White Paper consists of three main elements. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) should listen, because the White Paper deals with partnership.

The document consists of three elements. First, it proposes the establishment of local, rural partnerships, drawing together the main bodies that operate in a particular area and including the local residents. Secondly, it proposes a national, rural partnership to provide advice on good practice to local groups—a process that could benefit the people of Eigg. Thirdly, and most importantly, the White Paper contains proposals for a new Scottish rural partnership fund totalling £2.5 million and additional resources to help local partnerships to become established and to help local projects.

A new rural challenge fund of £500,000 has been set up, and it is part of the Scottish rural partnership fund. It is now open to local communities to apply for help to fund projects that meet local priority needs. I encourage the residents of Eigg to form a local partnership in conjunction with the local authority and Government agencies, and to submit proposals to the rural challenge fund. The closing date for the first tranche of bids is 15 June. That is the way forward for the residents of Eigg, and we hope to announce the first successful projects in July.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber spoke about the funds for the hall and forest and suggested that they should be protected. I understand that the funds for the forestry projects on Eigg remain available and that the only hindrance is the agreement of the landowner. As the hon. Gentleman has flagged up, that is clearly a problem, but I hope that in due course the hurdle can be overcome. Highlands and Islands Enterprise is always ready to consider proposals, and in the past has provided funding for a music festival.

Specific projects should be submitted to that body and, of course, they will be judged on their merits. The hon. Gentleman's speech was full of cynical jibes which, as I have said, are typical of his party, about the Government's commitment to rural Scotland. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) contributed much to rural Scotland during his many years as a Scottish Office Minister, and knows exactly what I am talking about.

The Government's commitment to rural Scotland is measured in billions of pounds, and there is evidence that the commitment is working. Employment in rural Scotland increased by 6.5 per cent. in the period 1981–91 compared with an overall Scottish increase of 1.1 per cent. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Moray makes light of that but, of course, the opposition parties do not like hearing success stories. Unfortunately, they thrive on failure, which is why they will never make progress in Scotland.

The population of rural Scotland increased by about 3.5 per cent. over the same period compared with a Scottish decrease of 1.4 per cent. Long-term unemployment tends to be less severe in rural Scotland. Moreover, rural dwellers feel that the disadvantages that they face are more than balanced by the positive aspects of a clean, safe environment and their sense of belonging to a community.

The Government are doing much to help Scotland's rural communities, which include islands such as Eigg. That is not done by applying restrictive and oppressive controls of the kind that failed so disastrously in eastern Europe and elsewhere and which might be advocated by opposition parties, but by empowering local communities to identify and meet the challenges that they face. The measures in the rural White Paper provide real opportunities to local communities, such as those on the island of Eigg. I recommend that the islanders take full advantage of those opportunities.

Forward to