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FINANCE AND SERVICES

Ordered,


Ordered,


    That Mrs. Gillian Shephard be discharged from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons andSir George Young be added to the Committee.--[Mr. Dowd.]

5 Jun 1998 : Column 683

Knoydart Estate

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

2.30 pm

Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): This debate is about not just a 16,500 acre estate on a west highland peninsula, but the future of a community. There are important wider questions too, about land management, ownership and control. I aim to outline the background problems and the history of the estate, and to consider the way ahead. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) may also wish to contribute to the debate. My hon. Friend the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office has a fine track record on the subject, and I look forward to hearing his reply.

The 2.30 slot on a Friday afternoon is not one which encourages hon. Members to flock into the Chamber. It is very much the graveyard slot. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter. As a highlander, I have had an interest in the land debate for many years, ever since I was old enough to hold up my first copy of the West Highland Free Press.

The Knoydart peninsula has had a chequered history. Following the highland clearances, more than 500 people were forcibly evicted from the estate, and were shipped to America and Australia. Sixteen brave families stayed on, fleeing to the hills until they were tracked down by the factor and removed to America. In those days, economics dictated that sheep were more important than people.

In 1948, seven men from Knoydart staked out 65 acres of arable land, in defiance of the hated landlord, a millionaire brewer named Lord Brocket. He was a Nazi sympathiser who had met Hitler, and who hosted dinners at Knoydart for senior Nazis, including von Ribbentrop. The land raid was unsuccessful, but the incident has been immortalised in song and verse, and it has become a symbol of the highland land question.

In 1985, Surrey property dealer Philip Rhodes bought the original 58,000 acre estate for £1.2 million. In 1993, he sold the last 16,500 acres--the estate we are debating today--to the jute company Titaghur. The owner, Reg Brealey, was the first person ever charged with insider dealing, although his trial collapsed. He recently sold the estate to the current director, Stephen Hinchliffe. Bizarrely, the two of them were directors of Sheffield United football club, which follows on the sporting theme of the day.

Mr. Hinchliffe was the chairman of the Facia retailing empire, which collapsed in 1996 with alleged debts of more than £100 million. The Serious Fraud Office is investigating, and the Department of Trade and Industry has made one referral to the High Court. The disqualification of directors is possible. Two other referrals are in the pipeline.

I contacted Mr. Hinchliffe at his golfing holiday hotel in Portugal this week. He made it clear that he wants to develop, and stay on, the estate. However, if the community is not behind him, he will consider selling it. For that, he deserves considerable credit. In fairness to him, he has agreed to meet representatives of the local foundation at Knoydart to discuss their fears about a history of failed directorships and his long-term

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commitment to maintain and improve the estate. They worry about his lack of communication. They worry about the sacking of the estate manager, Mr. Ian Robertson, who was allegedly not paid for more than two and a half years.

Which way forward? Where do we go from here?I believe that the community can control its own future by purchasing the estate. Mr. Hinchliffe has agreed to negotiate the sale if all else fails. My vision for the estate is not as a sterile zone, but as a thriving, dynamic, innovative community that keeps its isolated charm and protects its natural assets.

I visited the Knoydart estate during the recess, accompanied by the impressive local councillor Charlie King. I met Eilidh Klemm, the head teacher of Inverie primary school--the most remote school on mainland Britain. It nestles in a bay overlooking Loch Nevis and relies on hydro-electricity and generation power for fuel. I met the class of five pupils and was struck by the commitment of the teacher and the animation of the children. I believe that they deserve a fresh start. I met Bernie Evemy, the local postmaster and chairman of the Knoydart community association. He has worked tirelessly for the cause of the local community and for land reform. I believe that he deserves a fresh start. I met Ian Robertson, the ex-estate manager and the owner of the Old Forge pub. He has the respect of the local community and he is a man of energy and expertise. I believe that he deserves a fresh start.

I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to visit Knoydart, to add his strength and contribution to the work of the John Muir Trust, the Highland council and the community land unit. I believe that, together, we can create an environment in which a development plan can be created and a bid to buy the estate can be made possible.

Finally, simply and passionately, I make a plea for the owner to sell, for the Royal Bank of Scotland--the main creditor--to sell and for the Government to support the community in any and every way that they can to follow in the footsteps of the Stornaway trust, the Assynt crofters and the islanders of Eigg, who have created benchmarks for good community land management practice. By working together, we can create new opportunities for the dream of the Knoydart community to be realised.

2.37 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I am grateful to my neighbouring parliamentary colleague, the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart), for giving me the opportunity to contribute a few words in support of what he has said this afternoon. A small part of the Knoydart peninsula falls within my constituency boundaries and I participated in the visit that the hon. Gentleman convened in the parliamentary recess, by coincidence rather than by design. If I did not gatecrash it, I suppose that I "boatcrashed" it because I was visiting the area in a private rather than a parliamentary capacity. I was fortunate in being able to attend the public meeting that the hon. Gentleman convened along with Councillor King, the chief executive of Highland council and other relevant representatives of public bodies and statutory authorities. Very impressive it was, too.

The sheer complexity of the difficulties that face so many local people on the estate is daunting, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say, and I wish to underscore, that

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there is no doubt about the calibre of personnel involved and the genuine commitment of those people, if they are given the proper opportunity to have more of the future of the estate in their own hands and to plan on a more rational basis with a view to the future.

Knoydart is just one of a litany of names and locations in the west highlands that have become synonymous over the years with the most gratuitous difficulties of landlordism when it appears in its least reputable fashion. The Isle of Raasay is one, the Isle of Eigg is another. We have seen commendable breakthroughs in Assynt more recently and Orbost on Skye in terms of community ownership and crofting trusts. That is something which I very much support.

It will not be easy, as the hon. Gentleman made clear, to resolve the myriad financial and legal complexities.I do not doubt that that in itself is an inhibition for any Minister. I hope that, in having rightly raised the debate, the hon. Gentleman will have given further profile and impetus to a worthy and long overdue cause.

2.38 pm

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): I am delighted that we have a little time this afternoon to discuss this subject.I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on securing the debate and on his choice of youthful reading. He has raised a case study that symbolises the land issue in the highlands, which has been such a long-running sore and source of offence to many. The matters that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ross and, er--

Mr. Charles Kennedy: Whatever it is now called.

Mr. Wilson: Whatever it is now called, but it includes a bit of Knoydart. The matters that they have raised are crucial to the community of Knoydart, but they also have a resonance that stretches further afield. From the days of the MacDonnell clearances, through the era when ex-service men returned from the second world war to find themselves denied land by the pro-Nazi Lord Brocket, down to the more recent speculative activities, Knoydart has come to represent the unacceptable face of highland land ownership. Like Raasay, Eigg and many other communities in recent decades, Knoydart's fate has acquired symbolic importance as well as immediate relevance to the future of the people who live there.

My hon. Friend has done well in promoting not only the interests of his constituents but the more general case for land reform in Scotland--a policy on which the Government are already engaged on several fronts and to which I have a long-standing attachment.

Formally, that part of Knoydart on which today's debate is centred is no longer on the market. That creates a difficult dimension to the debate, but I am very interested in what my hon. Friend has said about his recent contact with Mr. Hinchliffe, one of the key figures in the current ownership structure. If the consortium recognises that ownership that nobody living in the place wants or has confidence in is unacceptable, that is a step forward. Let us see what progress can be made from there. I join my hon. Friend in recognising the importance of securing a future ownership of the estate that best ensures that local interests are not overlooked or overridden.

5 Jun 1998 : Column 686

My hon. Friend visited the estate and met the current principals and local people last week in the company of Highland council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise representatives. A range of organisations, including the Highland council and the community land unit of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, have a continuing commitment to supporting the interests of the community of Knoydart. The community land unit has established close links with the Knoydart Foundation. It is my sincere hope that those continuing efforts by all concerned about the interests of the people of Knoydart will lead to the future that we all wish for the estate, which has been too long delayed.

My request to Highlands and Islands Enterprise last year to establish a dedicated unit to give advice and support on community land purchases was a key immediate measure to tackle land problems in the area. Already a number of significant community purchases have been supported, such as those on Eigg and at Abriachan, with which my hon. Friend will be familiar. HIE has purchased the estate of Orbost on Skye to promote a range of developments with and for the community. The enterprise agencies have an important role in applying their resources and expertise in support of development opportunities following any successful land acquisition on behalf of the community. On Eigg and at Orbost the local enterprise companies are working in partnership with the communities on framing and implementing sustainable development measures. That is the way ahead for many other parts of the highlands and islands.

On the more general issue of land reform, last October we set up the land reform policy group, chaired by my noble Friend Lord Sewel. He and other members of the group are delighted at the strong response to its first consultation paper. More than 360 written responses have been received from across the country. It is the most comprehensive and significant review of land ownership and use in Scotland this century. I am proud of the Government's prompt establishment of the group with such a radical remit, as well as our other measures on land.

Among the many dimensions of the land issue, Lord Sewel's group is considering the need to tackle existing barriers to community involvement in ownership and management. Even where there are willing sellers, it is clear that such barriers exist--for example, the lack of access to capital and scarcity of management experience.

The group is also reviewing the existing powers of compulsory purchase and whether they are in need of amendment or replacement. The events at Knoydart represent precisely the kind of situation that the land reform policy group is examining closely to find out what lessons can be learned.

The group is also analysing carefully all the responses to the questions asked in its consultation and the issues raised by respondents. It will consult again in the late summer. The group intends to issue its final report by the end of 1998. The aim is to complete the work in time for its conclusions to inform the elections to the Scottish Parliament, but it is possible that further actions may be taken sooner. Either way, that work will provide the Scottish Parliament with a vital thought-through agenda for early action on land reform.

5 Jun 1998 : Column 687

I am well aware of the strong arguments that have been advanced in support of the suggestion that greater use might be made of heritage lottery funding to support community bids. In fact, I have been known to advance them myself. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is here to listen to the debate.

As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber will appreciate, Ministers are not in a position to influence formally the consideration of particular applications by lottery distributing bodies. Nevertheless, policy directions issued to the UK distributing bodies by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are able to suggest the broad approach that the bodies should take in considering applications, subject to the overall legal constraints on their scope for giving grants. That matter is under active consideration within the context of this debate. After devolution, the Government intend that it should be possible for Scottish Ministers to give separate policy directions covering the involvement of UK distributing bodies in devolved matters in Scotland.

I also advise my hon. Friend that the national heritage memorial fund has decided to set up a separate Scottish committee to advise on applications from Scotland. The levels of delegation to that committee are likely initially to cover only small grants, but that development reveals a growing sensitivity within the national heritage memorial fund to distinctive Scottish needs.

It is, perhaps, appropriate to remind all concerned on an occasion such as this that the memorial fund started life as the national land fund, established by Hugh Dalton in his post-war Budget as a memorial finer than anything hewn from stone or cast in bronze to those who had fallen. Many of the properties and areas throughout the United Kingdom to which public access is enjoyed today were obtained for the social interest during the brief operation of the national land fund. That is a magnificent illustration of what can be done if resources are available.

The national land fund was hated by the Tories and they eventually got rid of it, but the land acquired under the fund was not for the state to own. The state was the conduit through which the land passed to organisations such as the National Trust, the Youth Hostels Association and the Ramblers Association. They preserved and developed those areas, to which the public still have access. The national heritage memorial fund therefore has a strong pedigree that should never be forgotten. It goes back to Dalton's great visionary act in the post-war Labour Budget of putting aside £50 million--an astonishing sum at that time--for the national land fund.

I am putting in hand today arrangements for Highlands and Islands Enterprise to establish a land purchase fund with access to appropriate resources. Its purpose will be to provide a source of funds to support community-based land purchases or purchases by the highlands and islands network. There is already close collaboration with other bodies, such as Highland council, that have a close interest in community land purchase and may also be able to provide financial support. There is clearly scope to develop co-operation and joint approaches in appropriate cases.

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In announcing the proposal to establish a land purchase fund, I must make it absolutely clear that the fund will be used to support the last brick in the wall approach that has been developed by the community land unit. There are no blank cheques and I have given a very strong direction that the fund should not be used at all where exorbitant price demands are insisted on by current owners.


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