I was in the Scottish Parliament on Weds for the debate on the Private members motion opposing the designation of the Sound of Barra as a Special Conservation Area (SAC) by Tory Highland MSP Jamie McGrigor. I came in a wee bit after the start but what I saw was a very high quality debate with cogent, well-argued contributions from Labour's Claire Baker (a gal to watch), Alison Johnstone for the Greens (who back the SAC), Tavish Scott for the Lib Dems (who quoted my Monday Scotsman column on this very issue) and a Highland-sounding SNP MSP I'm ashamed to say I didn't recognise. He made a point I've wanted to set straight – that SNH are to some extent piggy in the middle of this Hebridean rammy. Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson surprised me when he said relations between SNH and the Barra people had broken down completely. I haven't been out to sceptred isle lately, but I'd hazard a quess there really aren't any relations to be broken down. There is no SNH office on Barra and apart from the odd visit to count corncrakes on the SAC at Eoligarry or check seal numbers – a task possibly delegated to seal experts like the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) from St Andrews University -- SNH may not figure in the everyday lives of Barra islanders very much at all. And this is part of the problem. SNH only arrive to say no –you can't do that – inadvertently echoing a long inglorious Highland and Island history where people have been at the bottom of the pecking order of species and deer, sheep, seals and eagles have all been far higher up. That history is not SNH's fault. But people were cleared until 130 years ago to make way for animals and the memory – and enduring impact of empty glens -- rankles still. Largely because some of the over-arching, feudal-style control once enjoyed by generally feared and often absent landowners has been handed to SNH not devolved to savvy, self-reliant, capable communities like Barra. That too is not SNH's fault.
A question needs to be asked of the Scottish Government. How can SNH be expected to be nature's advocate, a government advisor and a neutral adjudicator on an SAC proposal – all at the same time? It isn't possible. And one role harms the other. SNH guys – temperamentally reserved as a breed anyway – cannot cosy up to islanders when they must appear to be "at arms length". Doubtless some bright spark in government will devise yet another quango as a solution to oversee part of SNH's multifarious role. The proper long term solution is staring government in the face. Give local communities (at a sub-council level) planning control. Trust the people. This would demand a framework to deliver just such community level control across Scotland – I say high time, even if some might regard the present moment as bad timing. To paraphrase John Lennon badly, democracy is what happens when you're making other (referendum) plans. Scotland needs engagement, excitement, involvement, participation and above all a sense of ownership by people. The SNP is interested in such feelings and arguments at a Scotland-wide level but not at the local level where it could make a massive immediate difference to lives. Is that because most politicians, civil servants, commentators and decision makers form a professional class that regards itself as lifted beyond place? A class that doesn't really live anywhere in particular, doesn't use local shops or engage with hobby-based groups, societies or campaigns and therefore doesn't rate local aspects of life (except for gathering votes)? Or is the problem exactly the opposite – MSPs spend their lives sorting out petty problems of local rivalry and animosity and therefore can't imagine such people having any greater say than they currently do? Or is it because the SNP want all the bottled-up frustration of passive, disempowered Scots to find expression in the independence referendum process?
As one of the original members of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust I'm a firm believer that cometh the hour, cometh the people. It will be a bumpy ride, but decentralising control within Scotland to create communities that can heal and develop themselves is the only social and political battle worth fighting in my book. The SNP are starting to frame a Local Empowerment Bill which may simply make it easier for communities to own assets (good) but could go further to pilot some trial areas with some council functions devolved to community control (even better). That won't be an easy road. When people themselves come to the realisation local control is the only way forward (and fight for years to achieve it a la Eigg, Gigha or Assynt) they invariably hit the ground running. When people have had such power (and responsibility) suddenly visited upon them, a vital stage of consideration, consolidation and local determination is missed out (a la island of Rum) – so the "community" must still develop, with all the growing pains of the normal teenager, as the community control project takes place. Disagreements and fallouts are then inevitable. But unless we want all communities to become battle-hardened first through eviction, threat, loss of population and sub-standard housing –as they were on Eigg – we must accept that most communities will not be as tightly knit and well organised when they take over the reins. That's where Development Trusts come in – as a brilliant way for communities to start flexing their organisational muscles. About 300 trusts exist in Scotland – most members of the umbrella group DTAS– to run assets like land, wind turbines, housing associations, village halls, local transport schemes, food co-ops, community petrol pumps and community orchards. They allow local people to get organised, get the feel for managing money, structuring projects, planning ahead and keeping the community with them. The Islands of Eigg and Rum are effectively run by Development Trusts – so too Neilston and Govanhill in Glasgow and Fintry in the Campsies where wind turbine income has already been used to insulate local homes and replace a bus service withdrawn by the local council. Indeed, soon development trusts – springing up organically all over Scotland – will be unpicking the present top-down structure of governance from the grassroots. Once community wind schemes have paid off the costs of turbines in 5-10 years, they will start earning relatively big money. Why should it be used simply to replace council expenditure while community members continue to pay council tax? Should such go-ahead communities be exempted some council tax – or divert it to their own ultra-local community council instead – or should they be more involved in the decisions made by the existing "local" council? Is it democratic for communities with development trusts to have more clout than those without? All of this lies ahead. Government and political parties can be ahead or behind the curve. Meanwhile, SNH should be freed up to perform only one task -- protecting nature. SNH should not sit as judge and jury on its own recommendations – their view and the view of an empowered local community should be considered along with all the other voices of society and decided upon by the Minister for the Environment himself.