I haven’t blogged in a while, but I feel I have to get some of my thoughts down on paper, following the recent turn of events in the crofting world. An issue has arisen with the Upper Coll Common Grazings (you can read about it here), which resulted in the committee being “sacked” by the Crofting Commission. I’m not going to write about specifics here but I will instead point you in the direction of the excellent Crofting Law Blog, which has recently posted about the matter. My immediate concern is what does this mean for the rest of the crofting world. As I heard one crofter say, the Commission “want crofters, just no crofting”.
On Monday of this week, the Commission posted this news article, “reminding” crofters of their rights and the duties of Grazings Committees. This is what has prompted a mixture of anger and concern amongst numerous crofters.
My attention was drawn to the section on Financial Management, with particular focus on the following statement:
“As trustees, any money received by the committee belongs to the shareholders and should be distributed to them as soon as is reasonably practicable. It is not the township’s or the committee’s money and as such it is the duty of the grazings clerk to distribute any money received from whatever source, but in particular resumptions, according to each individual shareholder’s share entitlement whether or not they are active in the grazings.”
My understanding of this then is that no Common Grazings Committee should have any funds in reserve, and should operate with zero in their bank account. This seems nonsensical to me and totally impractical.
What happens when a village wants to carry out some improvement work, or pay some incidental bills? Well, all shareholders have to stump up:
“When the grazings committee require monies to maintain the common grazings and the fixed equipment or to carry out works for improvements, the committee must levy and recover the required monies directly from the shareholders for onward payment to any third parties.”
According to what I’ve read, these details have been in place since the 1993 Crofter’s Act, but there has obviously been an element of common-sense in place until now. While I’m sure most shareholders would readily accept their share of any township income, have you ever tried getting money out of people who a) don’t have it, or b) don’t want to part with it? I think it leads to (totally unnecessary, in my opinion) friction within villages.
I’m going to give some (hypothetical) examples of why I think this approach is detrimental to crofting, and community life in crofting townships:
Village A has 20 shareholders, with 10 of those actively using their crofts & common grazing share (half being active is generous, in my experience). The 10 active crofters in the village meet regularly (notifying all shareholders) and decide to enter Village A into a corncrake scheme, which pays £5000 per annum, for 5 years, into village funds. This money must then be immediately paid out, with each shareholder receiving £250 (lets say they all have equal souming/shares) and they are more than happy to accept the money. The active crofters then are unable to put the money directly to use for the village, and they also lose out on access to the common grazing for part of the year (as set out by the scheme).
The Grazings Committee decide to repair the fence at a cost of £10,000. Each shareholder is notified about the village intentions, and the committee put in time & effort to secure a 60% grant towards the cost of the fence. This means that the outstanding balance of £4,000 must be paid by each of the shareholders. The 10 active crofters agree to paying their £200 share, but those not using the common grazing refuse to do so, meaning that the active crofters either have to pay £400 each, or the fencing cannot progress.
The village gets their fence, and the 10 active crofters each put 50 sheep onto the Common Grazing land. The village charges a levy of £1 per beast, meaning that the active crofters pay £50 each into the township bank account, which is then immediately redistributed amongst the 20 shareholders. The active ones get £25 back, while the inactive ones also receive £25.
In the end, the active crofters say stuff this.
The way I see it, this approach does nothing to encourage active crofting, it actually encourages those who are inactive to hold onto their crofts, particularly if they are in a well-run, well-off village. It can lead to the breakdown of communal activities, of communities, of traditional working practices. It’s infuriating. These things might make sense from behind a desk, but absolutely do not when put into a practical context.
I have previously been Grazings Clerk of our village and the last time we met to elect a new committee, I was the only person who attended the (advertised) meeting. I certainly wouldn’t encourage our village to elect a new committee just now; we don’t have a lot of money in the bank, and I really wouldn’t like to go knocking on elderly neighbours’ doors, asking for them to pay their share of any & all bills that come our way.
I’m going for a lie down now…