'I want to learn' was the basic message from Crofting Commission Chief Executive Bill Barron to crofters meeting for the Scottish Crofting Federation annual gathering in Applecross on Saturday March 11th.
Mr Barron was only recently confirmed as permanent chief executive after three months in the post as an 'acting CEO' and took the opportunity to introduce himself in detail to crofters and invite questions on many subjects - excluding the current commission elections.
Mr Barron said he "was delighted to have this job." He explained he had 35 years experience as a civil servant working for the UK Government and the Scottish Government, starting out as a statistician for 15 years and then moving on to become a policy adviser, working on education, poverty, health, policing, criminal courts and latterly housing in Scotland. "I had absolutely no knowledge of Crofting at all" until taking up the post in October last year. He and his family live in a small community outside of Edinburgh and he has some experience of working in community organisations there.
He spoke warmly of the staff at the Crofting Commission headquarters in Inverness. "I really, really like the people in Great Glen House. They are a fantastic bunch of people to work with, all so positive." Until taking the job, he had only visited the Highlands and Islands as a hillwalker, tourist or holidaymaker and he said "it was a great privilege to be allowed to come behind the landscape to meet the people in the communities."
Another reason for taking the job was that it was difficult. That was why the legislation governing crofting was complex and difficult to manage. It was like that because what they were trying to do was inherently difficult. "How do you, for example, promote enterprise and community at the same time?"
The Commission has a major regulatory role; and a lesser role of advising the Government on "anything to do with crofting." On the other hand, it no longer has a development role, it has nothing to do with environment, or to do with subsidy or the rates people pay, or Brexit - and "we are not allowed to lobby." The Commission has no role in planning except as a statutory consultee. In its role as regulator, it is still further constrained by what the Act which created it actually says. "There is not as much power and clout for the Commission as you might think."
Everyone expects the Commission to take some sort of role as a "leader of crofting." He asked those present what they expected from the Commission.
Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, had said in his address to the Gathering the previous day that there was a four-year timescale to get together another Crofting Act. This could be used to "simplify, improve, modernise, reform" crofting law. Mr Barron said this was only a short time and it was important to make the best of this chance. For instance, everyone agreed that the law governing Grazings Committees is completely inadequate as it does not say how they are supposed to function.
The new Act was one of six areas which he hoped to make progress on. Another was to look at the implied contract between the State and the Crofter. What does it say about community? What about the transfer of crofts?
There was the question of localism - the marked difference between areas like Orkney and the Western Isles, Should there be different rules for different areas?
The issue of transferring into and out of Crofting tenure - it seems this does not work very well. This seems to be shown by reports of numbers of crofts not being worked properly - and of numbers of people who want to take over crofts but it has not been possible to match the two up. "Can we improve the incentives for people to get their crofts into the hands of people who will work them?"
The registration and mapping of crofts was another area of focus for Mr Bannon as was the speed of administration at the Commission. He apologised to all those who had come to him and said: "the Crofting Commission are quite slow."
This was followed by questions and one of the main points of discussion involved planning where decisions were often made on croft land because the local authorities involved had not been informed that the land was under crofting tenure so the Commission was unable to comment. There was also pressure for the Commission to resume the single development role for the Crofting counties which it has lost in the last reforms.