A SKYE community organisation will request a formal review into its rejected bid to purchase land at one of the island’s most popular landmarks, the Old Man of Storr.
Staffin Community Trust (SCT) - which believes Highland Council’s decision to turn down its offer to buy roadside ground at the Storr was flawed and against the spirit of new Scottish Government legislation - will also take up an offer from a senior official to negotiate.
Earlier this month, the council refused SCT’s Asset Transfer Request (ATR), which was the first in the Highlands under the new Community Empowerment Act.
SCT had planned to build an urgently needed new off-road car park, public toilets and interpretation at the site in a major development which had attracted significant local and national support and met the criteria of an ATR, as set out by the government.
But it did not find favour with the officer-led Asset Management Project Board (AMPB). That did not surprise SCT as the council had showed no real appetite to negotiate over the past six months. SCT was also hugely disappointed that Skye’s four Highland councilors backed the decision.
The council had allocated £400,000 for the site in November 2016 and SCT requested that money be allocated to the project so it could work to secure the additional match funding required to deliver the £900,000 development.
The council claimed that the transfer of £400,000 “would not be prudent”, “failed to protect the public interest” and stated the plan to separate the car park area from the rest of the land it owned at the Storr, including a native woodland, would “separate the revenue generating potential of the site from the burden of management and maintenance.”
SCT completely refutes that claim and has been heartened by the messages of support from the local and wider Skye community, and further afield.
SCT would be providing a public and community service to the north east of Skye and the rest of the island by improving road safety and toilets at this site, which is frequently described locally as an “accident waiting to happen”.
It would also be delivering a community-led solution in an innovative partnership with a local authority which has regularly proclaimed it seeks to “empower rural communities.”
The SCT board has highlighted several key issues:
- At the crux of the project’s rejection is the council’s clear reluctance to spend the £400,000 allocated for the Storr.
- There were little or no negotiations with the council over the last six months since the ATR was lodged by SCT in March 2017, only one face-to-face meeting took place.
- The AMPB did not respond to an invitation to visit the Storr or meet the SCT board
- The council appears to view the site as a potential major cash generator. However, SCT’s Social Enterprise Business Plan, which was independently and professionally produced and can be read on the council’s own website, illustrated that the projected car park income was relatively modest and certainly insufficient revenue to do more than pay for staffing, and the necessary maintenance and upkeep of infrastructure at the threshold area alone.
- For example, the projected net profit for 2019, if the project went ahead, was £5,565.
- In its ATR Evaluation, the AMPB criticised the “Level of Community Support" SCT had for its project and described it as “weak”, despite almost 86% of respondents supporting SCT’s direct involvement at the site in a major community consultation in winter 2015. That description was in direct contrast to a council report stating that SCT’s consultation was “robust.”
- The council appears determined to push SCT into taking on additional liabilities including the replanted woodland, which makes up the rest of the land it owns at the site. SCT had an independent assessment carried out by the Community Woodlands Association and found significant management issues, including the alarming fact that of 30,000 trees planted in 2012, more than 20,000 had subsequently failed (died) and the council’s contractual (and annually grant-aided) requirement to maintain adequate tree stocking densities with new transplants had only been recently addressed, in spring 2017. The council received a grant of more than £39,000 grant (2012-15) for the costs of successfully establishing a new woodland at the Storr but there would be NO funds available to SCT if it took on the woodland and path liabilities, which are estimated at anywhere between £25,000 and £50,000 over the next five years alone. SCT has received strong and consistent professional advice from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Community Ownership Support Service, plus its consultant team, not to take on the liabilities of a struggling woodland and high footfall path network.
This is a project which has involved a huge amount of time, research, consultation and public money (Scottish Land Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the council) in coming up with a community-backed solution.
SCT is keen to establish exactly what the local authority will do, and how they will invest in the Storr, if this project is again rejected.
SCT chairman Sandy Ogilvie said: ““This was a short-sighted decision by Highland Council which seems to have ignored community empowerment legislation.
"SCT had worked closely with its officials for the last three years to produce a fully costed development, which would make a huge difference for Staffin and the Skye community, and the thousands of visitors to the site. There was strong support locally and nationally for this community solution to a landmark which is recognised across the world.”
The AMPB chairman Stuart Black, who is also the council’s director of development and infrastructure, also wrote to SCT when rejecting the ATR, offering to meet for discussions. SCT will accept Mr Black’s invitation. It will also separately submit a request that the authority review the ATR decision. If that fails, the SCT could appeal to the Government.