Community Empowerment, Landscape and the Devolution Divide

Ewan Allinson reflects on asymmetries of power and tensions between conservation and community interests, following BEFS Community Empowerment and Landscape event.

Spring thunder over Watgarth, Forest-in-Teesdale, Co. Durham. April 2018 © Ewan Allinson

The Community Land Scotland roadshow has been touring the UK, making vivid thereby the empowerment differential that Scottish devolution has brought into being.  The report Community Empowerment and Landscape ­– published jointly by Community Land Scotland and Inherit – is the basis of the roadshow and essential reading for all who seek to address asymmetries of power in the British countryside. When the roadshow rocked up in Manchester, Alastair McIntosh tweeted from the Isle of Lewis “it would be great if you could share during the day what English folks make of our land reform, and whether they see any strategy unfolding to advance their own. (I often find they admire ours, but despair at the prospects for theirs.)”

Not long before, when the roadshow passed through Edinburgh, I had been the spellbound Sassenach in the room, accepting how deep is the chasm that separates the prospects of the crofter from that of England’s tenant hill farmers.

I was there on behalf of the HLF/Arts Council funded Northern Heartlands Great Place Scheme in west Co. Durham which includes as feudal a corner of England as you’ll find. To the north of the river in Teesdale, most farms belong to Lord Barnard’s Raby Estates,  all distinguished by their white lime-washed houses and barns. To the south of the river, where much of the land had, until recently, belonged to the Earl of Strathmore, the properties have handsome buff sandstone exteriors. As feudalisms go, the estates have been relatively benign, enabling young families without capital to make a go of hill farming. Communities here are resilient but confidence is wavering.

Dr Sally Reynolds, one of the panellists at the Edinburgh event, spoke about the boost to local confidence occasioned by the Carloway Estate Trust land buy-out on the Isle of Lewis. Dr Reynolds, who is the trust’s development officer and who grew up on the island, described how the buy-out reversed a path of rapid community decline. This is a story needing heard by all who presume to rule on the ‘viability’ of remote communities.

Dr. Chris Dalglish, the author of Community Empowerment and Landscape, identified some of the faultlines that stand in the way of local empowerment more generally. Not least among these is the the tension between conservation interests and community interests. This tension is as endemic as it is unnecessary and is the subject of my own work with Teesdale farmers, applying philosophy to bring their unheeded expertise and knowledge to the fore.  Dr. Dalglish remarked that while this Participation Deficit is being dealt with in pilot cases here and there, such efforts need now to be normalised.  Given that real injustices flow from this deficit, it was great to hear from Dr Kirsteen Shields, a lecturer in international law and food security at Edinburgh University. Dr Shields spoke on the scope for the law to address these asymmetries of power. At the moment, locals do have a right – which is enshrined in policy – to participate in decision-making, but this is poorly implemented in practice.  The implementation of rights is not fixed so by teasing out the tensions between environmental, social and cultural rights, the law can help embed the right to participation. She counselled that it will require the efforts of ‘non-experts’ to push this forward.

At the close of the event, I pitched in to suggest that one human right that crofters and hill farmers might appreciate is not to have their spiritual and sometimes theological covenant with the land cheapened by the ‘services’ terminology of neo-liberal landscape policy. I was very heartened by the panel’s responses.