Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE
Professor Mark Shucksmith is the Director of NISR. In 2009 he was awarded an OBE for services to rural development and to crofting in the New Year Honours. Last month, at the Centre for Rural Economy’s 21st birthday celebration at Alnwick Castle, he reflected on the Crofting Inquiry which he chaired.
One day in November 2006 I received a phone call asking if I would like to chair the Scottish Government’s Inquiry into the Future of Crofting. It would be like the 1886 Napier Commission and the 1955 Taylor Commission, but wouldn’t be called a Commission to avoid confusion with the Crofters Commission. (You’ll gather that crofting is characterised by complexity!) The Labour/Lib Dem Coalition Government wished to reform crofting, but their ideas had been defeated in the Scottish Parliament and heavily criticised. A new vision was urgently needed, and many thought the crofting system was being fatally damaged. How could I refuse?
Crofting is sometimes defined as a “smallholding entirely surrounded by regulations”. Typically it is a very small holding with associated common grazings in the north of Scotland, from which crofters go out to work. They are teachers, postmen, joiners, council officers etc, but they also work the land. Crofters have enjoyed security of tenure, fair rents and rights of succession since 1886 and holdings cannot be sold officially outside the family unless this is judged to be in the community interest. But in practice a market had developed anyway, and increasingly crofts were left idle and the houses unoccupied. Crofts were changing hands for large sums, but young people were unable to find crofts to work. What should be done? Could crofting have a future?
My Committee’s report was informed by dozens of public meetings and visits; by written evidence; by a representative survey of the views of 1,000 households; and by ideas developed here at Newcastle University. These included my own work on crofting, on housing, on rural development and on the CAP; the work of Philip Lowe, Jonathan Murdoch, Neil Ward, Chris Ray and others on ‘networked rural development’ summarised for the committee by Jane Atterton; and the work of Patsy Healey and colleagues on ‘place-shaping’, ‘collaborative planning’ and ‘institutional capacity’.
The Committee proposed local mobilisation and community empowerment in respect of both regulation and development, supported by enabling state action and by refocused policy instruments which would operate to encourage collective local strategies and initiative. This was a big change from the Taylor Commission’s report which viewed local people as incapable of leadership or initiative. Our recommendations were largely accepted by the (now SNP) Scottish Government. The Minister told the Scottish Parliament that “crofting is in a perilous state and we have an obligation to ensure that it carries on into future generations. Mark Shucksmith and his colleagues have done us a great service in helping us to ensure that it does.”
Inevitably the report was controversial, and it generated a lot of debate in the press and in Parliament. A “Ban Shucksmith” website was launched. But the report enjoyed a lot of support. It led directly to the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010; to the setting up of an elected Crofting Commission in 2012 to replace the appointed Crofters Commission; to responsibility for crofting development being passed to HIE’s Strengthening Communities division; and to the implementation of a new definitive map-based crofting register; among other things. Crofters are now beginning to engage with processes which involve local people in determining their futures and sustaining crofting into the 21st Century. Jim Hunter, a former Chair of HIE and founding Director of the Crofters Union, said recently that “the overall outcome has been to give crofting a more assured future.” I hope he is correct!
And the report has now been translated into Japanese…