Thursday, 8 March 2012

Turning the Tide

The following press release was issued today (8th March 2012) to demonstrate progress in regenerating the community and to continue the campaign to save Seilebost School ahead of a judicial review of the Scottish Govt decision to prevent its planned closure by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.


 West Harris Trust the community owner of the West Harris Estates purchased from the Scottish Government in January 2010 is pleased to report that the decline in population has been halted. As at today’s date two years from the buyout 16 houses are either being built, at the planning stage or converted from holiday homes to permanent residence.  These 16 houses based on current commitments will bring 30 people to the West Side by 2013. In addition the Trust is working with partners to deliver 6 houses for rent, with further developments in the pipeline.

Quote from Murdo Mackay Chair of West Harris Trust

There has been a marked change in West Harris since the community purchased the estate in 2010; while we can not take credit for all these positive developments I believe that the process of community ownership has crated a new air of optimism.

David Cameron Chair of Community Land Scotland said:

 "It is simply great to see positive news on population and housing coming out of West Harris. Similarly, the projected figures for the increased school role more than justifies the decision to keep Seilebost School open.

The beginning of the turnaround in the fortunes of West Harris, after decades of decline, is down to the community taking control of their own future through the purchase of their land. When local people take control, their priorities are all about the community and its long term future, and housing for families to become resident is fundamental to that future. This shows the power of community ownership in economic regeneration, stimulating population growth and providing the basis for a sustainable future."

By the end of 2015 (the five years requested by West Harris Trust in making their submission to the Comhairle on the consultation on the closure of Shelibost School), we confidently predict that as promised the population of West Harris will have increased significantly. Most importantly the couples already committed have 9 children; by 2015 we hope this number will be significantly increased ensuring a viable future for Seilebost School.

Angus MacNeil MP said;

“I am pleased to support the community owned West Harris Estates and the community of West Harris in their attempts to keep Shelibost School open.

“This is an important time for the community with 16 houses being built or at the planning stage, I feel that every chance should be given for the community to grow and thrive again.

“The primary school at Shelibost is seen as an important part of the community jigsaw; the school is in a very attractive setting, if not the most attractive settings for any primary school in Scotland and would surely be a draw for families returning or indeed families moving for the first time to have their children educated there.  Certainly as a former teacher it would be a great school to work in.

 “I do hope the community and the SNP Government are successful in keeping Shelibost School open, despite the legal action from the local authority.”

The Trust firmly believes that alongside housing, economic development is essential, in the two years from the buyout ten expressions of interest have been received for business proposals on the West Side. Based on these initial proposals a total of twenty four jobs could be created.

Comment from Robert Macleod Chair Shelibost Parent Council

Shelibost school was (uniquely) singled out in recent reports by HMIe regarding the closure of many schools across the Western Isles. The report recognised the work and plans of West Harris Trust with the school and took cognisance of the fragility and interdependence of the school and the socio economic regeneration. As the whole of Harris looks to find a strategic road map to economic sustainability coupled to a broad educational experience it is apparent that the impact in these more remote areas is much more dramatic than at main centres of populous. The parent councils of Shelibost and Leverburgh schools continue to work together to stem the perpetual decline of the value placed on the schools via reduction in services such as specialist PE, which has ceased in recent months.

Parent Rhoda MacLeod adds “ All we want is support for the on-going work of the School and the West Harris Trust and would urge those sitting on the Judicial review to carefully consider the impact the closure of Shelibost school will have on a  vibrant and forward thinking community

It is ironic that on the 13th March 2012 the local council Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are taking the Scottish Government to court for not allowing the closure of Shelibost school which is at the heart of the Trust plans to strengthen the community. The Education Minister correctly concluded that the Comhairle had not considered the viable alternative to closure; the Comhairle dismissed these plans in 2010 as aspirational. We can now show that the plans are coming to fruition. Quoting from that submission:

In conclusion we urge the Comhairle to give West Harris five additional years to grow our community; if we succeed the Tarbert school will not have sufficient capacity to cope with demand from the catchment area.

More importantly West Harris will be a beacon to other communities in Scotland that it is possible to reverse population trends and create sustainable communities of which you as the local authority charged with creating sustainable communities should be proud.

“Where there is no vision the people perish”

Quote from Neil Campbell Secretary West Harris Trust

Recent predictions by the Registrar General of a 30% drop in the ‘school age’ population by 2035 demonstrates the chronic need for significant and immediate action to reverse the decline. West Harris Trust is striving to be pro-active in its bid to reverse population decline and already seeing success through grass roots development and confidence building. West Harris as a Trust and community has been fighting to retain its local school despite the attempts to close it by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

West Harris Trust Directors are calling on the Comhairle, even at this late hour, to suspend the appeal against the decision by the Scottish Government to keep Shelibost open. West Harris Trust presented a robust case in July 2010 asking for a five year moratorium against closure, and argued that if the Trust was successful in attracting new families there would be insufficient capacity at Tarbert. The Trust plans were dismissed as aspirational by the Comhairle. As at today’s date two years from the buyout 16 houses are either being built, at the planning stage or converted from holiday homes to permanent residence. With additional housing, new businesses and sustainable energy projects developing in West Harris Shelibost School must be retained as part of the broader community need as well as maintaining its excellent reputation as a superb educational establishment surrounded by a stunning ecological environment

Background Information

The West Harris Estates were established in the 1930’s and 40’s when 52 families were re-settled on the West Side by the then Board of Agriculture as agents of the national Government. This time is remembered in the writings of Finlay J Macdonald Crowdie & Cream etc who grow up in Scaristavore.

By the year 2000 when Harris received fame as the home of the ‘Castaways’ in the BBC documentary the population was rapidly declining (the population of Harris fell by 50% from 1951 to 2001) West Harris became a much sought after holiday destination over the decade to 2010, 16 houses were either built or converted to holiday homes/self catering cottages, by contrast over this same 10 years only four houses were built for permanent residence.

Realising that the current and projected position was unsustainable a steering group was formed in 2008 to investigate the option of community purchase of the estates with the aim of strengthening the community by encouraging inward migration. Following an extensive period of consultation and negotiation the community took ownership of the estate in January 2010.

Two years on the Trust has revised its business plan and agreed nine development areas, including a hydro scheme, business units, houses for rent, community space, tourism infrastructure, allotments and forestry. In addition the Trust in partnership with the townships has released six sites for private housing.

 Contact Details

 Neil Campbell Secretary/Director 07774940170

Murdo Mackay Chair/Director 07901567509

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Creating Space for New Business

The Trust is moving forward with plans to create business space in the area as part of its strategy for regeneration. An advertisement in the local press and survey work by our Community Engagement Officer has brought forward several enquiries. The Trust is in discussions with funding agencies with a view to funding support for building business units/office space for rent and it is planning to start design work later in the year.

Are you interested in running a business in one of the best scenic locations in the world? If so, please contact our Commercial Development Manager Duncan MacPherson on 01859 520785.

MSP attends board meeting

Alasdair Allan MSP with board members and staff
Alasdair Allan MSP attended the board meeting on Monday 13th February at which he heard of progress that the Trust has made since its purchase of West Harris. The Trust asked Alasdair to make representations to Scottish Ministers for increased funding for the provision of housing and heard the latest update on changes to RET ferry fares. Alasdair confirmed that the Scottish Govt would be defending its decision to keep Seilebost school open at the forthcoming judicial review instigated by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.