Land company ‘doesn’t feel like a community group’

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aN EXTRAORDINARY meeting of Bute Community Land Company will be held in Rothesay later this month amid ongoing concerns at the activities of the organisation.

Twenty-seven BCLC members, including three former directors, have requested a meeting “to discuss and agree together the direction and scope of the activities of the company”.

In a letter to BCLC’s directors, the 27 signatories also ask for a written report of the company’s priorities, the business case for each of its projects - actual or proposed - and details of the sources of funding and the financial risk attached to each scheme.

Their letter also requests details of the status of BCLC’s subsidiary companies and “the precise nature of the relationship between the subsidiaries, BCLC and its membership” - and asks for information about who bears the financial risk in the event of any of these subsidiaries failing.

The request for the meeting - which will be held at Rothesay Joint Campus on Saturday, May 21 at 4pm - comes after concerns were raised at BCLC’s AGM in March at the priorities of the company, and at what some members saw as a failure in communication between the board of directors and the ordinary membership, following the completion last summer of the company’s community buyout of 161 hectares of land at the north end of Bute.

One of the signatories, Alison Clarke of Argyle Place in Rothesay, told us: “The directors seem to have lost the understanding that BCLC belongs to its members, not the board, and all members need to be involved in strategic decision-making.

“The vehicle set up to deliver the forest project was a company, and while a company can be a community group, this company does not feel like a community group to me.

“When people, myself included, have asked questions, we have been given very company-oriented answers. We have been feeling, if not rebuffed, then misunderstood.

“We all share responsibility, and I don’t feel that is being reflected in the decision-making process.

“I don’t have a problem with ambition - I just feel that the company has to get the first steps right, and then build from there.

“I’m not interested in making BCLC fail. I want it to work, but I’m worried that the way it is going at the moment will not succeed, and that something that started so positively will end up as yet another thing that didn’t work.”

Bute Community Land Company was set up in 2009, as a company limited by guarantee with charitable status, for the purpose of buying the 701-hectare Rhubodach forest when it was put up for sale by Lord and Lady Attenborough.

Following a community ballot in which 93 per cent of those voting backed the buy-out, the purchase was completed in July 2010 - albeit on a very different scale to that originally foreseen, after the commercial forest which made up most of the 701 hectares was sold to Mount Stuart.

BCLC now has two subsidiaries - Bute Forest, set up to concentrate on developing those 161 hectares for tourism and community use, and Brandish Bute, formed to publicise and sell the island’s food, arts and crafts at a shop in Rothesay and online.

The company has also published its vision for the island, ‘Ambitious for Bute’ and has commissioned feasibility studies into the purchase of the Royal Hotel, the development of the Guildford Square gap site, and the establishment of a small cheese-making facility to replace the closed Rothesay Creamery.

BCLC additionally employs three people - a shop manager, a marketing manager and a forest manager - and acts as the ‘anchor organisation’ for a local development officer, appointed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

But Rothesay resident Laura Edwards, who also signed the letter asking for a meeting, told us she felt the company should concentrate on making the forest a success before moving into other areas.

“So many of us thought the ideas for the forest were great ideas,” Mrs Edwards said.

“The peripheral ideas since then are very worthy, but I would rather see the forest get up and running and other things brought in at a later time.

“As far as the communication issue is concerned, I’ve been on enough committees to know that sometimes you do need to just get on and do stuff.

“But I think that approach can only cover fairly minor, day-to-day things. If you are trying to affect policy I think you need to take that back to your members, and I’m not convinced that has been the case so far.

“I think you need to be sure everyone is behind you before you branch out in new directions.”

BCLC chairman John McGhee told us a letter was to be sent to all BCLC members before the EGM, and that he would prefer not to comment further until that letter had been received.

The 27 members who have asked for a general meeting are Louise and James Johnson, Eileen Rae, Tony and Mary Spencer, Gordon Neil, Alison Clarke, Rosemary and Mike Laxton, Alison Clark, Raymond Boyle, Charles Soane, Laura Edwards, Dorothy and Peter McDonald, Paul Duffy, Nyree Finlay, Michele Miller, Craig Baxter, James McMillan, Sam Parkins, Joan and Andy Walters, Tom and Annie Shaw and Ann and Tim Saul.