‘all this shows what can be done if we own our own assets’

March 28, 2013

The Outer Hebrides are three hours by ferry from the Scottish west coast.

They undeservedly have a reputation for being bleak and unforgiving; but when I was there in January with the British Council, the weather was cold, but beautifully sunny and still. The many sea lochs dotting the rust-coloured landscape were as still as mirrors.

As well as the stunning natural beauty of the islands, what was most impressive was the quiet revolution in social enterprise and community-owned assets happening in what is the most north-westerly point of the European Union.

From being a crofting community of tenant farmers renting from landlords – many of whom are based in southern England – the Islanders have, supported by the Scottish Government, managed to buy back vast swathes of land.

Now 70 per cent of the islands are in the ownership of people who live there; meaning they can decide how to use it.

They are harnessing the forces of nature to establish community-owned wind turbines, the profits from which are reinvested straight back into the community’s coffers, to be spent on whatever they decide they need. I visited one village who stand to make £2 million over the next twenty years.

Tourism is being revitalised by new community-run visitor centres and cafes, offering visitors the chance to contribute directly to the local economy and the creation of sustainable jobs.

The Gaelic language is being taught to international visitors via immersion in one of its last strongholds; 60 per cent of the Outer Hebridean population still speak the language.

Much of this is being driven by the hugely committed Alasdair Nicholson and Anne Sobey of Third Sector Hebrides. They have a passion to preserve the fragile language and culture of this incredible place by creating jobs to keep young people on the island, and reverse a century of steep depopulation – from 44,172 in 1901 to around 26,000 today.

They also want to support older people; up to 80 per cent of the Islands’ pensioners live in fuel poverty.

They have created Staran (Pathway), the UK’s first social enterprise MOT; the Hebridean Chocolate factory; and Am Pàipear, a community-run newspaper.

Their success is slowly transforming the islands. Despite only being there for two days, I was hugely impressed by their ambition and energy. Their example has much to teach other communities across the UK.

Understanding this, they are eager to share what they have learnt. Hence their involvement in the British Council’s Active Citizens programme, which aims to encourage civic engagement and social change across the world.

Alasdair is keen to emphasise that their achievements can be replicated anywhere.

“Perhaps being on a small island, there is more reason to say that if we are going to resolve some of the challenging issues, we have to do it ourselves. Nobody else is going to do it for us.

“What has been important is the realisation that instead of waiting for other people to come up with solutions, people are finding their own solutions. And that message is applicable anywhere, to any community, in any country. You just need self-belief.

“Governments are realising that they can’t do everything themselves – we are starting to see a society that does more for itself. We are starting to see much more collaborative types of working.”

To read my pieces on the work of Third Sector Hebrides for the British Council, click here, here, and here.