Law could prevent croft sale in Lewis

Scotland's first hostile purchase of a crofting estate could be rejected if ministers decide that new legislation is being used to circumvent the planning process.

Residents of the 10,118ha Pairc Estate on Lewis have voted to force their absentee landlord to sell to them under the terms of the Land Reform Act. They have six months to prepare a case for environment and rural development minister Ross Finnie, who must be sure a sale would benefit the community.

But the act states that buyouts can be refused if they are being used to thwart the planning system. Scottish and Southern Energy is expected to submit a controversial application for 125 wind turbines next year after signing a lease with Warwickshire-based estate owner Barry Lomas.

A number of crofters have formed the Pairc Protection Group to oppose the scheme, prompting Conservative enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser to suggest that Finnie may be compelled to block the sale.

"If it is the case that the principal motivation for people seeking to buy the estate is to prevent the plan for the wind farm going ahead, it has to call into question the whole purpose behind land reform legislation," said Fraser.

"In such circumstances it would be entirely appropriate for the minister to refuse to approve the sale," he added. But protection group chairman Martyn Imrie said it would be impossible to prove residents' motivations for seeking a buyout.

The Scottish Rural Property and Business Association has condemned the principle of forcing landowners to sell estates against their wishes and is considering a legal challenge.

"It was predictable that sooner or later some community would take advantage of this pernicious legislation and no doubt the proposals for the wind farm have hastened things along," said an association spokesman.

But Scottish Crofting Foundation director Neil MacLeod said: "This is a fine example of local democracy in action. In an area that has seen deprivation, hopefully this will be a catalyst for revitalisation and allow young people to feel that they have a future in the area."

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