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So, Comrie Development Trust Ltd is set
to take possession of Cultybraggan
Army Camp in a couple of days
Ordinary Member, Comrie Development Trust,
Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Perthshire
Filed 05 Sept 07
It would appear that the residents of Comrie,
through the formation of Comrie Development Trust Ltd (CDT), has
met all the criteria required by the Scottish Executive (now to
be referred to as Scottish Government) to achieve the Community
Right to Buy the whole of the ground, and attached assets, at Cultybraggan
Army Camp that the Ministry of Defence decommissioned some 3 years
It is interesting to reflect how this has came
about, considering that Comrie is one of the richest large villages
in rural Scotland, and only some 12% of its residents actually participated
in the vote as to whether or not to buy this Defence Estate property.
Even stranger, after employing one of the biggest property firms
in the UK, together with an Edinburgh based firm of architects,
for several months to advise them, supported by substantial funding
from the Big Lottery, Comrie's residents still appear to have have
no clear idea what to do with it. Apart that is to get a hold of
it by whatever means in terms of its potential in the realm of land
speculation. Indeed, the only credible business plan that has been
presented to date is the one that the Consultants produced on the
night of the vote: namely, as a "worse case" scenario
they could service their debts from selling off up to 8 serviced
plots of land, producing an income of some £100,000 each.
There was no "better case" scenario presented that carried
But are the serviced plots of land, kitted out
with septic tanks in an area that already has public water and electricity
supply, telephone and broadband facilities, really worth so very,
very much more than which the District Valuer, appointed by the
then Scottish Executive, put on the whole site in the same knowledge
of likely planning restrictions just a few months previously?
What has been a feature of the campaign run by
a core group, with the Secretary of CDT as it lead man, has been
meetings that complied with requirements in that they occurred but
in which essential information was hard to get. The meetings would
appear to have been designed to discourage debate. Propaganda, rather
than fact, has been the key characteristic. There was never an opportunity
for a debate for and against the Community buying the Camp. At no
time was there an opportunity given as to why a commercial firm
might make a better job of it as far as the residents of Comrie
But surprise, surprise, another Scottish Executive
quango had conveniently seen to that, or was it just by coincidence?
Historic Scotland had placed an embargo on the sale of the property
by the Defence Estates three years ago while they pondered, and
pondered, for coming on for 2 years as to whether they should place
a Statutory Order on the whole Camp, on a bit of it, or none of
it. They ended up at the last moment, after what appeared to be
a most cursory of reports, to schedule a row of World War 2 Nissan
huts - out of a choice of some 70 or more - right down the middle
of the site. That, of course, was enough, to scare away most serious
commercial developers and to devalue the site most substantially.
So much so that the taxpayer, who funds the Defence Estates, stood
to lose in a big way. But the attitude within the CDT appeared to
be "Oh well, it's just another government department. It won't
make any difference to them".
But as soon as Historic Scotland had announced
its decision, CDT (or its equivalent at the time) banged in a registration
of interest in terms of Community Right to Buy legislation, Land
Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.
Then, what might be described as manipulative
propaganda began. On a bright sunny Sunday the residents of Comrie,
and anyone else, were invited to an open day to see round the Camp.
They were asked to say whether they would like a say in what might
happen to it,.while being assured that to do so would have no liabilities
for them whatsoever. Not surprisingly many said yes. Who wouldn't
when offered such a freebie! No one ,mentioned that of course the
residents of Comrie would have some influence through regional planning
as to what happened to it, no matter who owned it.
Subsequent open meetings were designed to raise
expectations, most of which were thoroughly unrealistic. But, to
be fair, it was heavily emphasised that any of the ideas put forward
in this free ranging venture, must meet the core criteria of a Community
Buy Out. There must be a business plan that is sustainable both
economically and environmentally, and be of benefit to the Community.
Subsequent presentations to open meetings of the
CDT by members of the CDT Board and by the Consultants that they
had employed were characterised more by what they did not say, than
what they did say. In my view, in an effort to raise community enthusiasm
and a spirit of community togetherness for the venture, there was
serious misrepresentation of the realities of the situation.
The perpetual denigration of the power of Perth
& Kinross Planners to control what happens on any site, no matter
who owns it, was extraordinary. What were they saying? That the
Planning Department is corrupt? Or that those who control the planning
department at a higher level was corrupt? The CDT Board did not
use the word corrupt, but clearly indicated that they thought the
planning department was ineffective in the face of substantial commercial
interest. Really? The other main selling point that was employed
was that the profits would go out of the Community, but there was
no mention of the possible advantages of investment coming into
the area. Nor was there any rational to indication that the CDT
would be able to make a profit for itself from buying the site.
Continually and studiously masked from the residents
of Comrie were the serious access problems for the site, and the
fact that the site no longer had sewerage that met required standards.
And that there was no access to the public sewerage system. Indeed,
it was only through a perceptive question from the floor on the
evening of the key vote on 20th August 07 that it was revealed that
the Planners would only allow road access for the equivalent of
10 houses. If any other activity involving significant access was
put forward, the number of houses they would permit would be reduced
by a commensurate amount. How come that the members of CDT were
only told that just before they were due to vote, when presumably
that knowledge had been available for several months? This lack
of openness has been a serious criticism of how the CDT Board have
handled the whole venture.
A further worry has been the persistent reassurance
by the CDT Board that everything was just fine, because every step
was being monitored by a member of the Highlands & Islands Enterprise
Community Land Unit. To me it is just not credible that he was not
aware of the withholding of key facts from the Comrie residents.
Or was the push from his masters so strong, to get Community Right
to Buy ventures through all the hoops, that he turned a blind eye?
Or was it that the CDT Board were very good at not letting him know?
Then there was concern, clearly expressed at the
AGM of CDT Ltd on 20th August - as mentioned above, only two weeks
before the key vote - that CDT Ltd did not appear to be complying
with its own Memorandum and Articles of Association. The member
who so bravely raised the matter at the AGM, much to the impatience
of the gathering, was so dissatisfied with the answers he received
that he resigned from the organisation. A member of the Interim
Board, who was not standing for election to the full Board, circulated
her concerns in an open letter to those who were standing for election.
In the event some 12 % of the residents of Comrie
voted almost unanimously for CDT Ltd to buy the Camp. It was clear
that a substantial number abstained. Those residents who voted in
favour were apparently quite happy to ignore what they had previously
said they wanted to happen and did not want to happen at the Camp.
All this rich community apparently wanted was the money that they
were promised would be theirs, even if they just mothballed it until
land values escalated. They were as greedy as the land speculators
and developers that they had previously so despised. That it was
at the expense of the Public Purse was of no consequence. It would
appear that they just wanted the money for their community.
But don't think for a moment that the CDT Board
are just a bunch of volunteers with minimal knowledge of such matters
as Community Right to Buy. The key man, the Secretary who gives
generously of his time on a voluntary basis, runs a business that
is primarily involved in such enterprises the length of the land.
Moreover, another member of the Interim Board and on the working
party for the project, is a senior member of a national firm whose
business is consulting on such matters as Community Right to Buy.
He also gives generously of his time on a voluntary basis. The CDT
Board have had access to what approaches £200,000 to get advice,
not only from DTZ/HTA, but from solicitors, Burness and auditors,
Finlayson - both these firms being well recognised nationally.
When I asked the Secretary of CDT Ltd if I could
have a copy of the rudimentary cashflow prediction that was only
presented at the AGM just before the vote, I was denied. I was told
that it will be available later. A number of members of CDT have
expressed concern that the running costs for simply maintaining
the site in a proper fashion were grossly underestimated by DTZ.
Essentially, there was no business plan and there
were no written cashflow predictions when the vote was taken to
buy. Even at the last minute members of CDT were still trying to
extract from the Board and its Consultants key information that
was obviously being withheld - like getting blood out of a stone.
How come that funding from the Big Lottery, given
against a specific programme in the application, can apparently
be conveniently switched on the nod to providing funds to run the
show after purchase when no business plan or cashflow prediction
has been forthcoming - at least as far as the members of CDT are
aware of? But the man from Highlands & Islands Enterprise Community
Land Unit, who allegedly advises the Big Lottery Land Fund, seemed
to reckon that "it would be sympathetically considered".
So, whatever happened to that mantra that was
declared with such emphasis and clarity at the start of this Community
Right to Buy venture? Namely, there must be a plan to show that
the project was sustainable both economically and environmentally
and was of benefit to the community?
Strangely, the representative of the Scottish
Executive at the AGM on 20th August thought it was all OK. And so,
of course, did the man from Highland & Islands Enterprise Community
Offering the Camp site, at valuation, back to
the farm from which it had been originally compulsorily purchased
was not considered an option that the residents of Comrie wanted
to pursue. Not even the peripheral grazing land that the Consultants
could find no convincing use for, although they tried to pretend
that the very rough and often water logged terrain could accommodate
all sorts of things at minimal outlay. Unless, of course, that land
could be sold to the farm at a substantial profit to the residents
of Comrie, in the attempt to pay off the enormous debts that they
had taken on through the Tudor Trust.
CDT members were initially told that the loan
of £350,000 from the Tudor Trust, that was needed to buy the
Camp, was interest free. But, on direct questioning, it turned out
to incur an interest rate at 3% above base on £200,000 after
18 months, and then the same again on another £150,000 after
three years. If they don't pay at least some of it back, that means,
at present bank base rate, a bill of £17,500 per year after
18 months rising to £30,000 a year after 3 years. Strangely,
some folk think that the Tudor Trust is founded on the concept of
a charity to help people in need. Their mission statement reads:
"Tudor aims to support work which addresses
the social, emotional and financial needs of people at the margins
of our society"
Are the good folk of Comrie, with house owner/occupier
rate among the highest in the land and house prices staggeringly
high, on the margins of society?
It is alleged that this is the reason why the
Big Lottery Land Fund was either not asked, or they refused, to
provide funds to buy the property. As far as I am aware, the members
of CDT were never told just what the situation really was. Or was
it that the CDT were really looking primarily for profits through
land speculation, which would hardly meet the criteria required
of a charity organisation such as the Big Lottery.
Cultybraggan Farm is only a little bigger than
the average farm in Scotland. It surrounds Comrie to the south and
to the west, and it contributes greatly to the care of the local
environment. It also contributes significantly to the local economy.
But who in rural Scotland cares what farmers do any more, when easy
money on land speculation can be made with Government and Charity
support: support which seems to be strangely misdirected?
It is claimed that the Comrie venture will lead
the way for rural Scotland.
Perhaps it is time that the legislation
relating to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, along with its
subsequent amendments, was seriously reviewed. And perhaps the Scottish
Government could give Historic Scotland a little more thought while
they are at it.