Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Crofting again: Wiay

Following on from Taransay and Out Skerries, the latest Scottish island to come up for sale is Wiay in the Outer Hebrides. Estate agents Bell Ingram are inviting offers in the region of £500,000 for this particular lump of uninhabited rock, bog and water with planning permission to renovate the only house on the island, a ruined crofter's cottage.

According to an article in the Daily Mail - which leads with the fact that £500k for a 970 acre (400ha) island seems quite reasonable considering that, in London, the same amount would only get you a very average house with tiny garden - the seller is a Mrs Sarah Chettle who lives in Dorset. She and her late husband saw a small advert for Wiay in 1980 and bought it "on a bit of a romantic whim" for "about £20,000" without - "so far as she can recall" - even visiting the island first. £20k is about £70k in today's money so 600% capital growth to £500k is a pretty impressive return on investment for a dimly remembered whim!

Is Wiay worth £500k? Let's cast a critical eye over Bell Ingram's sale brochure (you can download a copy from here - sorry, I don't know how to link directly to a pdf).

As usual, the estate agents major on the fact it's a "private" island and feature its sheltered anchorage, spectacular scenery and extensive wildlife. But as I said in the context of Taransay, there's no such thing as a "private island" a la Mustique or Branson's Necker Island etc. in Scotland. Under Scottish law, anyone has the right to paddle their kayak into that sheltered anchorage, go ashore and enjoy the scenery and wildlife: you don't have to part with half a big one for the privilege.

Looking south from Wiay to the hills of South Uist - photo credit Dr Julian Paren
Stalking (deer hunting), woodcock shooting and trout fishing are also headlined and it's true that, if you want to kill its wildlife, as opposed to just observe it, then you have to own the island. But considering the brochure admits there's merely "often the chance of seeing" red deer and woodcock, then the field sports opportunities of Wiay are likely be what estate agents are wont to describe as "challenging" (namely, theoretically possible but not very rewarding).

Photo credit - Dr Julian Paren
The biggest selling point is that planning permission (p/p) exists to renovate the old croft house on Wiay (pictured above: according to the brochure, the house was occupied until 1942). Strictly speaking, p/p for the renovation (see the plans below) was granted in 2008, this has now lapsed and Bell Ingram have applied to renew it. Significantly, the lapsed 2008 p/p seems to have included a condition that the renovated house could only ever be used as a holiday house and never as a permanent residence (that emerges from the Daily Mail article, not from the sale brochure.)

For a house on an island like Wiay, I'd want a porch to hang up wet water-proofs and wellies in!
You can see the application to renew the p/p here. It's worth reading the second document listed there "Reasoned Justification" (again, sorry I don't know how to link directly to a pdf). Prepared by Bell Ingram, this seems to have been a planning brief lodged in connection with the 2008 planning application. It may be out of date in some respects - for example, it notes that its owners "regularly inhabit" Wiay whereas the Daily Mail article notes that Mrs Chettle and her children "rarely visit" the island which is why she's decided to sell it.

Landing on Wiay - photo credit Graham Hewitt
Having been tangentially involved in this myself in a previous life, I'm always amused how properties are differently spun according to who you're trying to impress - the media, planners or prospective purchasers. Thus, for example, the planning brief notes that the owners bought Wiay "for purposes of amenity and conservation" while the Daily Mail quotes Mrs Chettle describing the purchase as a "romantic whim". And the planning brief describes the island as a "sanctuary" for indigenous species while the sale brochure majors on the opportunities for field sports: a shooting tenant "assists with conservation", the planning brief notes, by helping control mink, woodcock and snipe - I never knew woodcock and snipe were a pest of the order of mink requiring to be controlled but perhaps that just shows my ignorance.

OS 1959 1 inch map, Sheet 23 "South Uist"
The practical limitations on use of a place like Wiay are such that ownership is largely a negative role: there's not much you can do yourself but you can prevent anyone else building a house on it (or a windfarm, or a super-quarry or a nuclear re-processing plant come to that). So, yes, to that extent, the island is "private". But are there any third party or public interests to threaten this exclusivity on Wiay?

The sale brochure tells us there was a farming tenant until 2003 but there is now vacant possession. That being so, it's curious the application to renew the planning permission for the cottage confirms that it has been intimated to no fewer than three agricultural tenants, one a gentleman living in neighbouring Benbecula, another a director of Bell Ingram and the third a lady living in London. If I were doing due diligence on behalf of a purchaser of Wiay, I'd want to know what was going on there. And, in particular, that none of these three (particularly the Benbecula chap, obviously) could be a crofter. That's because a crofting tenant would have a statutory right to buy his freehold at 15 times the fair agricultural rent fixed by the Land Court. Such a rent is likely to be substantially less than £35 per acre. (£35 x 970 acres x 15 = £500k). In fact the fair crofting rent of Wiay would be nearer 35 pence per acre than 35 pounds!

The abandoned house on Wiay as seen on Bing maps
Doubtless there's an innocuous explanation for this plurality of agricultural tenants but even if none of them are crofters, the possibility exists that Wiay is what's known in crofting parlance as a "vacant" croft: one currently without a tenant. This is likely (though by no means conclusive) from the fact the aerial photography (above) suggests an abandoned smallholding. The sale brochure refers to a history of farming with residents in the house on the island until 1942 ("1950s" according to the planning brief). It's no stretch of the imagination in the Western Isles that a resident family worked a croft on Wiay as late as the 1940s or 50s before giving up the struggle, abandoning their tenancy and leaving the island. Indeed, the clue's in the name of the "crofter's cottage" mentioned in the sale brochure and planning application. (There's another example of that dichotomy - the word "croft" is a gift to marketing, the media and sucking up to planning committees but absolute poison in legal, administrative and commercial terms.)

The fact that Wiay might be a croft  matters because the owner of a croft - even one abandoned by its last tenant as long ago as the 1940s - has statutory duties enforceable by the Crofting Commission (CC). These duties are to live within 32km (20 miles) of the croft, cultivate it or put it to an alternative "purposeful use" approved by the CC and not to neglect it. Living in the south of England and dropping in from time to time for a bit of life-style conservation doesn't count.

If the CC considers the statutory duties of a croft are not being complied with by the owner, it has the power to compel it to be re-let - in perpetuity and at a rent nowhere near an economic rate of return on £500k - to someone who will comply with them. That's not as far fetched as it sounds: families have recently taken on crofts on virgin sites with no houses on the island of Rum, for example (read the story of one of them here).

If nobody wanted to take on the croft of Wiay (which unlike Rum doesn't have a car ferry to the mainland!) and manage it in compliance with the statutory duties, the Crofting Commission might consider granting a "decrofting direction" to remove it from the crofting law regime altogether. But the CC - who are more hawkish about their remit nowadays than they were 30 years ago - are very sparing with decrofting directions: they don't like to see land lost to crofting without a very compelling reason. (It's possible Wiay has already been decrofted but, if so, I would have expected that to be mentioned in the sale brochure.)

Aerial image from Bing Maps
All things considered, then, if you genuinely want to move to the Outer Hebrides to take on an off-shore smallholding (and can convince the Crofting Commission of your credibility), then bid for Wiay what it's worth to you. But unless the vendors can prove the island has never been a croft (a difficult negative to prove in the Western Isles), or that it was but has been decrofted, it is most emphatically not the sort of thing you'd want to shell out six figures on for a "romantic whim". I suspect it's just as well Mrs Chettle told the Daily Mail "I don't really mind if it doesn't sell."