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News | 16th July 2020
 

Buccleuch boss pledges to get project to the line

Benny Higgins criticises Scottish Land Fund for its rigidity over its grant

 
 
 

BUCCLEUCH’S chief executive has pledged his continued personal support for the Langholm Moor community buy-out.

In an exclusive interview with the E&L Advertiser Benny Higgins said he would do whatever he could to help the Langholm Initiative achieve its ambition.

His comments came on the day that a Channel 4 News team spent the day in Langholm interviewing people about the £6.4m project to buy 25,000 acres from Buccleuch.

Mr Higgins was critical of the Scottish Land Fund (SLF), which has awarded £1m on the basis that the Initiative find the rest of the money by the end of October or it will lose its grant.

He said: “I spoke to Kevin Cumming (project manager) and Margaret Pool (chairwoman) on Tuesday and they are committed to getting to the figure which came out of the joint valuation.

“I said I was keeping my fingers crossed for them. They know we’re still hoping they will get there.”

He was conscious that it was a tricky environment currently but the project was all good and, if the Initiative needed to talk to him, he would try to be flexible and would be prepared to give them more time.

He said: “The problem with that is the SLF imposed a target and wants proof of funds and that all the legals are done by that date and that’s not acceptable.

“I think that’s far too rigid, probably on both counts and especially getting all the legals done.

“I made the point that the rules be amended a little and it was better to give them more time.

“I certainly propose to write to Roseanna Cunningham, secretary for environment, climate change and land reform, to suggest it would be better if the government gave them more time.

“I’m comfortable with giving them more time and the Initiative is still determined to stick with Plan A. A bit more time would give them that chance.

“In circumstances like this, if they get a bit of traction with one benefactor, it gives encouragement to others.”

He understood the reason why the SLF had such a strict timetable because if the £1m was not taken up by the Initiative, it would give the SLF time to redistribute the funds to other projects before the end of the financial year.

Asked how important the buy-out was to Buccleuch based on what the land would be used for, he said Buccleuch had to be run as a business.

When he took up his post in March last year, he went through the company’s strategy and its values and he believed this project was where strategy and values converged.

Its four values were its colleagues, customers, including tenants, communities and environment.

He said: “This is obviously a good opportunity for us. I’ve always said that if we have values, we have to have action and evidence that we treat them with importance.

“What we’ve done in Newcastleton and what we’re doing in Langholm is a chance to show our values give communities enhanced opportunities to do what they want to do.”

Mr Higgins was also asked why Buccleuch did not consider doing a similar project itself.

He said: “We concluded that we wanted to reduce our footprint and reinvest in other parts of the business.

“It’s important we can be robust and resilient and protect and create jobs.”

Mr Higgins was on the Scottish government’s advisory group on economic recovery, whose report was dominated by the issues of inequality, education and unemployment.

He said: “We’re going to face quite a surge in unemployment; there is no other way to put it so a business like ours must manage itself carefully. That was a motivation to sell.”

He was surprised by the amount of publicity the buy-out had attracted but land reform was a big issue.

He said: “What we have achieved in Newcastleton and what we’re getting close to in Langholm and Wanlockhead shows what is possible.

“I hope it succeeds but there is a limit to what we can achieve. If it doesn’t succeed, it wouldn’t be damaging to our credibility.

“We’ve gone about it in a gentlemanly fashion and we could not be more keen.”

Mr Higgins was interviewed by Alex Thomson, chief correspondent of Channel 4 News, as was Roger Maxwell, Langholm Common Riding chairman.

Speaking on the moor, Roger described the cultural and historic importance of the Common Moss to the people of Langholm who had marked its boundaries since 1759.

Also interviewed were Kevin Cumming, Margaret Pool, Langholm Academy pupil Cerys Gough, Andy Wightman, Scottish Green Party MSP for Lothian and author of Who Owns Scotland, and John Galloway, co-owner of the Eskdale Hotel.

The feature is expected to be broadcast tonight. The programme airs at 7pm on C4 and at 8pm on C4+1.

 
 
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