ISLANDERS seeking to expand community land ownership in the Outer Hebrides are hoping the results of a long-awaited vote this week will bring a major step forward.

The owners of the 27,000-acre Bays of Harris Estate have said they will consider selling if there is a “decisive” number of residents who back the plans for a buyout.

The outcome of a ballot, which was delayed by more than two years due to the pandemic, was due to be revealed last week, but counting has been postponed due to the death of the Queen and will now take place on Wednesday.

John Maher, chair of the Bays of Harris Steering Group, said he was hoping for a favourable result from the 661 ballot papers sent out.

“This whole process started back in 2012, and pre-pandemic, we got to a point where, effectively, the landlord put the ball into our court by saying if we have a ballot and the community shows interest in purchasing the estate, then he would enter negotiations,” he said.

“At that point, it was down to us to get the ballot organised, get the votes in and on Wednesday night, we will find out the result. Hopefully, it will be in favour of a buyout, at which point then we will be looking to start negotiating with him over a sale.”

If it goes ahead, the buyout would add to the 50% of land in the Outer Hebrides, which is now in community ownership.

One of the key drivers for the Bays of Harris bid is to address issues of depopulation and lack of affordable housing.

Maher, a former drummer with punk rock band the Buzzcocks, said the community were astounded to find out the estate, currently owned by a Surrey-based family, has a yearly income of around £80,000-£100,000 from assets such as telecom masts, crofts and fish farm sites.

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“To me, it is obvious reasons, if that money were to stay here instead, it gives us a lot of leverage to start doing projects as per the business plan we put together,” he said.

“Within the first five years, we would be looking at having initiated at least one, possibly two affordable housing projects.

“There is a lot we could try and do to try and redress this situation of what is basically a continual decline in population.”

The business plan for the buyout highlights figures which show the population of the Parish of Harris – into which the estate falls – has fallen from 5449 in 1911 to just 2054 today.

Children under 16 and adults aged up to 44 years old make up a lower proportion of the population than in Scotland as a whole, while nearly 40% of those living on the estate are aged over 60.

Maher said the pandemic had also increased pressures, with cases of some houses being bought without purchasers even visiting the island.

“They would just see it on the internet and buy it,” he said. “Of course, that has the knock-on effect of pushing up house prices and putting them out of the reach of any younger folk who were hoping to stay here.

“I know for sure there have been instances where people have wanted to move here, but in the end, they gave up as they literally can’t find anywhere to live.”

Maher pointed to the example of neighbouring West Harris Trust, which was set up in 2010 and has since built 10 houses and business units, as well as a new community centre.

When it comes to being confident of a vote in favour of the Bays of Harris Estate following a similar path, Maher acknowledged not everyone has backed the plan.

“In the main, almost every time it goes in favour of a community buyout. I am obviously hoping that a similar thing here happens, but I just do not know,” he said.

HE said he believed it was a “no-brainer” for the community to take charge of the land, but that some people may be fearing change.

“If you do take on community ownership, of course, with that comes a responsibility, and people have to get involved, and they will actually have to put some time into it,” he said.

“The current situation is you have this absentee landlord, and there is a feeling of if anything should go wrong, it is his fault – the islanders don’t have to do anything.

“We just trundle along in our day-to-day existence as things gradually deteriorate, but it is happening so slowly that most people don’t notice it until you start looking back at the figures over the decades.

“I don’t know what it is. Some of them think there is this weird group of people who are going to take control and start telling them what to do, and they need to realise to form a trust to run the place, it needs representation from all sectors of the estate, and there is the opportunity for the people live here to get involved.”

He added: “There are so many examples of [community land ownership] working.

“To me, it feels like it would just be really weird for it not to go ahead and for the Bays to be left behind.”