A PLAN to expand community land ownership in the Outer Hebrides has taken an “important step forward” after islanders backed the buyout of a major estate.

Nearly two-thirds of voters who took part in a ballot supported the plan to buy the 27,000-acre Bays of Harris Estate, which includes the Isle of Berneray.

The owners had said they would consider selling if there was a “decisive” number of residents who backed the plans for a buyout.

The Bays of Harris Steering Group said the results of the vote on the issue last week have provided a mandate to start negotiations.

A statement issued by the group said: “On a turnout of 70% eligible voters, 63% voted in favour of community ownership of the estate.

“That provides a decisive mandate to establish a legally constituted community organisation and negotiate a community buyout of the Bays of Harris Estate from the current owners.

“The ballot results are therefore an important step forward in achieving community ownership to secure the future of the estate for the benefit of people living here, both now and for generations to come.”

It added: “Much work remains to be done. However, it is hugely encouraging that so many within the community support a buyout of the estate as we move to the next stage of making that a reality.”

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

One of the key drivers for the Bays of Harris bid, which got underway ten years ago, is to address issues of depopulation and lack of affordable housing.

Last week John Maher, chair of the Bays of Harris Steering Group and former drummer with punk rock band the Buzzcocks, told the Sunday National 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.

“To me, they are 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. There are around 700 residents in the estate itself.

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