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Context for the Community Buy-Out

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Authored July 2023, Rupert Davis

"See that everything you do is dedicated to Me and is of benefit to the whole. When you live for the whole the self is forgotten in service to your fellow human beings"

Eileen Caddy, Opening Doors Within, July 17th.


Are you interested in the idea of the community buying out the (bulk of) the Park so that the community owns itself and can decide for ourselves how we want to land our dreams?


The NFA is supporting the idea and I am holding the focus for them on the topic.


Below is some context and my analysis of some of the underlying issues. It is a very fast-moving situation, so forgive me if things change and change again.


This article is around 3000 words long/7pages/10 minutes read.


To introduce the idea of and reason for a community buy out a good place to place to start is the Scottish Government Land Fund website:


SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT AIMS

Here is what Mairi McAllan, Scottish Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform has to say about community buy-outs in her welcome to the Scottish Land Fund (SLF) website:


“…. this Government sees community ownership as a vital tool in unlocking the potential. We can empower communities, reclaim underused and neglected areas and support a Just Transition to a net zero future.”


SLF aims are then defined as follows:


“The SLF supports communities to become more resilient and sustainable through the ownership and management of land and buildings. It will fund projects that empower communities through asset ownership and strengthen their voices in the decisions that matter to them.”


THE POTENTIAL

Of course, there is no guarantee that the community can raise money through the SLF, but our situation is exactly what SLF it is set up for (see below). (EDITOR”S NOTE: Ecovillage Findhorn Community Benefit Society (BENCOM) has got through into Stage 1 of SLF!)


I think the Minister’s words point to what a community buy out promises: the chance to unlock that huge potential of all the members of a community, when they are empowered with ownership, leadership and voice, all lined up, over the land they live on.


THE PROBLEM – MISALIGNMENT

With no personal criticism intended, I believe our community potential is held back by “absentee” ownership (FF having to deal with an ongoing financial crisis, brewing for many years, brought to a head by the triple whammy of Brexit, Covid and the fires). Where the Foundation used to do all the community benefit things for us now it can no longer do that.


Quite understandably, the Foundation has pulled back to Cluny to focus on its core charitable objective, spiritual education, and frankly, to attempt to survive. The Foundation has clearly said it won’t hold the community side of things anymore, yet it still owns the land the community lives on.


This makes it very hard for the community to take empowered action in the way it might want to, to get community benefit buildings rebuilt and back in action.


It stops us drawing out and then executing on our community-sourced vision or following a genuinely community sourced development plan, as opposed to a FF development plan fundamentally focused on a client that needs to raise the financial value of its assets.


Two examples –


it has taken three years and the Sanctuary is not built (and the price has gone up because it has taken so long).


The community centre, despite a large insurance pay out, has not yet been initiated in terms of community-led planning, and that money has been spent already. Even though the FF “owes it back to itself” there is no realistic path to getting it back that I can see apart from selling some of/the bulk of the Park. And the Foundation wants to do this in a way that is good for the community, hence the buy out discussions.


This misalignment between residents living here and absentee ownership explains, in general, the many gently decaying empty buildings across the Park, and it is what prevents the residents themselves creating a thriving, vibrant community with many guests and visitors once again, and with a sense of unity, devolved empowerment, and a community centre at its heart.


With ownership the community can become empowered to do sensible things about attracting youth and real affordability, living up to our ideals (spiritual, ecological and service for the good of the whole) and planning across the Park the way we want it, focused on our needs, which look much more nature aligned and appropriate mixed development, than what has come from Collective Architecture, and the private plot sales aspects of Duneland, in my view.


This is precisely why the Scottish Government supports communities to buy themselves out.


BOARDS WITH A SMALL SET OF LEADERS WITH LONG TENURES vs DEMOCRATIC, COMMUNITY MEMBER LED LEADERSHIP

Combined with that is, let’s face it, a convoluted set of Board-led organisations, that emerged at different stages of our history, that are focused on pieces of the whole, which do some things well and some things not so well, but don’t have overall democratic mandate from all of us, or inclusive, community-led and mandated power.


To go through them:


The NFA, which does, very much to its credit, solicit members often, and genuinely listens to them, doesn’t own land, do development, or finance things. It also doesn’t have the right structure to apply for Scottish Land Fund (SLF).


The developer, Duneland, is a for profit that has taken 26 years and still isn’t finished. The bulk is private ownership through land sales, pushing up prices on housing although it has done some v.nice affordables with good quality building work by Green Leaf/Jay Caddy, which should be celebrated, such as Woodside, project managed by Paddy. Because it has been so slow to finish (the latest goal is winding down in Spring 2024), and has been mainly plot sales, the larger amount of community benefit possible with efficient development has been lost in the costs incurred over that very lengthy existence and the various law costs and crises, and investors have received nothing yet after all that time. As a for profit, it is unsuitable for SLF funds.


The social impact investor, Ekopia, which has done lots of good things, is not a charity, and is not a suitable ecovillage government organization for the Park, not least because it has a 500 pound minimum investment, and its membership is not limited geographically to community residents. This counts it out in terms of being eligible for SLF (which is geographically defined and focused on low-income inclusivity).


It could however partner very nicely with BENCOM to aid in business planning and future fund raising and interest bearing share issues to its 300 members or so and I have explicitly written to Alex inviting this kind of collaborative partnering and said the same in person.


PET, which John Talbott asked a year ago to essentially take the role that the new Bencom has been created for (and PET said no, so then he created Bencom), is not suitable as structured to gain SLF money. It has been refused on 7 counts by SLF.


With a community buy out, none of the old orgs will have to stop doing what they do, however they will no longer have the amount of power they used to, because there will be a community member led organisation which owns the bulk of the Park (bought from FF) and that alignment of community members owning the Park and managing the Park and deciding what happens on the Park will solve a whole host of problems, that the tangle of organisations has created over the years. It will take some power away from a handful of organisational trustees and put it in the hands of community members, who vote for their leaders, and whose leaders consult very regularly with their members, so that leadership has an actual democratic mandate and can serve the vision of the community members.


I believe it's time to pull together as a whole, drop organisational or personal "turf" interests (gospel from Eileen in Opening Doors Within again and again and again, and why presumably most of us came here - service for the good of the whole).


DEMOCRATIC MANDATE

Very few of the Board-led organisations (orgs) have real, full democratic mandate or large-scale membership input (annual meetings average about 20 attendees from the 3 I have been to this month, and even then, it tends to be the Board talking at the members primarily rather than drawing out their vision or consulting them as to what they might want, and often the same 2 or 3 people on the Boards). Some of the Boards don’t seriously bother seeking member input at all.


It’s a very different model to community-led leadership, which audits the passions and talents of all members (ask Draeyk for an example of this), includes all the talents, and sets them free to create the things they want to create. This is what creates vibrancy and success.


This kind of approach actively draws a vision from the members, really listens to them, serves them, and devolves leadership as much as possible, so that people are empowered to follow their passions.


Not surprisingly the orgs, as set up, in this very old-fashioned way, with just a few trustees talking to each other and making decisions for the masses, do not benefit from the full backing of, and engagement by, the large amount of talent here in the Park and beyond.


Community members’ talent, visions, passions are hugely under-utilised, in my view.


The NFA, the one big organisation great at soliciting community member input, gets 200 people to attend vs 20, but owns nothing much, so can’t act on the community’s bigger dreams concerning land and appropriate development.


In other words, bits of the puzzle are everywhere but stitching them together, doesn’t seem to quite work effectively, to get a dynamic, Park-as-a-whole, community-mandated and supported, vision, effectively landed.


Not surprisingly, people withdraw and disengage, stuff doesn’t get done, morale falls, community vibrancy dies, and in the end guests stop coming.


A SOLUTION

A community buy out would align land (ownership), leadership (member selected and accountable), and vision (community-solicited), so effective action can happen - led by members, listening to members, drawing on the full talent of members, and serving the whole (local community through to planetary service).


Indeed, a bit like Scottish Independence, a buyout from the Foundation would give the Community both the opportunity, and the responsibility, to stand on our own feet and show what we can do!


THE FOUNDATION

Sadly, as many of you know, the Foundation is in pretty dire financial straits and is having to sell plots and houses in the Park, to survive. It is unable to plan and invest in things that were of major benefit for, and at the heart of, the community, or manage community type services and commons, which is a role it once held. (EDITOR: This article was written a month before the recent announcement of closure.)


Through necessity, not through bad intentions, the major employer on the peninsula apart from the Army Base, the Foundation, has had to cut jobs to the bone, and retreat to Forres, focused on survival in the short term, and core spiritual education, rather than community services and benefit, in the long term.


OPPORTUNITY

However, the crisis is also an opportunity for a win-win – for the community to buy the bulk of the Park as a whole, getting the Foundation say a year’s worth of survival upfront so it can concentrate on its real problem, breaking even financially.

This would get stewardship of the land back in the hands of the people who live here and have the time, passion and the care to do something really innovative with it (and in a way that is of value as a model to the world).


It will be hard to work out our differences yes, but it also has the potential to pull us together as a community, as polarities are synthesised to a higher level, as we stand on our own feet and take charge of our own future.


Isn’t this the work we are supposed to be modelling for the world?


Heaven to Earth, ego put down for the good of the whole, a better world, work as Love in Action, unity?


Hopefully, most people in the community still have faith this is possible.


CHANGE

The situation is emergent, in flux and in early stages of negotiation.


Success depends on how the Foundation prices it (hopefully taking into account that most of the value was created by the community paying to work, or working for free, or pocket money, and creating an ecovillage by ourselves in many ways, rather than by FF.)


It depends on the funding being raised, how much is gifted, granted or interest free, how much is lent at concessionary rates, and how much at commercial rates (this is called the "capital stack").


THE MAP

Simplifying, the Foundation is looking at keeping enough of the Park to continue with its charitable objects, generally areas East of the runway, and the community would own the rest.


The community buying out the (available) land in one go, rather than individuals plot by plot, would free up FF to focus on spiritual education, rather than acting as a real estate agent month by month, which I am sure they would rather be doing!


FRAGMENTATION & AFFORDABILITY

At the same time, it would prevent the Park fragmenting into just a set of individual privately owning dwellings, which pushes up prices, and destroys the affordability critical to getting youth and young families here, and also makes it harder to build community benefit buildings like a new CC. If sold to one community buyer it would also start to solve the problem of the tangle of orgs. If divvied out to multiple orgs it will make whole Park planning impossible, and leave us stuck in the the ineffective structure of the tangle of orgs talking to each other, but not actually voted into leadership or answerable to the community as a whole.


Holistic, community led planning across the Park, with smart development providing subsidy for in perpetuity affordables, is what will give maximum chance of younger families and adults being able to be here, while preserving our unique relationship to bio-diversity and nature, plus allowing some innovation and cool micro-housing that is iconic in media and attractive to youth. Plus, it gives us the best chance to get community buildings back.


Without affordability, younger people, and community buildings functioning at our heart, along with far more member engagement, we are done for as a community.

Community ownership, on the other hand, with member mandated leadership, genuine spiritual practice and commitment, and real engagement and unity, gives us a good chance to re-invigorate and recreate our once vibrant community.


This is of course a win-win in another way, potentially important to FF’s long-term survival, because guests don’t just come here, or love this place, for the workshops. They come here just as much for the love-in-action, future demonstrating, amazing eco-spiritual community. Vibrant, spiritual demonstrative, community is a key part of the “guest magnet” and the media coverage. It’s essential to the “brand”, our essence, our purpose.


Ownership, by the community for the community, would mean that all those community benefiting things and guest attracting things and Scotland and planetary benefitting things, and purpose aligned things, that used to be backed by the Foundation, but are no longer, could emerge again: from the village type hall (CC) we all loved so much, to youth affordable housing; to eco-innovative, climate resilient approaches to the land and the settlement; to nature gardens and wild areas, and of course, to the Sanctuary.


If we own, we can do, we can create. If we don’t, we can’t.


In short, we would be in charge of our own destiny.


HOW IT WORKS

The way it works is that the ownership of the land needs to be through a suitable charitable structure, such as company for the benefit of the community or a company limited by guarantee with charitable status.


Once signed up to that buyout org, every Park resident community member gets a vote.


Non-resident members sign up as a contributing member so that your voice is also consulted and listened to via bye laws specifying consultation


Members can leave whenever they want, so no-one is locked into any financial burden, without their consent.


This likely raises lots of questions but that’s the headlines.


CALL FOR UNITY

To pull this off we will need EVERYONE pulling together, so we can put our best foot forward as a community, calling on all the successes of the organisations in the past, to back our unified approach to funders, drawing on all of the talents, and knowledge, without focus on organisational affiliation, to raise the money, and draw up the business plan - and as Eileen would say birth the new, without fear, without competition, as we together “bring heaven down to earth”.


Personally, naively, utopian-ly, bad spelling-ly ... I still believe that is possible and hope others do too.

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