Charity's plans hit residents' resistance

The activities of the charity that operates on Easdale Island in the inner Hebrides have divided its 70 inhabitants, and the Scottish regulator says it must do more to get community backing. Kaye Wiggins went to talk to all sides in the dispute.

Easdale Island
Easdale Island

As you approach it by boat, the small and scenic Hebridean island of Easdale does not look like the setting for a long-running, often heated charity dispute.

Once a major slate quarry, it is only accessible by boat and has no cars or tarmac roads and only 70 permanent residents. It has the ingredients of tranquillity. Yet for much of the past decade, the island has been divided over the actions of the charity Eilean Eisdeal. This was set up in 1997 by a small group of residents with the aim of making the island more attractive for visitors and residents.Easdale Island harbour

But after a series of complaints, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator conducted two investigations in 2005 and 2011 into the charity concerning its governance, the way it consults residents and the extent to which it provides a public benefit. The most recent investigation concluded in September that there was no evidence of serious misconduct, but that the charity should make a series of reforms to make sure it had the backing of the local community.

What the opponents say

It is clear that Eilean Eisdeal is a force on the island. The community hall run by the charity is one of the first things that you see on arrival, and is by far the island's largest building.

But a small gathering of residents, convened to discuss their objections to the charity's work with Third Sector, explains The community hallthat its work has been divisive. Proposals put forward by the charity include a wind turbine and the building of affordable housing, small business units and a hostel, although none of these have yet happened. These plans, say the residents, are the focus of their concerns and not the charity's previous work, which includes building the community centre and running the island's folk museum.

One resident, Mary Withall, questions whether the plans are in line with Eilean Eisdeal's charitable objects, which say it will "conserve and preserve the character and natural beauty of Easdale island...

so as to leave them unimpaired for future enjoyment" and will ensure that the "needs and aspirations of the local population are acknowledged and respected".

The other issue that troubles the residents is a perceived lack of communication from the charity. Alice Clayton says: "We are living with a situation where we don't know what is being planned for our community and don't feel like we have a say.

"The first we heard about the plan for a wind turbine was in the local newspaper. We hadn't been consulted or even told about it until it was a fait accompli that the charity would try to build it."

Tina Jordan, who lived on the island for several years before moving to the mainland earlier this year, echoes Clayton's concern. "I've got a background of working in community development, and this is not how you are supposed to do things," she says.

Jordan says objectors have been laughed at and verbally abused during public meetings, a claim the charity denies.

"In the end, people didn't want to carry on doing this, so they stopped going to public meetings," says Jordan. "They just waited for the charity to put in a planning application and objected to that, because the process is fairly democratic."

Jordan's husband, Keith Oversby, says the charity's growing separation from the residents culminated in a surprising email from one of its directors in 2008. The email, which is addressed to the island's Residents' Association, a body with around 50 members, says: "We have found your actions to be continually vexatious. We are not, therefore, prepared to waste any more time having a dialogue with your organisation."

What the charity says

On a walk around the island with two of Eilean Eisdeal's directors, Keren Cafferty and Jan Fraser, it becomes clear that the email exemplifies the charity's approach to its opponents.

"There is a small minority of people that is vocal in complaining, and they are very difficult to deal with," says Cafferty. "They don't take part in our consultations and they continually oppose our work. It is very time-wasting.Cafferty (left) and Fraser: Two of the charity's directors

"That's the background against which that email was sent. We knew it would be perceived as not good practice, but we had no alternative."

Cafferty says the charity is working hard on developments that would benefit the community. "We are never going to please everybody, because some people just do not want to see any development," she says. "There are a few malcontents, but we've got overwhelming support from the community. We try very hard to consult and involve people but if people don't take part in the process, there isn't much we can do."

Asked whether she thinks the charity is operating in line with its stated object of preserving the island's natural beauty, Fraser says: "I think we are. This island is a pile of waste slate, and it used to be an industrial site, so it's not a pretty island. I don't think building on it detracts from its natural beauty."

What other residents say

Speaking to other residents on the island, it is clear that the Eilean Eisdeal dispute is well known, although many have not looked into the details of the case.

"It is very contentious," says Alan MacFadyen, a ferryman who lives on the island with his wife, Michelle, and their two young children. "Everyone is aware of it and everyone has an opinion about it.

"Personally, I don't keep a close eye on what the charity is doing but as long as the OSCR is happy with it, then I don't see a problem."

Michelle MacFadyen says residents are divided about the charity's work. "I think, on the whole, there's a half-and-half split between those that support it and those that don't," she says.

"But of course it's not an all or nothing thing. Some people are happy with parts of the charity's work and not happy with others.

"You notice, though, that the people with strong opinions on each side don't gel with each other."

The MacFadyens say they are impressed with much of the charity's work. "They've built a playground, which our children love, and they organise music events in the hall," says Alan.

"It's brilliant having entertainment happening locally." During the 1960s the island had just four residents and "nearly died", he says.

"We don't want to go back to that, and that is what would happen without development."

Steve Brown, another resident of the island, is closely involved with the charity as a volunteer and has designed its website free of charge. "I think Eilean Eisdeal has got it right," he says. "Affordable housing would be great - I'd like to be able to buy a house. And if we had a hostel it would mean people could stay over after the music events in the hall."

What the regulator says

The OSCR has asked Eilean Eisdeal to make a number of governance changes, which include publishing a register of directors' interests, making its governing documents accessible and easy to understand and putting in place a transparent tendering process to be followed when it is funding new developments.

Cafferty says the charity is implementing these changes.

But the OSCR has also given the charity the more ambiguous instruction of taking "all reasonable steps to ensure the charity is perceived as community-led within the community".

The requirement raises a problem that is common in charity regulation: it is a solution that might sound reasonable in the regulator's office, but, in practice, might be almost impossible to implement on the ground.

Donald Melville, another of Eilean Eisdeal's directors, says that the OSCR is guilty of "complete naivety" if it expects the charity to find an easy way of getting the whole community on board.

"There are some people who will simply never support us, but we are convinced that our work is for the benefit of the community and we are determined to continue," he says.

THE ISLAND IN FIGURES

10 hectares - The area of Easdale Island, the smallest permanently inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides. It lies about 15 miles south of Oban, Argyll.

70 metres - The distance to the back wall at the disused quarry on the island where the World Stone Skimming The World Stone Skimming ChampionshipsChampionships are held annually. This year's winner threw a stone that hit the back wall and a second that went 60 metres.

500 - The population during the peak of slate quarrying on the island in the second half of the 19th century. By the early 1960s, the population had dwindled to only four following a decline in quarrying.

1881 - The year when a storm flooded the island's slate quarries, leading to a gradual decline in the industry on the island.

5,000 - The average number of people who visit the Easdale Island Folk Museum each year.

69 - The number of inhabited houses on the island. Twenty-eight homes are occupied by permanent residents and the rest are either second homes or used as holiday lets.

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