Curley in the Community - England can learn a lot from this crofting island

A trip to the Hebrides proved inspirational in more ways than expected for our writer

I made the long journey to the Hebridean island of Tiree in the summer, expecting to see large flocks of lapwings and arctic terns and to enjoy walking along the stunning beaches. I was not disappointed. What I had not anticipated was finding a small island with such a high level of voluntary action and community involvement.

With a population of 720, Tiree is an island of cattle and sheep farmers. Its 286 crofts are divided into 31 crofting "townships", each controlled by an elected "grazing committee", which decides who can use the common grazing land and the number of stock each farmer can graze.

More than a third of the adults on Tiree help to keep this crofting system alive in what for me is an impressive commitment to rural development. Crucial to this network of rural committees is the Crofting Commission, established by the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 and charged with securing the future of crofting. The strength of volunteering in this rural movement relies on support from the commission. I can think of nothing similar in rural England, where rural community councils have been diminished by six years of funding cuts and lack of government interest.

A conversation with Paul le Roux, growth plan coordinator at the Tiree Community Development Trust, put the apparent success of crofting into perspective. "We are seeing young people leaving Tiree after school to pursue degrees and jobs," he says. "It's a concern for us because the permanent island population is getting older." The trust has adopted a growth plan to address the loss of young people from the island.

The trust owns a subsidiary company, Tiree Renewable Energy, whose turbine generates the Windfall Fund, a source of grants. Grants have supported festivals, a new business centre, a theatre and a parent-teacher association, and even brought a piping tutor to the island. Using a successful social enterprise, owned by a development trust, to provide a permanent source of grants offers a model that English community foundations could learn from.

Willie Mackinnon also works for the trust, as a youth worker. He told me about the 10 children's and youth groups he supports for 132 young people, offering music, dance, windsurfing, kayaking, scouting, hockey and informal youth clubs. Willie worked out that more than 50 people support the groups each week, which means that almost 10 per cent of the adults on the island are youth work volunteers. Willie sees parents and other adults as central to his role: "The groups on the island have such great and motivated volunteers." A youth worker like Willie would be a rare find in an English rural area now.

I came away from Tiree convinced that community development practitioners could learn so much from a visit.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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