Decrofting

An Eccentric Anomaly: Ed Davies's Blog

At the end of my So Far... post I was wondering what to do about the pair of plots I had my eye on. After a bit of contemplation I put in an offer on it but there's a bit of a problem.

Setting yourself up to build a house — particularly a somewhat odd one in an out-of-the way place feels like nailing jelly to the ceiling. Everything depends on everything else.

E.g., where to put the house on the plot (or even which of the two plots to actually build on) depends on the cost of putting in the access. Asking ground-works people to give some idea of the price for a plot you're thinking of buying isn't likely to be taken very seriously. On the other hand, saying you're in the process of applying for planning permission on a plot you own and that, subject to the planning and building warrant bods, work will start in April or whenever so could I have a proper quote please is likely to get their attention.

So, I thought the fairly straightforward step of actually buying the land, even knowing that it might not be possible to build exactly what I want but being as confident as you can be without full planning permission, a building warrant or proper quotes that something plausible can be, would be a good thing to help get the jelly under control.

The offer went in in the middle of October. Neither I nor my solicitor heard anything from the vendor or his solicitor, not even an acknowledgement of the offer, for nearly a fortnight. Then the vendor popped round to see me to say that it had been realised that though the plots themselves had been decrofted the associated land between them had not.

Croft law is all a bit strange and beyond my comprehension but, as I understand it, the basic idea is “use it or lose it”: that if a croft isn't being used for agricultural purposes then the Crofting Commission can put a tenant on it to do so at a peppercorn rent. So, in principle, if I have my solar panels on the edge of the de-crofted plot and somebody comes along and says I'm not using the waste land and that they want to rent it to put up a barn in the way of the sun I'd be a bit stuck.

(See also a previous plot's croft problems.)

For that particular field that's a bit theoretical. Still, proper control over the extra ground is part of the attraction of this plot.

The vendor and I had a pretty amicable discussion. The one thing that really concerned me was that he said that his understanding was that the rules had been tightened up significantly and that it might now be very difficult to decroft this land. On the other hand, it was quite unclear whether leaving it as croft land would have any real implications. That was something that would need further investigation.

After he left I spent the evening re-arranging some photo files while thinking about the matter in the back of my mind. Slowly I became more and more wound up about the whole thing. This is the third plot I've focused on where something has come up which the vendor could have said about earlier in the process (though in this case the omission was inadvertent and quite understandable).

In the morning I had a bit of meltdown and set off south with no clear plans beyond having a discussion about what to do next with friends and family but intending likely not to return (other than to collect my stuff stored in a shipping container).

On the way I dropped in to my solicitor and asked her to withdraw the offer. Actually that was a bit redundant as her boiler-plate text already made the offer conditional on the ground not being crofted and it was about to time out anyway. Still, it's better to be clear about these things. We also had a short discussion about the implications of the additional ground still being croft land. It's still not clear to me but it might not be a major problem in practice although I still don't like it on principle — one of my ideas with this build is to simplify things by avoiding as much bureaucracy as possible (even at the cost of a bit more work on site).

After another 20 or 30 miles the vendor called then texted me to say that he'd been on to the crofting commission and they thought decrofting could be OK and that a decision would be made in about 10 weeks from application.

The cynic in me wonders if that's 10 working weeks; given that the country seems to shut down for nearly four weeks for Christmas and New Year that'd take us well into February. That would be entirely consistent with other advice I've received that in practice it never takes less than 3½ months. I'd really been hoping to have the land and be sorting out getting the inital access done by that point (subject to weather and any planning considerations ahead of the full application for the house).

Anyway, driving down and rehearsing conversations it became clear to me what I actually wanted to do. (In programming we call this Rubber Ducking.) I'm now back in the static caravan I've rented (at least until the first week of 2013) contemplating what to do next.

One option (“plan A”) would be to carry on with the purchase of this plot. Either making things conditional on the decrofting or further investigating the implications of the extra ground remaining crofted.

I'm not considering looking for another plot now. Unless the perfect site smacks me between the eyes I've had enough of that game. The current plot is pretty good (with a few caveats) and is at a sensible price for what it is. It's that one or not at all.

Plan B is to look for a suitable cheap run-down but habitable house and do some proportion of what I have in mind to that. Previous investigations have shown there are quite a few cheap houses around which might be possible though many fewer than there are plots. On the other hand, there seems to be less of a price differential between houses in the NE (Caithness and Sutherland) and the rest of Scotland (or even Northern England) than there is for plots so there's a wider geographical area for choice. I had a look at the estate agents in Portree on Skye and in Dingwall near Inverness on my way back north the other day for a bit of an update on this.

To be honest, after the meltdown of last week I'm not sure I'm in robust-enough mental health to carry on with a new build. It was always a bit marginal but after the ups and downs of the last few months (starting probably with the day of my abortive trip to see the estate agent in Orkney/getting notice on the house in Tongue) and not helped by the time spent wandering around in my van after moving out of the Tongue house I'm now feeling a bit too worn down to deal with the complexities of starting such a major project. This setback, even if it turns out to only be a delay, might well be the last straw.

On the other hand, I've been thinking about the project in increasing detail for quite a few years now and it's difficult to break that habit. Not doing the build would be something I'd always regret but starting something so big without a reasonable chance of going through with it would be stupid.

A few weeks contemplation and looking around for possible houses seems in order before coming to any firm conclusion. Next installment: Limbo.