A historic bid by a community group to buy out two woodland owners has been rejected.

Helensburgh Community Woodland Group (HCWG) applied in December 2019 to secure the compulsory purchase of land at Castle Woods, under newly-created legislation.

The Scottish Government’s recently-updated Part 3A of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allows a community group the right to buy “abandoned, neglected or detrimental land”, and HCWG’s bid was the first to be lodged on the Register of Applications by Community Bodies to Buy Land (RoACBL) website.

However, the application for the site has been thrown out by government ministers after failing to meet certain criteria – much to the relief of woodland owners Thomas Paterson and Margery Osborne. HCWG says an agreement has been reached to buy the Castle Woods from Mr Paterson and Mrs Osborne, subject to the group raising the market value for the site of £100,000.

In a joint statement, the owners said: “We are obviously delighted with the Scottish ministers’ decision to reject the HCWG applications, although not surprised as our rebuttals were extremely strong, thanks mainly to our lawyer Sandy Telfer, of DLA Piper, and Alan Motion (tree consultant).

"It really would have been a very sad day for democracy if the wrong decision had been made.

“We know that a lot of top law firms were watching this case very closely as the wrong decision would have affected private landowners and developers who have land bank.”

Mr Paterson and Mrs Osborne have owned the land since 2004 and have seen several attempts to gain planning permission for the construction of new houses rejected by Argyll and Bute Council.

HCWG members have been involved in a power struggle with the land owners ever since, claiming that hundreds of trees have been felled without good reason at the site, while also citing the lack of action to prevent fly-tipping and the fact that non-native species are now colonising the land as “strong evidence of abandonment and neglect”.

Had the application been accepted, the group proposed to regenerate the site as an “educational resource” and an environmental asset by promoting health and wellbeing nature walks for local schools and mental health hubs to use.

In documents published online, Scottish Government ministers said: “The land cannot, at this time, be classed as wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected.

“As the owners have indicated that they intend to take forward a land management programme to maintain the site, they should be given a chance to do so.

“It is ministers’ view that the community body have not presented a strong case to prove that the land is a risk to public safety. Ministers are not satisfied that the application is in the public interest.

“Taking into account all of the information provided by both parties it is ministers’ view that whilst the proposals of this project and its goals are admirable and could benefit all of the community, this project will rely fully on grants and volunteers as there will, from the evidence provided, be no income generation element to it.

“While this alone is not a reason to fail the achievement of sustainability, ministers are concerned that the community body has not provided enough detailed information in their application to fully explain the costs of the project both now and in the longer term.

“The lack of a business plan and risk assessment highlights that the community body may not have considered the issues that could arise through acquisition.”

Andy Donald, HCWG convener, said: “Our members are obviously very disappointed with the decision by Scottish ministers not to grant consent to Helensburgh Community Woodland Group to exercise the Community Right to Buy of the site at Cumberland Avenue.

“This land is designated as an open space protection area by Argyll and Bute Council and our members have been working for many years to try and protect and restore this valued natural asset.

“On top of the disappointment with the actual decision there has certainly been surprise and in some cases bewilderment at the way the legislation appears to have been applied by the Scottish ministers.

“Being a volunteer community group means we don’t have the resources to make a legal challenge to the decision. However, we will pass on our thoughts on the details of the decision to community land organisations within Scotland because we think it’s important that other community bodies learn from our experience.

“We do have some wonderful news to share though. Helensburgh Community Woodlands Group and the owners have signed a binding agreement for the purchase of Castle Woods.

“We now have eight months in which to raise the market value price of £100,000.

“We have been working very hard already to try and raise these funds and we hope to have some news on this in the next few weeks.

“The dream of all involved has been to secure the future of Castle Woods, carry out much needed restoration work and to transform it from the sorry state it is in now into a much valued natural amenity that can be accessed, used and appreciated by everyone in our community.

“We still have a lot of work to do to achieve this but with the continued support of our local community we are confident we will get there.”

This story first appeared in the Helensburgh Advertiser.

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