An arab family has been accused of creating a green desert in the heart of Perthshire by operating a modern-day Highland clearance of traditional farmhouses on their estate.
For a number of years, the al-Tajir family, which owns the Highland Spring mineral water bottling company and the 3,000-acre Blackford estate surrounding Blackford village, have allowed many of their farm buildings and cottages to crumble as they fall vacant.
Much of the estate, once intensively farmed, has also been left fallow or is unused under the set-aside scheme.
The Scottish Office has now overturned a decision by Perth and Kinross Council to refuse the estate permission to demolish two empty farmhouses. It has been persuaded that the existence of the houses posed a threat to the natural water system which feeds Highland Spring.
But a member of the Blackford land action committee, George Malone, said yesterday: "Their excuse is spurious. These farmhouses lie at best on the boundary of the catchment area. What these people are up to is a new clearance. Once there were 15 families living on the estate and now there are only one or two."
He claimed that the estate was committed to clearing homes off the land, some of them splendid examples of Scottish farmhouses and which could have been used to repopulate the area and bring back small businesses.
The Scottish National Party MP for Perth, Roseanna Cunningham, said the excuse that Blackford Estates was protecting water purity would have met with more sympathy had it had been an isolated example. "Elsewhere on the estate the owners appear to be pursuing a policy of deliberately allowing perfectly serviceable properties to fall into disrepair rather than providing much needed rural housing."
It was ironic, she added, that the decision should have been made by the Scottish Office days after Lord Sewel's treatise at the Rural Forum conference in Oban, in which he talked of "placing the rural citizen at the heart of the process".
Recently, a Nationalist activist, Ian Thompson, was evicted by the estate from a cottage he had illegally occupied as a protest against the abandonment of houses in the area.
In its appeal to the Scottish Office, Blackford Estates suggested the survival of the bottling plant could have been under threat because the houses, if occupied, could have provided "significant potential" for groundwater contamination through their waste water systems.
Under EC regulations, natural mineral water cannot be treated to remove pollutants.
Mr Malone said two other farmhouses had been demolished in the past two years and all inquiries to buy vacant property had been rebuffed. "There are around 15 other houses on the estate which have been left to deteriorate but which were lived in until fairly recently. Many people would give their eye teeth to buy them."
He said that a hydrological survey had shown that the latest two farmhouses were on the very boundary of the water catchment area and the two that were knocked down were nowhere near the catchment area.
"They are turning the land around here into a green desert. There is nothing on it and the agricultural farmland is in poor condition, with fencing in bad repair and a plague of rabbits. We believe that all of the houses will be knocked down in the near future."
Mr Malone said that the estate was trying to cloak its activities by trumpeting a plan for 200 houses in Blackford village which had also aroused strong opposition.
A local councillor, Janet Law, has watched in dismay as the estate homes in her ward have disappeared over the years. "It seems it is their policy not only to allow these houses to fall into ruin, but to deliberately knock them down, claiming they are a danger.
"What this appeal has shown is that the planning process does not have sufficient powers to stop depopulation of rural areas and we would hope that the new Scottish parliament could address land use and land issues as a priority."
"The perception locally is simply that the estate is a pretty poor neighbour and a pretty poor landlord and not acting responsibly as far as the local people are concerned."
Liz Breckenridge, the marketing director of Highland Spring, said: "Our main priority as Blackford's biggest employer is to ensure the continued success of our business, which means the continued protection of our source of water."
The company employed 130 people which was vitally important for a rural area. "If we have to demolish two houses to ensure that protection, that is well worth doing."
The Scotsman; November 8, 1997;
by John Ross
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