An organisation responsible for overseeing Scotland’s 20,000 crofts has come under fire for the way it is being run, a report has found.
The Crofting Commission has seen a breakdown of trust between its board members and senior management team, according to Audit Scotland.
Auditors found the board have a lack of confidence in the commission’s chief executive and concerns about the leadership of the former convener, who resigned in June.
The report also said the board had “excessive” involvement in operational decision-making and little say in setting the commission’s budget.
Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “Crofting is an integral part of life in the Highlands and Islands.
“But the leadership and governance of the Crofting Commission is currently falling below the standards expected of a public body.
“It is vitally important that all parties, including the Scottish Government’s sponsor division, work closely together to develop better relationships so that the Commission can provide effective oversight of the services provided to crofting communities.”
The commission’s role is to regulate crofting and promote the interests of croft communities.
It is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) which operates on a day-to-day basis independently of the Government, but for which Scottish ministers are ultimately responsible.
Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon, said: “We are working closely with the Crofting Commission and its board to address the issues raised within the report.
“We will, of course, consider carefully and address any matters relating to Scottish Government and its sponsorship of the Crofting Commission.
“The commission will publish an improvement plan shortly and we will continue to work closely with it on implementation of the plan and in delivering core activities.”
Issues concerning the commission’s governance were previously highlighted in 2016.
At that time, the Scottish Government appointed consultants to carry out an external review of the commission’s governance arrangements.
Almost an entirely new board took office in 2017 but, this year, auditors found a breakdown in trust within the organisation.
Commenting on the report, Malcolm Mathieson, convenor of the commission, said “substantial progress” has been made since the completion of the audit report; in particular, the clarification of roles and remits within the commission.
He added: “As an organisation, we recognise that the leadership and governance did not meet the standards expected of a public body, whilst it is important to recognise the unprecedented pressures and exceptional circumstances that we found ourselves in during the initial phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are confident that we have improved and transformed the organisation to ensure we meet the challenges of the future.
“The board are clear in their support of the previous convenor and, whilst disappointed, respect his decision to resign as convenor and commissioner from the East Highlands in July.
Bill Barron, chief executive of the commission, said the report has prompted him and his team to formulate an action plan to address the issues raised.
He said: “Since the commission were made aware of the concerns from the auditors, we have worked exceptionally hard to make tangible and positive changes.
“We have developed an action plan and have, in just a few months, addressed over half of the points raised and have made good progress on others.
“The reports do also highlight areas of our operation where we are exceeding the standards which are expected of us. It is clear that we are providing a fair and effective service to the crofting system and to crofters within our existing resources.”