It is still a little known and understood phenomenon, but communities in Scotland have been making determined progress in taking greater control of their own local futures through the ownership of their land and other key assets.
Today, close to 500,000 acres of Scotland is under the ownership and control of local communities. That may seem like a lot but, despite this welcome progress, it is modest by any standards and makes little impact on the total of Scotland still under traditional private ownership. Scotland has one of the most concentrated patterns of private land ownership anywhere – 432 people own half of Scotland’s private land. Scotland stands out within Europe as having the most anachronistic and concentrated land ownership patterns.
In any economy, land - that finite resource - sits at the heart of its potential success. Who owns that land is central to how that land is used. In Scotland that places key decision making about social and economic development in the hands of very few people indeed and there is growing recognition that this needs to change, giving more people and whole communities a direct stake in the land.
A recent report of the Land Reform Review Group has given new impetus for that change and has altered the terms of the debate about land in talking of it as “a finite and crucial resource that requires to be used and owned in the public interest for the common good.” They go on to make clear what the common good comprises, and that is all about sustainability, economic opportunity, and an enrichment of participatory democracy – the essence of greater community empowerment.
Owning and managing that land is the stimulus for economic reform and local progress. After securing the land, some communities have moved to take control of their local energy needs; some are generating power for export, with the revenues, in part, being used to create local investment funds to help support future economic growth. Most community owners are providing land for new housing, renovating, or developing new housing themselves. Many are building work and community spaces, retailing, producing food, planting and managing forests and creating new forest tenancies, investing in the renovation of key local infrastructure, all as a basis for more locally determined economic progress. Given the ownership model, it is the wider community that shares the benefits, as profit is re-invested for future and sustainable economic opportunities. These community owners are typically now quite complex multi-functional businesses run by the enterprise of the community.
We now know that community land owners are demonstrating more enterprise than the previous private owners they succeeded, they are securing investment into their communities, and they are driving toward the future they want. Within the framework of community owned land confidence can grow, encouraging many new businesses, where individuals contribute to the greater social and economic good through their own private investment. Together, the community and private development builds the potential for stronger, more resilient and sustainable communities.
A recent independent study of 12 community owners has shown that in a few short years some 300 housing units have been provided, some 100+ new jobs have been created, business turnover is up, and new community organisations, often partners with the community owners in delivering projects, are growing in numbers strongly. Those communities are managing assets valued at over £50 million.
Community land owning is an essentially democratic process, supported by a framework of law in Scotland created in 2003. In essence the process can run like this: the community has a right to register an interest in land; if the land comes on the market the community then has a first right of refusal to buy the land at an independent open market valuation; the process can only be actioned by a properly constituted `community body’, and after a democratic vote of all the registered electors in the area concerned.
Communities are not on their own in their endeavours; there is support available from development agencies to help bring in the expertise sometimes necessary to help deliver specific projects, just as would be the case in private business. That support is available from economic development agencies and the Big Lottery in Scotland. This funding can access technical support for legal and financial help, feasibility study work, and the like. There is a cash-limited Scottish Land Fund of currently £3million a year across Scotland to assist communities with the actual purchase of the land.
Increasingly communities are not resorting to the provisions of the law to make their purchase, but do so by negotiation with current owners. This is partly because the law in practise is highly complex and limits purchase to where there is a willing seller. This is the reason why the Scottish Government are currently legislating to simplify that law and extend the rights of communities to situations where there may not be a willing seller of the land but where the community feel they can make a public interest case that the land would be better in community hands for its sustainable development. This right is already enjoyed by Scotland’s crofting communities. The legal changes coming also afford communities new rights in relation to publicly owned land and its potential transfer into community ownership.
Community ownership of land and the rights for communities to purchase that land has hitherto been a rural right to buy land, but that is now to extend to all of Scotland, urban and rural alike. The community land ownership movement has its modern origins in the Highlands and Islands, but its potential is seen to have relevance much more widely. The work and success of the Development Trusts in Scotland, generally more urban focussed and involving ownership of generally smaller but vital local assets of land and buildings, is testimony to the potential for more communities to join in taking control of key local assets.
Community ownership of assets, from the large local land assets, to particular buildings or facilities, is now seen as one of the more successful forms of regeneration activity in Scotland, and one which is truly empowering. There is something very powerful about allowing local people to control key assets. Of itself, the process of owning, of taking and having responsibility, appears to allow the enterprise that was always there within the people, to be released. Innovation and investment follows, and success breeds more success and potential for more investment.
Some question the capacity of communities, but then 20 years ago they questioned the capacity of the very communities now delivering real progress at their own hand. Further progress needs basic faith and trust in people and their potential to better themselves and their families and community, given the right circumstances and support. In just such circumstances people will surprise themselves in what they can achieve, and astonish others.
Community land ownership is delivering hope for sustainable economic futures when little existed before. No one involved falls into the category of a starry-eyed dreamer of some entirely new economic order, but they are convinced the early signs of real community economic empowerment are encouraging enough to drive this all a good deal further.
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This article is part of the Modernise: de-privatise series.