Community Land Scotland calls for new land rights – but what are the downsides?

Community Land Scotland has just submitted evidence to the Land Reform Review Group established by the Scottish Government to push forward land reforms.

Community Land Scotland is calling for new land rights for communities.

n their evidence they argues for:

  • extended rights over all land in Scotland for communities to have an absolute right to purchase land
  • the creation of a land agency to facilitate `mediated negotiations’ with land-owners to achieve land transfers
  • an increase in the Land Fund for community purchases to £10m a year
  • a streamlining of the existing land reform act to make it less complex and easier for communities to use
  • a review of the charitable status of Trusts which hold land and which have closed membership
  • a new deal for tenant farmers with greater security of tenure and possible new rights to buy in community owned estates

David Cameron, Chair of Community Land Scotland says: ‘Today our detailed evidence to the Land Reform Review Group sets out a reasoned case for necessary changes in legislation to give new powers to communities across Scotland – by extending the rights that already exist for crofting communities, to other land in Scotland, when that is in the public interest.

‘Our proposals are radical and responsible. They are not just about new powers for communities to take greater control of their future, they set out constructive approaches to making change, with an emphasis on negotiated settlements of land transfers, and a dedicated land agency to facilitate that process. The new rights would only operate when Ministers judged it was in the public interest to see a transfer of the land in question and in order to support further sustainable development.

‘In Scotland half the country is owned by just 608 people and of those, 18 owners own 10% of Scotland. This leaves Scotland centuries behind other advanced nations which long ago reformed their land laws to bring about a greater sharing of their nation’s resources, giving more access to the opportunities the land can create for people. It is time Scotland caught up, time to make more change. It is hard to envisage a modern, progressive, Scotland which retains its old land ownership patterns.

‘We are in no doubt that the vested interests in large land holdings will oppose any further change and make the case that such further change is unnecessary; but the evidence is that change in land ownership, giving more people a stake in the land, releases new energy and enterprise in communities and brings wider public benefits than may be otherwise achieved.’

Respect for the rights of all

We have no doubt that, as Point 4  of the Executive Summary below of the evidence submitted today says: ‘The specific rights granted in the Land Reform Act have fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between private owners and communities and the land. These rights have empowered communities and significantly strengthened their position and given crucial time to communities to seek to secure a land purchase. ‘

We also have no doubt that the direction of travel of these reforms is stimulating of ambition, responsibility  and enabling of the economic sustainability of the agricultural and business life of communities.

We welcome the capacity of the Land Fund to support the acquisition of unused buildings by urban communities; and the acquisition by rural communities of struggling local businesses.

We feel that the current resourcing of the land fund is close to comically inadequate and that Community Land Scotland’s call for the funding pot to be raised to £10 million is a necessary prompt and judiciously pitched in the amount it has identified.

It is, however, important to look with cool objectivity at both the pros and the cons. The community right to buy may, on occasion, push aside the right of ownership vested in a responsible landowner. This is no more than reversal of the source of force majeure.

We feel that, in the fairness that must govern the actions of any equable society, the rights of everyone concerned must carry equal weight.

Landowners get a bad press, often for historical reasons connected in Scotland to the Highland Clearances – and we would count ourselves amongst those who cannot understand why the statue to the first Duke of Sutherland has been allowed to continue to make its two fingered salute to the abused from the top of Ben Bhraggie.

But today the majority of landowners are responsible in their management and use of their estates, driven by the twin motives of the need to make a profit to keep the estate going and the weight of their genuine sense of responsibility to the local communities. Many understand that privilege, old or new, carries obligations. Many also understand that ignoring those obligations can only build a funeral pyre for their privileged position.

There is also a hefty residue of knowledge and understanding amongst the historic landowning families that is important and useful.

The reality of community land ownership

When communities have made assisted purchases of estates under the existing Land Reform legislation, the general pattern is that they essentially take over the responsibility of managing the estates. It is not a question of sharing out the land and creating jobs and sustainable futures from the fruits of the physical labour of the community, as the myth surrounding this concept somehow suggests.

In a way, by forcing a focus on corporate responsibility and administrative skills, it can further distance the people from the land.

While such owner communities generally employ people to do the managing, they are rarely equipped – they cannot be – with the insights and skills to instruct those managers – even to appoint them. Those who help them in the early days of ownership and who set the template for their future understanding of their responsibilities often have no experience outside the public sector.  These factors, alone and together, stifle development and can progressively lead to less effective estate management than was previously the case.

The community inherits the problems of the former landowners – it is actually very difficult to make money from land unless it happens to be attractive for real estate development or for wind farms. Communities desperate to make an acquisition pay  – often to repay loans towards the purchase – are not likely to be in a position to make informed or considered judgments on such matters – although rapacious landowners will create the same degraded legacy for different reasons.

Few estates make much money and therefore face the problem of being unable to invest adequately in the regeneration or redirection of the asset. Community owners inherit this endemic problem and, to date, the resulting pattern is inevitably one of continued dependence on grant funding. This is inorganic and far from the vision promised in the notion of land reform.

Liberation or shackle to subsistence living?

Because estates make little money, the community benefit is largely limited to the inestimable lift to a sense of wellbeing and security through ownership of place – and to subsistence living.

Given that the sense of welbeing can evaporate in sustained hard times and with the weight of real and substantial responsibility, it has to be asked whether the overall cost of community buy outs is justified by an outcome that is not far from an imposed continuation of subsistence living.

It would be interesting to see detailed facts and figures on job creation and earnings from land bought by communities under this reform.

Young people – and even remote places have access to the Internet – are aware of other worlds available to them. Subsistence living does not measure up to the attractions of these other worlds. It is hard to see that the young will be persuaded to stay in their communities because the community trust owns the land.

The core imperative is not just to prolong the survival of remote rural communities but to see them grow, change and become sustainable. This is contingent on them being able to retain and attract the young, changing the rural demographic, creating real jobs amongst the community itself and driving up skills, entrepreneurship, the population and, frankly, an extended choice of  potential partners. Mating as well as money drives rural emigration.

Ownership, per se, is not enough – and that, ironically, is the perspective that has fuelled the land reform movement, from disaffection with iconic bad landlords.

We would hope to be seeing far more evolved thinking on the nature and potential of community land buy outs; and greater consideration of the real risks.

What, for instance, will happen when,. as will be the case in some instances, a community still withers, the young still migrate and the community trust which owns the estates is in the hands of a remaining handful of hardy wheelchair users?

Where is the ultimate gain to Scotland in this? In such a scenario the land might well have been a better community or national resource if it had been left to the responsibility of its former owner.

Conceptual regeneration

The answer to the sustainability of rural communities may, in the end have less to do with enabling and supporting them in land buy outs and more to do with a highly capable and robust economic development plan for the country and the prioritising of resources to make it happen.

The necessary calibre of thinking at government level simply isn’t there; and the long term capability of dealing with such a resource at community level cannot be assumed.

The reality is that community land ownership is, as with any responsibility, as much a burden as an empowerment. Not all communities can or want to carry that burden – they are no less for that; and some who think they do ,wilt under the reality.

This has always been an interesting and attractive concept but it’s got stuck in a groove and simply looks to doing more of the same rather than looking for and stimulating the necessary regenerative thinking.

This is disappointing because we’ve been doing community buy outs in one form or another since 1908, when the government of the day purchased the Glendale Estate in Skye and sold it to the crofters. We should be further on.

None of this should be read as opposition to the notion of land reform or community land ownership. We simply believe that sacred cows are dangerous navigational aids; and that considered challenge is a necessary contribution to the regeneration without which nothing is effective.

Appendix: Executive Summary of Community Land Scotland’s evidence

1. The early evidence of community land ownership is that it is delivering significant results and should be viewed as a highly effective model for furthering sustainable rural development.

2. Despite remarkable progress over recent years in the number of communities owning their land, the total of Scotland’s land in community ownership remains a tiny fraction of all land holdings and the basic pattern of land ownership in Scotland has changed little for generations.

3. Scotland’s land ownership patterns are significantly out of line with what would be the norm in most of Europe, or much of the rest of the world, with vast tracts of land owned by a tiny proportion of the population. Half of the entire country is held by just 608 owners and a mere eighteen owners hold 10% of Scotland (source Warren 2002). This disempowers communities and does not promote achieving greater social justice in Scotland.

4. The specific rights granted in the Land Reform Act have fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between private owners and communities and the land. These rights have empowered communities and significantly strengthened their position and given crucial time to communities to seek to secure a land purchase.

5. There is little evidence that, without an imaginative, bold and advanced framework of law, building on the provisions of the current Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 there will be any real hope for an acceleration of change in current patterns of land ownership.

6. Notwithstanding the benefits of the existing legislation, it is widely recognised that the Act is cumbersome and complex to use and is in need of significant simplification and streamlining; it is deficient in its range of powers and needs to be reformed if there is to be further advance in the cause of land reform.  Part 3 of the Act, in particular, is unnecessarily demanding.

7. There should be new legal provisions to secure the ability for land to be taken into community ownership when that can be shown to be in the public interest, and is calculated to secure furthering the achievement of sustainable development, and this should not be limited to circumstances where there is a willing seller.

8. The absolute rights for community purchase of land should be available across Scotland.

9. Within the context of the Highlands and Islands, where crofting exists, it appears increasingly anomalous that different rights apply to crofting communities than to other communities which face exactly similar economic, demographic and sustainability challenges, and there is a clear case to balance up the rights of all communities.

10. In moving forward there should be a new emphasis on negotiated land transfers and means established, underpinned through new legislative powers and responsibilities, to secure  `mediated negotiations’ between communities and landowners, prior to any new and absolute right to buy being able to be exercised.

11. A `land agency’, utilising the existing expertise of the Scottish Government and its agencies (such as HIE), is recommended as the optimal means to help facilitate and manage the process of more land transfers to communities.

12. The unnecessarily onerous requirements in Part 3 of the Act should be abolished.

13. In addition to strong and appropriate legislation, any effective policy framework to secure more community ownership of land needs to recognise three other pillars on which community ownership can succeed – that communities need to have a clear desire to own; that effective advisory and support services, such as are provided by HIE currently, are available; that sufficient finance to support purchase and fund initial development is available.

14. Consideration should be given to Ministers and/or local authorities having powers to require land and property to be put on the market for sale, when that is in the public interest.

15. The Scottish Land Fund should grow to £10 million a year.

16. The use of charitable status as a means to secure tax benefits for what might appear continuing private ownership of land should be critically examined.

17. Forms of land taxation, and reforming personal taxation and allowances, may have a part to play in helping create the climate for land to become available for purchase, for application to land not already held in community ownership.

18. The empowerment of local coastal communities cannot be regarded to be complete until such time as they have access to their immediate foreshore and inshore marine resources and the opportunity of reform to the Crown Estate should form part of the consideration of the land reform agenda.

19. Community Land Scotland plans to engage in further dialogue with tenant farming interests to explore how community land ownership can potentially provide a more positive approach to issues of security of tenure and a possible tenants’ right to buy than current private land ownership arrangements.

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2 Responses to Community Land Scotland calls for new land rights – but what are the downsides?

  1. An interesting and thoughtful piece. I would make the following comments:

    You say: “The community right to buy may, on occasion, push aside the right of ownership vested in a responsible landowner.” However, Community Land Scotland are clear that the powers of compulsory purchase they propose should only “…operate when Ministers judged it was in the public interest to see a transfer of the land in question and in order to support further sustainable development.” I should have thought that any definition of a ‘responsible landowner’ would automatically infer that he/she was managing the land ‘in the public interest’. Such a provision would also strongly encourage ‘responsible ownership’ in any landlord who wished to retain ownership of his land.

    You say “today the majority of landowners are responsible in their management and use of their estates” – but you do not say what this assertion is based on.

    You then go on to question whether a community-owned piece of land is not perhaps more of a burden than an asset. Maybe – you would really need to ask those who have gone down this path for their candid views. Also, this will surely vary widely from one case to another, and most probably be especially acute in the early years of such a project when there are large loans to be repaid and limited experience within the community. Both these issues should ease with the passing of time. Of course, one of the problems inherent in trying to make such a judgement is that there are so few examples to study.

    Personally I would say that CLS have made some very modest and reasonable suggestions for an increase in government support, both financial and legislative, towards increasing the diversity and democracy of land-holding in Scotland. In my view there is certainly a place for modest-sized well- managed private estates – of which there are undoubtedly good examples – but when such a huge proportion of our land is in the hands of such a tiny minority, something is clearly very seriously out of balance.

    And of course, at the end of the day, no-one is going to force any community to buy the land it lives on if its members cannot forsee a clear social/economic benefit from doing so.

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  2. What are the downsides ? Maintaining the injustices of history .Assynt, Abriochan, Gigha and many more point the way forward . I visited Willie MacSporran and his team on Gigha a couple of years ago a better testimony to community ownership it would be hard to find .New homes, a community wind farm which i think was bringing in £98,000 a year ,the hotel under the trust ,and farms leased as well .The reality is that some will do better than others but lets welcome the fact that these communities now have the chance to take their own destiny forward .

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