Issue 6

THIS LAND IS OUR LAND ? OR IS IT?

By Alison Elliot, Convener, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

Ten years ago, Scotland did an exceptional thing. Inspired by being able to legislate in its own way, it passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which pioneered a way of loosening up the ownership of land that was internationally innovative. It was based on the successful challenges by the people of Assynt and Eigg which had secured community ownership of their land as a result of high profile campaigns. The 2003 Act set out to provide a more regular pathway for communities to claim and purchase land in which they had an interest, giving them a priority in the market and aiming to release land into the hands of local people who had a vision for how it could regenerate their community. A decade later, the Scottish Government has set up an independent group , the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) to review land reform again, to see how the 2003 Act is working and to go beyond it to bring in further reforms appropriate to today’s conditions.

The group has been working since August and has just published its interim report. It spent the first six months gathering evidence from written submissions, visits, interviews and meetings with organisations, to pursue its remit to
•    Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;
•    Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;
•    Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland 

… the community right to buy. This provides for any community to flag up that it is interested in buying a piece of land when it comes on the market. Once it is for sale, the community has a period in which it can raise the money to purchase it….

It’s a broad remit, and it can contribute to a variety of outcomes. The group has concentrated on the experience of communities and has regarded land reform as a route to community empowerment. This is where a lot of the energy is, both around the country and in the policy community, and so it is the perspective which provides the best chance of making a difference in the time available. The group is charged with producing its final report by April 2014.

What was innovative about the 2003 Act was the community right to buy. This provides for any community to flag up that it is interested in buying a piece of land when it comes on the market. Once it is for sale, the community has a period in which it can raise the money to purchase it and, in this period, other deals are off. The body making the application has to show that such a sale will be in the public interest and that it has the support of the relevant community for taking ownership of the land. If it’s a crofting community that is making the application, it doesn’t need to wait for the land to come on the market; it can initiate a sale whether the owner wishes it or not.

Since 2003, several communities have gone down the route of ownership. Community Land Scotland (CLS), which is the body that promotes community ownership, has a membership of 34 communities who have either bought their land or are in the process of doing so. However, many of these purchases have found the procedures of the Act too onerous and have made their purchase independently of it. The legislation was cautious and clunky and it could be simplified and streamlined. This is a contentious area because it can be seen as interfering in the right of someone to enjoy their property (in the language of the European Convention on Human Rights), and so questions of human rights arise.

But people other than landowners have human rights too and the Government is party to human rights conventions other than the ECHR. And arching over all of this are questions of what is in the public interest. So the LRRG sets its work within a framework bounded by questions of human rights and the public interest.

The principal task for the LRRG is to see how engaging with the land and with land based assets can strengthen local communities round Scotland. For some, ownership of significant stretches of land may be the right course of action, but not for all. Some may need access to land to provide housing so that economic activity in the area can be opened up or secured. Many communities are discovering the advantages of growing their own food and want to expand allotments or other growing spaces. Some want to develop community woodlands, for recreation and for re-connecting people with the natural world. Increasingly, landowners are also recognising the advantages of having a closer working relationship with the communities in which they are set, so there are opportunities for opening up constructive avenues for partnership in many parts of the country. 

Community Land Scotland (CLS), which is the body that promotes community ownership, has a membership of 34 communities who have either bought their land or are in the process of doing so.

We’re halfway through the review now. Taking the lessons learned from the activities in the first phase of our work, we’re now ready to focus more on specific questions. What might land reform look like in the city? What kinds of support do communities need when they take on ownership of a major land asset? Where are the opportunities for a regular income stream when communities do own their land? Why has community ownership not taken off in the South of Scotland? What models of ownership are currently in evidence across Scotland and how might they be expanded? What other ways short of ownership are there that could connect people better with the land? What can be done when relationships break down completely?

These are areas of work that we think are ripe for development at present. When we report finally in 2014, we hope that we will be able to recommend an agenda continuing into the future that will allow the relationship between people and the land in Scotland to flourish into a more harmonious, more confident and more just society than it is today.     

Alison Eliott was the first woman to be appointed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. She is Convener of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and was a member of the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services in Scotland [Christie Group]

By Alison Elliot, Convener, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

Issue 6

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