Another week, another land reform-themed report. Hard on the heels of the RACCE Committee’s Stage 1 report on the Land Reform Bill comes ‘One Million Acres by 2020’, the strategy report of the Scottish Government-appointed 1 Million Acre Short Life Working Group. Its appearance is further indication of the extraordinary head of steam that land reform has picked up since publication of the Land Reform Review Group’s (LRRG) final report, ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ last year.
The genesis of ‘One Million Acres by 2020’ predates the LRRG’s report. Back in June 2013 the then First Minister, Alex Salmond, used his keynote speech at Community Land Scotland’s annual conference to announce a target of achieving 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020. That was unexpected news to most of the people in the audience at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye that day. Rumour has it that it was unexpected news to at least some of Mr Salmond’s Civil Servants too.
One million acres in community ownership is certainly a headline grabbing if somewhat arbitrary figure. Given that there are currently only an estimated 480,000 acres in community ownership, more than doubling that figure in 5 years seems like a very tall order. Nevertheless, the Working Group’s newly published report represents a potentially important contribution towards helping make that target a reality.
Some of the report’s baseline data regarding the distribution of land currently in community ownership is illuminating. Fully 66.1% of that total (317,717 acres) is located in the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles) local authority area. That acreage will expand yet further if and when the communities of Gallan Head, Barvas, Bernera and Keose Glebe succeed in buying the estates on Lewis where they live. The Highland Council area accounts for 28.9% (138,651 acres) of the remaining area under community control. That begs the question as to what it is about the context of the Western Isles in particular that has made the region such a magnet for community ownership.
The report also draws on empirical evidence to highlight various interlinked benefits associated with community land ownership. These include control of land assets leading to greater community resilience; more localised and accountable decision-making in relation to land development and governance; rebalanced power relationships in favour of communities within partnership working arrangements; and socio-economic benefits in terms of employment creation; population retention and expansion, and provision of local services and amenities. At the same time ‘One Million Acres by 2020’ acknowledges that community land ownership is not a risk-free endeavour. The possibility of assets becoming liabilities and the sector’s reliance on voluntary effort are both highlighted as potential areas of vulnerability.
Aside from the occasional lapse into ghastly jargon (“community advice market”, anyone?) the report’s recommendations seem like a sensible basis for action in support of further community ownership. In broad summary these recommendations are thematically organised and focus on:
- raising awareness of community land ownership opportunities via promotional activities encompassing case-studies, events and other guidance on relevant legislation, best practice, buyout processes and lessons learnt;
- ensuring that support services available to communities in the Highlands and Islands can be replicated in Lowland Scotland and developing ‘peer to peer’ support and mentoring services;
- facilitating engagement between different parties (“expert professionals”, private landowners, community groups) for familiarisation, mediation and negotiation purposes in relation to community ownership;
- strategic co-ordination of effort towards the 1 million acre target by Scottish Government via a high level co-ordinating group with representation from various stakeholders;
- increasing the supply of land for community ownership, mainly by requiring and/or otherwise encouraging Government departments, agencies and local authorities to consider how they can contribute to meeting the 1 million acre target;
- measuring and evaluating progress via reporting guidelines, a programme of research and evaluation of the community ownership sector and development of a framework of indicators and outcomes to measure success.
Will the Scottish Government meet its 1 million acres target by 2020? Who knows? And, in a sense, who cares? The much more important goal is to create the conditions where rural and urban communities throughout Scotland are able to take land into their ownership if that will contribute to their sustainability. In turn, that depends on the Government properly resourcing and implementing the strategy document’s recommendations. It also partly depends (although the strategy report doesn’t mention this) on ensuring that the new community right to buy contained in the current Land Reform Bill before Parliament is of practical use to the communities that are supposed to benefit from it.