Community Ownership and South of Scotland Enterprise

Over the last five years land community land ownership has become an increasingly mainstream public policy issue in Scotland. The suite of Community Rights to Buy first introduced in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 has been simplified and extended to enable rural and urban communities to buy land and built assets as a result of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.  The Scottish Government has published a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement to shape thinking on land issues in Scotland.  A Scottish Land Commission is in place to review and recommend changes to law and policy relating to land and provide guidance and information on relevant issues.  The Scottish Land Fund will continue to allocate its annual £10 million budget to assist communities to buy land and built assets until 2021.  These are all positive developments designed to help create more diversity in Scotland’s absurdly concentrated pattern of land ownership wherein over 80% of Scotland’s land is privately owned and 50% of that private land is in the hands of fewer than 500 owners.

There’s still a long way to go, of course.  Scottish Government data estimates that as of June 2017 there were 562,230 acres in community ownership, accounting for 2.9% of Scotland’s land area. It’s an encouraging figure but nowhere near enough. Dig a little deeper into the data and you’ll see that the vast majority of that acreage is registered to community groups in The Highland Council Local Authority area (141,912 acres) and especially Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles) Local Authority area (385,340 acres). Head towards the South of Scotland and the comparable figures for the Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders Local Authority areas are 381 acres and 412 acres respectively.

That glaring discrepancy in both the amount and location of land in community ownership matters.  Not least because the ownership of land has a significant influence on how it is used and in who’s interests.  The Scottish Land Commission seems to agree. Last November it published recommendations to Scottish Ministers on the future development of community ownership and the community right to buy. The Commission’s overarching strategic recommendation is that “[f]or Scotland’s community land ownership sector to reach its potential […..] a clear vision is now needed for the way in which community ownership matures over the coming decades to be a mainstream route to delivering sustainable development for communities across rural and urban Scotland”.

One important way to help diversify Scotland’s concentrated pattern of land ownership involves hardwiring land reform into the decision-making machinery of a wide range of public policy areas and institutions to make community ownership the “mainstream route” to sustainable development envisaged by the Scottish Land Commission.  The Bill to create a new South of Scotland Enterprise agency currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament offers an early opportunity to gauge the political will to undertake precisely that sort of policy co-ordination.

The South of Scotland Enterprise Bill is a welcome and long overdue sign that the region will soon have the type of custom-built development support long embedded in the Highlands and Islands, initially through the Highlands and Islands Development Board and latterly via Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).  Opinion as to what exactly constitutes the ‘South’ of Scotland may vary but, for the purposes of the Bill, the new agency will mirror the geographical parameters of both Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders Councils.

There’s rather less debate about the need for the new organisation. The policy memorandum accompanying the Bill notes natural advantages that make the South of Scotland attractive for residents, businesses and visitors.  These include its strategic geographical location and significant land assets and energy resources, together with active further and higher education sectors and innovative businesses.  The memorandum also identifies a range of challenges that impact on the region’s economy including “an ageing population, challenging physical and digital connectivity, low GDP per head with low productivity, sectors with traditionally low wages and few higher skilled jobs, and a business base dominated by micro and small business”.

These are familiar development challenges for predominantly rural areas elsewhere in Scotland too.  It’s therefore encouraging that the Bill articulates the strategic aims of South of Scotland Enterprise as being to “further the economic and social development, and to improve the amenity and environment of the South of Scotland”.  Community land and asset ownership can play an important role in helping to achieve these aims.  We already know that it’s an approach that works elsewhere.  Take the West Harris Trust, for example. When it assumed ownership of the 7225 hectare West Harris Estate in 2010 the resident population stood at 119 with little prospect of its ongoing decline being reversed prior to the buyout.  That population has now risen to 147 and – crucially – its demography has been reshaped to include an increasing number of younger people resident in the area.    Affordable housing, new business developments and renewable energy generation – opportunities all unlocked by the Trust taking ownership of the land – have been vital to the upturn in the community’s prospects.

There’s no reason why communities in the South of Scotland can’t replicate that success by taking ownership of land and other assets to help shape their sustainable development and, by extension, that of the wider region.  The demand is certainly there, as illustrated by Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders having the third and fourth highest numbers of approvals respectively from the Scottish Land Fund by Local Authority area as of January 2019.

In another of its recommendations to Scottish Ministers regarding the future development of community ownership, the Scottish Land Commission has called on South of Scotland Enterprise to provide the type of support for community land and asset ownership that has long been given by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in its region. It’s easy to see why the Commission favours that approach.  Since its creation in 1997, HIE’s Community Land Unit (now Community Assets Team) has provided start-up and technical assistance for community groups at pre-acquisition stage; community engagement via networking, information exchange and visits and skills training; land and asset acquisition support via capital funding; post-acquisition project support; and capacity-building, training and development.  That range of support has been instrumental in making community ownership an increasingly mainstream activity in the Highlands and Islands, as the Scottish Government data discussed previously shows.

The creation of South of Scotland Enterprise is an opportunity to contribute towards a step-change in the prevalence of community land and asset ownership in the South of Scotland as a means to support the sustainable development of the region.  Scottish Ministers have apparently accepted the Scottish Land Commission’s recommendation to incorporate specific support for community ownership within the new agency’s remit.  Parliamentarians can reinforce the permanence of that commitment by adding an explicit provision for such support to the face of the Bill during Stage 2 of its legislative journey.  Doing so would send a strong positive signal regarding community ownership’s importance to the sustainable development of both the South of Scotland and the nation as a whole.