Community Empowerment and Sustainable Landscapes

This is an edited version of the text of a short presentation I gave as part of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Rural Policy meeting on October 29th 2019 on the topic of ‘Taking a place-based approach to address demographic change in rural Scotland’.

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Place-based approaches to rural development are not new.

This is the village of Portnalong in North Talisker on the west side of Skye.  It was created as a consequence of arguably the most radical example of land reform legislation in Scotland in the 20th century.

In 1919 the coalition Government of David Lloyd George passed the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act – celebrating its centenary this year.  Legislation designed to provide smallholdings fit for the heroes returning home from the first world war.

In 1920, as a direct result of the Act, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland paid Norman MacLeod of MacLeod £58,609 (about £1.9 million at today’s prices, according to Jim Hunter) for 60,000 acres of land in North Talisker that had served as a sheep farm following clearance of the area in the 19th century.

And in 1923 families, mainly from the Bays of Harris – where I come from – and also from Lewis moved to 68 newly created crofts in the area, establishing a population of 400 people where for over a century there had been none.  Many of the Harris folk who crossed the Minch in 1923 would have been descendants of a generation cleared from the fertile machair of West Harris to the rock-strewn landscape of the Bays over a century earlier. I suspect I’m not alone in discerning a delicate mix of poignance and optimism within that symmetry of departure and arrival.

Fast forward to the present day and in the grand scheme of things Portnalong, and Talisker as a whole, are doing pretty well.

There’s employment, including at the thriving local distillery.

There’s a resident population which – according to the last census data – seems to have  been bucking demographic trends elsewhere in parts of rural Scotland.   And there’s a primary school that remains open despite previously being threatened with closure.

Head along the road to Minginish and you’ll see – as I did when I visited last summer – an impressive looking community hall celebrating its 10th anniversary as a vital community asset.

That’s not to say that the area is immune to the structural challenges – most obviously a lack of affordable housing – facing many other parts of Skye and elsewhere in rural Scotland. But make no mistake; at a time when skewed demographics lead some observers to contemplate the unpalatable prospect of fragile rural places facing ‘death with dignity’, Portnalong and the wider North Talisker area offer a powerful century-old counter-narrative of ‘rebirth with rights’.  And the most fundamental right of all for a community is simply to ‘be’.

The need for political boldness and policy imagination of the sort that propelled Portnalong and its neighbouring settlements in North Talisker into existence is now more pressing than ever.

So, it may be that a Land Settlement Act from 100 years ago offers important contemporary pointers for the future of rural place-making in Scotland.

Not least regarding how the current land-use planning system can counter negative demographic change by helping to retain and grow existing communities’ populations and by enabling creation of new settlements where it’s feasible and appropriate to do so.

But that alone is not enough.  Contemporary rural place-making also needs to embrace a radical rethinking of the relationship between communities, landscapes and sustainability.

Last year, in collaboration with Inherit (the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development), Community Land Scotland published a research report titled ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’.

 It uncovered tensions between the principles of landscape policy (broadly encompassing natural, cultural and built heritage) and its practice that are vital to account for in taking a place-based approach to development.

These tensions include:

  • An approach that dissects the environment into parts rather than taking a holistic approach to its management;

 

  • An absence of diverse views on what defines a place;

 

  • A continuing drive to single out and protect ‘special’ landscapes;

 

  • A ‘fence and exclude’ conservation culture that treats development simply as a threat;

 

  • A tendency to see landscape matters as the preserve of landscape professionals and institutions.

The research also found a significant ‘participation gap’ whereby communities felt ‘locked out’ of decisions about conservation and its relationship to development that affected their everyday lives.

These tensions and that participation gap matter.  Because if we are serious about place-making as a way to reverse the damaging demographic trends that threaten our most sparsely populated areas, we need to think about our rural landscapes in ways that are genuinely economically, socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable.

That means ensuring that communities’ voices are to the fore in characterising, valuing and managing our rural landscapes, rather than marginal, disenfranchised aspects of these processes.

It also means – and I accept this may be uncomfortable for some – stripping away the ‘wilderness myth’ that shrouds much of Highland Scotland in particular.  There’s a political ecology at play in characterising many of our rural places as ‘wild’ that is beguilingly seductive for all sorts of reasons.

But it masks an inconvenient truth.

Our rural landscapes were never ‘wild’.  They are socially constructed places that have been made and remade – for better or worse – by centuries of human intervention.

That’s not to suggest that we should forgo or somehow downplay and diminish the ecological heritage and diversity of our rural places.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as we hurtle towards the existential threat of climate catastrophe.

Rather, the central challenge confronting us all – policymakers, civil society and communities alike- is how to calibrate the idea of rural place-making to embrace its economic, social and environmental possibilities holistically, in ways that are mutually and positively reinforcing.  Locating community empowerment at the centre of that endeavour is critical to enabling our rural communities – and, by extension, our rural places – to thrive rather than simply survive.

That challenge also necessitates ensuring that land reform in its broadest sense – involving changes to the ownership and use of land in the public interest and for the common good – is hard-wired into public policy as a permanent cross-cutting issue for sustainable rural development rather than an optional extra.

In short, we need to re-connect the relationship between communities, landscapes and power to ensure that the road ahead takes all of our rural communities and places towards a sustainable future.

 

Scotland 2050: Thriving Rural Scotland

The following is the text of a short think-piece I was invited by the Scottish Government to write on the theme of ‘Thriving Rural Scotland’ to help inform discussion on priorities for Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) to address.

Much of rural Scotland faces a depopulation crisis.  Scottish Government funded research by the James Hutton Institute estimates that the Sparsely Populated Area (SPA), covering almost half of Scotland’s land area but containing less than 3% of the nation’s people, will lose more than a quarter of its population by 2046 in the absence of urgent policy intervention.  Zoom in to the regional level and the picture looks equally grim. The Highland Council predicts population growth between 2016 and 2041 in Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh and Ross and Cromarty. However, many of the region’s other places are set to experience continuing population decline over the same period: Sutherland (-11.9%); Caithness (-21.1%); East Ross (-13.8%); Badenoch and Strathspey (-5.3%); and Lochaber (-5.9%).  Head to the Western Isles or the Southern Uplands and you’ll be confronted by a similarly gloomy population prognosis.

Stemming the flow of people from our sparsely populated area must feature at the top of policymakers’ ‘to do’ list if we are serious about creating a thriving rural Scotland by 2050.  That means reframing our relationship as a society with land and landscapes so as to enable our most vulnerable rural communities to flourish as a matter of social justice whilst simultaneously safeguarding our natural heritage and combatting the existential threat of climate change.      Land reform – defined in the Land Reform Review Group’s 2014 report, ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’, as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”  – has a vital role to play in reframing that relationship.   A crucial part of that task involves tackling negative monopolies of power inherent in concentrated rural land ownership that can stymie genuinely sustainable development.  That implies more imaginative deployment of  legislative, regulatory and fiscal policy levers to achieve rural outcomes that contribute to the common good of Scotland as a whole.

The land-use planning system also has an important future role to play in the reframing process.  Some of the groundwork for the system’s future contribution to rural repopulation has been laid in provisions within the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 for which Community Land Scotland strongly advocated.  Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the next National Planning Framework (NPF).  Scottish Ministers must have regard to the desirability of resettling rural areas that have become depopulated when preparing the content of the Framework.  Allocating land for resettlement may now be a consideration for developing both the NPF and Local Development Plans. There is also scope for producing maps and other material relating to rural areas where there has been a substantial decline in population when preparing the NPF.  The Framework must also have regard for any Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement or any strategy for land ownership or use prepared by Scottish Ministers.

These are all helpful provisions in terms of making the planning system fit for the purpose of helping repopulate areas of rural Scotland. However, their effective implementation depends on the commitment of Government and Planning Authorities to steer planning policy towards land use that is genuinely economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.   In short, planning policy that helps deliver the affordable housing, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure and high-quality jobs that are vital to attracting more people to live and work in our currently most imperilled rural communities.  That will require policy imagination and political will.   But be in no doubt that the extent to which these communities’ prospects are turned around will be the barometer of whether all of rural Scotland is thriving by 2050.

Power to the People: Blue Hearts and Big Dams

The Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development (Inherit) recently organised a screening of Blue Heart: The Fight for Europe’s Last Wild Rivers hosted by the Moving Image Archive of the National Library of Scotland at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall.    The documentary focuses on controversial plans for hydropower development on the Vjosa/Aoos River, one of Europe’s last surviving free-flowing rivers, in the transboundary area of Albania and Greece.  These plans form part of a much larger push for hydropower generation in the Balkans where over 3,000 hydropower dams and diversions are being planned from Slovenia to Greece.  188 of these developments are already under construction with potentially significant negative impacts for the region’s natural environment and rural communities.

Blue Heart highlights the struggle of communities, for whom the river is their lifeblood, to resist the construction of these dams.  In so doing, it poses some deeply challenging questions about the sustainability of ‘big hydro’ in the region, transparency and accountability of governance arrangements, and the marginalising of communities’ voices in ‘development’ processes.  It’s hard not to be moved by the dignity and resilience shown by these protesting communities in the face of what appears to be an uncompromising – and sometimes violent – combination of state and corporate power.   It’s equally hard not to be cheered when they successfully resist the bulldozers coming in, as some communities have done.

As part of the same screening and by way of a prelude to Blue Heart, the Archive also showed Power for the Highlands, a short Ministry of Information film from 1943 about the potential of hydropower to economically transform the Highlands of Scotland.   As Jim Hunter noted in a tweet, it’s worth watching just to see a couple of GIs turning up in the Highlands to sing the praises of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a key component of Roosevelt’s New Deal.   Power for the Highlands is certainly also worth watching for the way it deftly weaves themes of repopulation, land ownership, community and development into its fifteen minutes, aided by a subtly subversive script co-written by Neil Gunn.  It scarcely needs adding that these issues remain highly relevant to the region’s prospects today.

 Separated though they are by the geography of time and location, both Blue Heart and Power for the Highlands nevertheless shine a light on the complexities of interpreting what constitutes ‘sustainable’ development.   In Blue Heart the prospect of intensifying hydropower production in the Balkans is portrayed as a socio-ecological disaster in the making; one posing an existential threat to human settlements through which the Vjosa/Aoos River meanders and to the biodiversity which depends on its free-flowing currents.

In contrast, the promise of hydropower coursing through Power for the Highlands carries with it the prospect of something akin to economic salvation; a ready-made solution to ‘the problem of the Highlands’ whereby ‘nature’ is conquered for the greater good of the region’s human population.   That 1940s narrative may seem a little too anthropocentrically brutalist for modern tastes.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that the then Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston’s vision of hydropower for the Highlands, and the ‘electric light’ it subsequently delivered, were pivotal in transforming the region’s fortunes in the second half of the twentieth century.

The narrative trajectories of both Blue Heart and Power for the Highlands might ostensibly be heading in opposite directions, certainly in terms of the merits or otherwise of large-scale hydropower developments.  But at their core these films share a fundamental concern about power in other guises – political, social and economic – and how it might be exercised for the common good. Now, more than ever, that feels like an issue deserving of our attention.

 

Land Reform Bill Approaches Endgame

The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill is fast approaching its legislative endgame. Last week it emerged from Stage 2 of that process in Parliament looking marginally more radical than before. Although ‘radical’ is a relative term in a country with one of the most concentrated patterns of private land ownership in the world.  The new version of the Bill has further detail on the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and Scottish Land Commission, both of which are intended to ensure that land reform becomes entrenched as a permanent feature of Scottish public policy. Some headway has also been made on gleaning information about the control of land, although not as much as some land reformers would like.

The proposed guidance for landowners on community engagement will now incorporate a pick and mix of “relevant human rights”, potentially opening up enforcement possibilities regarding those who fail to adhere to it. Meanwhile the community right to buy to further sustainable development contained in Part 5 of the Bill can now be “the most practicable” way (rather than the “only practicable way”) to “prevent significant harm” to a community wishing to use it. Many will welcome that while simultaneously questioning why the new right cannot be made less onerous still for communities to use; akin to a simplified ‘crofting community right to buy’ that actually works. Continue reading

‘One Million Acres by 2020’: Strategy Report of the 1 Million Acre Short Life Working Group

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. Continue reading