Connecting community wealth building and land reform for a fairer, greener Scotland

‘Community wealth building’ is increasingly viewed as a policy idea whose time has come as a way of achieving a fairer, greener Scotland.  In the Scottish Government, Tom Arthur MSP has ‘community wealth’ alongside ‘public finance’ and ‘planning’ in his Ministerial job title.  Community wealth building projects are underway in Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, the Western Isles, the South of Scotland, Glasgow City Region and in relation to the Tay Cities Deal.   There’s also a Government commitment to introduce a Community Wealth Building Bill in the current session of Parliament.

The idea of community wealth building was first developed by the Democracy Collaborative in the United States and subsequently championed in the UK by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES).  The latter describes it as “a new people-centred approach to local economic development, which redirects wealth back into the local economy, and places control and benefits into the hands of local people”.      

In turn, that ‘people-centred approach’ to local economic development is underpinned by five core principles.  They include: shared ownership of the local economy, by supporting and growing business models (including locally owned and social enterprises) that generate wealth for local communities; progressive procurement that develops local supply chains supporting local employment; fair employment and just labour markets, using ‘anchor institutions’ to improve local peoples’ prospects; making financial power work for local places by increasing flows of investment within local economies; and ensuring socially just use of land and property, by developing the functions and ownership of local assets held by anchor organisations to enable local communities to benefit from financial and social gain.  

Against that background, it’s easy to see the progressive appeal of community wealth building as an antidote to the highly extractive nature of conventional economic development models and the resulting inequalities in wealth distribution.  By that measure, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates the UK to be the fifth most inequitable country in the world, with 44% of the wealth owned by just 10% of the population.  In Scotland, much of that wealth inequality is embedded in and symbolised by the nation’s unusually concentrated pattern of rural land ownership, 67% of which is said to be owned by 0.025% of the population.      

It doesn’t take a quantum leap of policy imagination to spot the close links between Scotland’s community wealth building and land reform agendas.    As the Centre for Local Economic Strategies notes, “land ownership matters because it is an expression of economic and political power”.   In some instances, concentrated large-scale land ownership has the potential to tip over into an expression of negative monopoly economic power, corroding the social fabric and resilience of local communities.  

Consider, by way of example, the Scottish Land Commission’s 2019 report on issues associated with large-scale and concentrated land ownership in Scotland, which notes “fear of going against the landowner” expressed by some research respondents.  The report states that “this fear was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents, should they so wish”.  It’s a glimpse through the looking glass into some people’s lived experience of concentrated land ownership that’s about as far removed from the idea of community wealth building as it’s possible to get.

That is not to suggest that all large-scale private landowners behave in such an economically and socially damaging manner.  There will be some who argue that they make important contributions to the local economy through the provision of employment and affordable local housing, for example.   That may well be the case.  However, it misses the crucial point that concentration of rural land ownership in the hands of only a few people is a structural problem when it results in the extraction of wealth from local communities that is both to their detriment and that of the wider public interest.  

That why diversifying Scotland’s concentrated pattern of rural land ownership has been a well-established public policy objective for several decades.   In the midst of the climate emergency, the extractive nature of that pattern of ownership, together with its capacity to undermine the scope to build community wealth is perhaps best illustrated Scotland’s largely unregulated land market.  A market in which aspiring and existing ‘green lairds’ are given free rein to capitalise on the financial returns associated with the transition to a net zero carbon economy without necessarily troubling themselves to consider local community benefits.          

Amongst its many novel features, community wealth building emphasises the key strategic role of mainly public sector institutions such as local authorities and the NHS as ‘anchor organisations’ through which to put the idea’s core principles into practice.  Increasing the scope for community trusts to act as local anchor organisations though ownership of land and other assets urgently needs to form a central part of community wealth building too. 

That requires some lateral policy thinking to join the dots between the evolving community wealth building and land reform agendas, as they relate to the Scottish Government’s legislative and other policy commitments due to be rolled out during the current session of Parliament.  

Aside from the promised Community Wealth Building Bill, these commitments include a new Human Rights Bill incorporating five UN Treaties, including economic, social and cultural rights for everyone and the right to a healthy environment, into Scots law.  The Bill therefore has potentially important implications for how individual property rights are interpreted within a land reform context.  

A new Land Reform Bill, containing a Public Interest Test to be applied to large-scale land transfers, is scheduled to be introduced by the end of 2023.  There is also a commitment to review the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.  That Act matters because it introduced the Community Right to Buy Abandoned, Neglected or Detrimental Land and asset transfer provisions to enable community bodies to request to take control of land and built assets from Scottish public authorities.    

The Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, introduced within the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, is also being reviewed by the Scottish Government.  Depending on the findings from that review, there may be scope to modify its underpinning principles to help ensure both a just transition to net zero carbon emissions and community wealth building in practice. The Government has also committed to increasing the annual budget of the Scottish Land Fund, which provides financial support towards the purchase costs of community buyouts of land and built assets, from £10 million to £20 million by the end of the current Parliamentary session. 

The sequencing of these various commitments is important for them to have maximum policy impact within a crowded legislative timetable.  Ideally the Human Rights Bill should precede the Land Reform Bill because of its implications for what the Public Interest Test contained in the latter Bill might entail.  It would also be sensible to conclude the review of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 before the Land Reform Bill is introduced, to enable any necessary amendments to existing community right to buy and community asset transfer provisions to be included in the new Land Reform Act. 

These myriad commitments undoubtedly contain substantial technical and political challenges for Government and Parliament to navigate if they are to play a full part in building community wealth.  Several commitments, most obviously a public interest test on large-scale land transfers, will be vehemently opposed by vested landed interests who need no reminding that land ownership is both economic and political power.   

Aside from the above, a unique opportunity to tangibly demonstrate its commitment to both community wealth building and land reform will shortly be within the Scottish Government’s grasp.  In August Community Land Scotland wrote to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, urging that at least £100 million of the projected £860 million of revenue soon to be generated through the first round of Crown Estate Scotland’s ‘Scotwind’ seabed leasing programme for new offshore renewable wind energy sites be used to establish a Community Wealth Fund.  

Carefully crafted, and in tandem with the existing policy commitments described above, the proposed Fund would be a step-change in helping communities throughout Scotland to turn the core principles of community wealth building into positive and sustainable impacts on their everyday lives.

Isn’t that what politics is supposed to be for?        

Land Reform in 2019

Following a period in the political wilderness land reform has commanded an increasingly high profile on Scotland’s public policy agenda over the last four years.   Much of that heighted profile has been propelled by legislation in the form of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and, particularly, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.

The Community Empowerment Act simplified existing Community and Crofting Community Rights to Buy land first introduced in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and extended the Community Right to Buy to cover urban as well as rural areas.  It introduced a new Community Right to Buy land which is abandoned, neglected or detrimental to the environmental wellbeing of local communities without the necessity of a willing seller.  The Act also introduced a right for communities to make requests to Scottish Ministers, local authorities and a range of other public bodies to own, lease or otherwise use land or buildings they could make better use of.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 represents another important step forward in Scotland’s land reform journey. Amongst other things it made provision for the following: a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement to help inform policy and practice around land issues in Scotland;  a register of controlling interests in land; guidance on engaging communities in decisions relating to land which may affect them; a new Community Right to Buy land to further sustainable development, again without the need for a willing seller; and creation of a Scottish Land Commission to review the effectiveness and impact of any law or policy relating to land matters and to make recommendations accordingly, as well as commissioning research and providing information and guidance on relevant issues.

In the wake of both the Community Empowerment and Land Reform Acts it may be tempting for Scotland’s Parliamentarians to assume that much of the heavy lifting of land reform has been completed.  That, after all, is exactly what happened when Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, after which land reform went for a prolonged sabbatical as a policy issue for the remainder of the decade.

Tempting, but a mistaken assumption nonetheless.

In fact, there remains a great deal to do to maintain and deepen land reform’s purchase on the public policy agenda as a force for progressive change in Scotland.   Much of that work will begin to take shape over the course of 2019.   Some of it is legislative in nature and involves putting flesh on the bones of provisions contained in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.  Part of the work is already under way; last autumn the Scottish Government consulted on draft regulations to underpin its new Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land which will be introduced this year to improve land ownership transparency.

Other important legislative work will begin later this year when the Scottish Government introduces regulations to implement the Community Right to Buy to further sustainable development contained in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.   As with the Community Right to Buy abandoned, neglected or detrimental land, the ‘sustainable development’ Community Right to Buy does not require a willing seller.  Making sure that it is fit for purpose while respecting the human rights of individual property owners and members of the wider community will be a critical task for Parliament.  In particular the sustainable development right needs to be framed in a way that will enable communities to actually use it in practice in appropriate circumstances.  It’s not yet clear whether the recently introduced ‘abandoned etc’. Right to Buy will be effective in that regard, partly because no community has yet applied to use it and partly because of concerns that the legal definitions of “harm” and communities’ “environmental wellbeing” are too tightly drawn to make the right useable in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

There’s also work to be done in ensuring that land reform’s geographical reach continues to spread beyond its traditional rural heartland of the Highlands and Islands.  The growth in community land ownership has been the most obvious manifestation of land reform since the pioneering ‘first wave’ of community buyouts – in most notably in Assynt, Knoydart and Eigg – in the 1990s.  Data recently published by the Scottish Government indicate that, as of June 2017, there are 562,229 acres in community ownership.  527,252 acres of that total are located in the Highlands and Islands.  In contrast, the Scottish Government estimates that a mere 794 acres of land in the south of Scotland (Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish Borders) are in community ownership.

One of the most important factors in helping to nurture the growth of community ownership in the Highlands and Islands was the creation of the Community Land Unit in Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 1997.  In the intervening period it has provided invaluable technical, financial and capacity-building support to community groups in terms of purchasing and managing land and other assets.  A comparable service is vital for the south of Scotland to help kick-start an expansion in community ownership there similar to  the surge that has occurred in such ownership in the Highlands and Islands over the last 25 years.   The Scottish Government has a chance to ensure that happens by ensuring that the Bill currently before Parliament to create a South of Scotland Enterprise contains explicit provisions to establish a Community Land Unit within the new development agency.   Whether or not it chooses to do so will be a telling indicator of the Government’s commitment towards making community land ownership a matter of importance to the whole of Scotland.

Arguably some of the most promising possibilities for advancing progressive land reform in the coming year lie in connecting seemingly disparate policy threads to move away from the conventional ‘silo-mentality’ that characterises much of Government policy-making in Scotland (as elsewhere).

One area of opportunity concerns the rural repopulation and renewal agenda.  This policy area which has been given added urgency by gloomy forecasts, contained in Scottish Government-commissioned research by The James Hutton Institute, of plummeting populations in Scotland’s Sparsely Populated Areas by the mid 21stcentury.  The Planning Bill currently heading towards its final stage in the Scottish Parliament contains amendments – for which Community Land Scotland has advocated – which explicitly encourage consideration of rural repopulation in future planning policy and local development plans by Scottish Ministers and local planning authorities respectively.

Much remains to be done at both policy and practical levels to connect land with other elements of rural renewal such as affordable housing, high quality jobs, digital and other infrastructure that can help retain and grow rural populations in ways that are economically, socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable.  Nevertheless, viewing these interconnected issues through the policy lens of land reform offers a fresh perspective on how to achieve rural renewal objectives that are collectively in all of Scotland’s interests.

A further area where land reform and wider policy objectives may intersect more closely in future is that of human rights. An important feature of recent land reform legislation in Scotland has been the introduction of a perspective on the relationship between land rights and human rights that goes beyond focussing only on individuals’ property rights.  The Scottish Government made a commitment last month to legislate for an Act of Parliament to provide Human Rights leadership in Scotland. In turn, that raises intriguing and as yet unexplored possibilities for further alignment of Scotland’s evolving human rights and land reform agendas.  Of particular interest is the potential scope for aligning the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, as articulated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, with Scotland’s ongoing land reform process.

2019 is not the time to slow Scotland’s land reform process down.  Rather, the year ahead offers an opportunity to both accelerate its pace and direct the reform process towards hitherto unexplored policy avenues.   The extent to which that opportunity is grasped will largely depend on the appetite of Government and Parliament to make wider policy connections that enable Scotland’s land to fulfil its function as a precious and finite resource to be used in the public interest for the common good.  It promises to be an interesting year

Land Reform in 2015

2015 is shaping up to be a significant year for land reform in Scotland. The Scottish Government is consulting on the contents of a new Land Reform Act to be introduced in the current Parliamentary session. That legislation is envisaged as forming part of a Land Rights and Responsibilities Policy to fill the land reform policy vacuum that has existed in Government for a decade.

Judging by proposals in the consultation paper the policy will encompass institutional change (a new Scottish Land Reform Commission to oversee policy progress); greater transparency and accountability of land ownership (more information on who owns what land and limits to legal entities that can take future ownership of land); scope for Ministerial intervention in land ownership and management (where the scale or pattern of landownership in an area or the conduct of a landowner act as barriers to sustainable development); and specific measures to manage land and land rights for the common good (including a duty of community engagement on charitable trusts regarding land-based decision-making and an end to business rates exemptions for shooting and deerstalking businesses). Continue reading