Why Community Land Ownership Matters

Dr Calum Macleod - headshot imageThe Scottish Land Fund is being relaunched this week with support from the Scottish Government trebling to £10 million this year. In a guest blog ahead of the launch land reform academic Dr Calum Macleod of University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences welcomes the new funding and highlights the differences community ownership can make.

There’s little doubt that land reform is a hot political topic in Scotland right now. Much of that agenda is about getting more land into community ownership, as can be seen by the Scottish Government’s target of transferring 1 million acres into communities’ hands by 2020.

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 extends the pre-existing ‘community right to buy’ to include urban as well as rural communities and the forthcoming Land Reform Act will add a further community right to buy to the statute book.

These are encouraging developments for anyone hankering for more diversity in Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of land ownership, where 50% of all private land is controlled by just 432 owners.

Ownership of land has been embraced in North Harris
Ownership of land has been embraced in North Harris

However, it’s the re-launched Scottish Land Fund, with a much larger annual budget of £10 million that is likely to have the biggest impact of all in delivering more land into community ownership. That’s welcome news because there’s widespread recognition that ownership of land and associated assets can offer the best way for communities to shape their own destinies.

Nowhere has that idea been more enthusiastically embraced than in the Western Isles, where I come from. On the west coast of Lewis the Galson Trust oversees distribution of income generated by the estate’s wind turbines via its community investment programme. In North Harris the community landlord has built much needed affordable housing and operates a community development fund to bring economic and social benefits to the area.

Affordable housing, repopulation and renewable energy feature heavily in the plans of the West Harris Trust further along the stunningly beautiful machair coast of Harris. Head south and you’ll find Stòras Uibhist, the community landlord for Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist leading the multi-million pound, multi-partner Lochboisdale harbour regeneration project amongst many other activities.

And there’s more to come.

People of Great Bernera on the Isle of Lewis has been involved in a community buy out.
People of Great Bernera in the Isle of Lewis have been involved in a community buy out.

Over the last 18 months I’ve been privileged to work with the Barvas, Great Bernera and Keose Glebe communities in the Isle of Lewis to help them buy the estates where they live. These communities all have ambitious plans for job creation, affordable housing, tourism development and land management that community ownership – with support from the Scottish Land Fund – can help fulfill. It’s been heartening to see their self-confidence grow with the realisation that new development opportunities intertwined with ownership of the land are within their grasp.

All great news for the Western Isles, of course. But don’t let these successes obscure the fact that community ownership is as much an urban issue as it is a rural one, as relevant to Barrhead as it is to Barra.

That’s not to say that this form of ownership’s all milk and honey or a solution to every community’s challenges. But in the many places where it can make a difference community land and asset ownership needs strong encouragement and the financial support to make it happen.

That’s why investing in communities’ futures via the expanded Scottish Land Fund really matters.

Dr Calum Macleod writes about land reform on his Beyond the Horizon blog.


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