Normalising Community Land Ownership: Some Policy Lessons from the Western Isles

Dr Calum MacLeod , Policy Director, Community Land Scotland

It’s well known that Scotland has an extraordinarily concentrated pattern of private land ownership.  Around 80% of the nation’s land is privately owned and half of that private land is estimated to be in the hands of fewer than 500 owners.  In contrast, less than 3% of Scotland’s land is in community ownership.  The most recent data from the Scottish Government estimates that as of 2017 there were 547,690 acres in community ownership.  Remarkably, 70% of that total (384,980 acres) is located in the Western Isles.  

Why should it be that these Hebridean communities, often characterised as ‘remote’ and ‘fragile’ are in the vanguard of the quiet revolution that is community ownership in Scotland?   Historical, political and cultural factors combine to offer some important clues.    The Western Isles are blanketed by crofting estates, many of which have served as trophy assets for absentee private landowners unwilling or unable to invest in the sustainable development of the land – and, by extension, the communities – that they controlled from afar.  As an antidote to what might at best be described as the benign neglect experienced under private – and in some cases, state – landownership, Hebridean communities have increasingly mobilised to bring the land on which they live under their own control.  A progressive policy environment in the form of Community Right to Buy legislation and financial support through the Scottish Land Fund have both been critical factors in enabling that to happen.  Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s recognition of the strategic importance of community ownership as a means for economic regeneration within the Western Isles has also played a vital role in accelerating that process. 

These factors have together created a domino effect whereby successive island communities have assumed ownership of their land and set about reversing decades of economic and social decline with – as other contributions to this blog series illustrate – hugely impressive results.  For children growing up in Galson, Carloway, Barvas, Pairc, North and West Harris and elsewhere in the Western Isles, community land ownership and the benefits flowing from that are a normal part of their everyday lives.  That’s a self-evidently good thing. 

It’s clear that normalising community ownership in the Western Isles has been instrumental in transforming the futures of these islands’ communities by helping to reverse population decline and by providing much needed affordable housing, economic development, community facilities and environmental improvement.   Perhaps most importantly of all, it underscores the right of these communities simply to ‘be’ and the compelling public interest case for ensuring that they continue to flourish.

There’s much still to do at a policy level to ensure that normalising community ownership continues, both for Scotland’s islands and other rural communities.  Most immediately there’s a need to ensure that the community right to buy land to further sustainable development (which does not require a willing seller) currently being consulted on by the Scottish Government offers a genuine prospect of delivering more land into community ownership where it is in the public interest to do so.  It’s vital also to secure a political commitment that the Scottish Land Fund, which allocates £10 million annually in support of community land purchases, will continue to operate after the 2021 Scottish Parliament election with at least the same level of funding in place.

In the longer-term it’s incumbent on policymakers to ensure that Scotland’s land reform agenda is hard-wired into other spheres of public policy.  That requires a shift from the silo-mentality characterising much of public policy-making generally.  Critically, it also requires the political imagination to deploy the array of legislative, fiscal and informational policy levers at Government’s disposal in ways that enable land reform to deliver sustainable outcomes for our islands and other rural places. 

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