Ownership is key for Scottish communities

Remote communities in Scotland are strengthening their quality of life and building-up once declining economies through ownership of land.

Remote communities in Scotland are strengthening their quality of life and building-up once declining economies through ownership of land.

More than 40 communities in rural Scotland have bought villages, towns and even islands through community land trusts.

Trusts are non-profit, community-based organisations that are committed to taking ownership of the land, housing and other buildings for the community’s benefit. The origins of buy-outs can be traced back to the 1800s in Britain, but they have also appeared in the United States, Australia and mainland Europe.

In Scotland they have received a higher political profile, especially in outlying communities that have been neglected by previous landlords leading to declining populations and weak economies.

Today, residents across Scotland own over 500,000 acres of land, which is more than the combined ownership of the National Trust for Scotland, John Muir Trust and RSPB.

One group of residents owns the Isle of Gigha, which was bought-out by the community in 2002 for £4 million. The seven-mile-long, half-mile-wide, island was saved through grants and loans from the National Lottery and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Over the preceding years little development took place on Gigha. In 2001 the population had fallen to 110 from 143 in 1991, but once the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust took over, numbers climbed to 163 in the 2011.

Alongside the growing population, the island’s economy is now stronger with new businesses opening, wind turbines generate income for the local economy and a housing refurbishment programme provides a higher quality of living.

This turnaround by communities is the anticipated trend once residents are empowered. Ruth Cape from Community Land Scotland (CLS), which represents the majority of community landowners, says there is “strong evidence” that points to the rejuvenation of communities that “have become a lot more economically sustainable”.

She adds that trusts “give people the empowerment to manage land themselves”, which creates opportunities for jobs and affordable housing. Ten years ago, the Scottish Government passed the Land Reform Act that made it even easier for residents to own their land. Since then, CLS says there has been a spurt of buy-outs that is continuing to grow.

Despite a history that stretches back to the 1800s, the first recognised trust is Stornoway, which was gifted by Lord Leverhulme in 1923. With 90 years of community development, Stornoway is now the largest town in the Western Isles with a population of 9,000 people — a third of the area’s total population.

This development path is backed by a 2011 report from Scotland’s Rural College that found ownership leads directly to the development of private enterprise, investment due to security of tenure, affordable housing for rent and purchase, renewable energy schemes, infrastructure development, as well as ongoing estate management.

This combination supports an increased population and school numbers and the community’s emphasis is on long-term stewardship, investment and growth.

Land trusts are in the majority charitable trusts that are volunteer-run, but some have paid officers. Boards are made up of local people — though external people can be appointed.

In a CLS member survey in July, comments from communities that had fully bought their land centered around the economic impacts. They said the positive effects of ownership include “the population has increased”; “improvements to infrastructure have made a huge difference”; and it is “an opportunity to develop its own economy after many decades of decline”.

Ruth Cape adds: “Essentially, communities are being regenerated through taking the land into their own hands and being responsible for the decisions which affect them.”

Once land is owned communities have more power to take action. In an initiative to tackle unemployment, the North Harris Trust, which is one of the largest at 62,000 acres off the north west coast of Scotland, is building some business units.

North Harris has been awarded a £500,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund to construct zero-carbon units that will create 13 full time jobs together with three full-time training places. The trust aims to provide employment and training opportunities to young people who currently leave the area to find work while encouraging new families and employers to move into the community.

Calum MacKay, Chair of the North Harris Trust, says: “Our 2012 community survey confirmed that the lack of jobs is the biggest issue facing our small community. This project will create first rate facilities that will attract new and growing businesses from near and far. Each will be expected to deliver on their promise to create new jobs and training opportunities. Support from the Big Lottery Fund confirms our belief that community-driven developments like this are the way to make a difference.”

Another challenge faced by communities is the lack of ownership of the foreshore — the area between high/low tides — which is owned by the Crown Estate.

Community Land Scotland says it is a concern and is in talks with the Crown, as well as making representations to the Scottish Government. Some communities do not see the benefit of ownership, but those that do have said they will be able to develop fishing and tourism with investment in jetties, for example. Notably, the West Harris Trust, which was bought in 2010 has recently gained ownership of the foreshore from the Crown Estate.

The right for communities to buy is also expected to be strengthened by the forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill in the Scottish Parliament. The sector has also received support from Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond who says that by 2020, one million acres of land will be given to communities.

He spoke at a recent CLS conference: “We cannot underestimate the crucial part land reform will play in contributing to the future success of Scotland for the next generation. Land ownership is currently overly concentrated. If the people who live and work in Scotland are best-placed to make decisions about the country’s future, then it follows that local communities are best placed to make decisions about their futures.

“This is a deliberately ambitious target that can be achieved through a radical reshaping of the right-to-buy landscape that has the potential to transform the fortunes of communities across the country.”

Scotland in total covers around 19.5 million acres and with Alex Salmond’s proposals, communities will own five per cent of the country. Over the next few years, ownership is set to become a key driver in economic sustainability for remote Scottish communities.

• To find out more about community land trusts in Scotland, visit: www.communitylandscotland.co.uk

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