John Watt – reflections on 25 years of land reform
24 August 2023
John Watt reflects on his long career working in Scottish community development and land reform, the progress that has been made and the challenges that remain.
In 1997, following a request by Brian Wilson, newly appointed as a Minister of State with responsibility for the Highlands and Islands, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) set up a Community Land Unit and I was asked to head it up. At that time, I had been fortunate to have worked in community development in the Highlands and Islands for 15 years or more and it had been inspirational to see communities gaining confidence in leading change in their local areas. Now they were implementing community-led economic development through a potentially more radical route – the ownership of land and buildings. At my first meeting in 1997, with the Knoydart community looking to acquire its sizeable estate, I had no idea how the appetite for community ownership was to grow over the subsequent years, through measurable success, knowledge, and shared experience. This was supported by new legislation, funding, and agency assistance.
A significant funding source for the acquisition and development of land and property is the Scottish Land Fund. I was privileged to Chair its committee between 2012 and 2021. In that period, over 350 wide ranging projects from all over both rural and urban Scotland were awarded funding. Visiting projects was truly inspirational and these included large estates on the island of Ulva and around Helmsdale; community woodlands at Aigas and Birse; land for housing in smaller towns like Carluke and Fort Augustus, and important buildings in urban areas like Barmulloch in Glasgow and Action Porty in Portobello. These and so many more community buy-outs brought significant benefits to their local communities. They are a testament to the transformational potential of the Scottish Land Fund, and I am pleased to see that the Scottish Government recognises this and is going to increase the Fund to £20million per year by the end of this Parliament.
There continues to be no shortage of ambition and drive amongst community groups today who want to build on the legacy of these examples, and the earlier trails blazed by Assynt, Eigg, Knoydart and Gigha. More recently, and in the south of Scotland, the Langholm Initiative has aptly demonstrated the ambition and capability of large-scale community buy-outs. Alongside such large projects, there has been a huge increase in communities focused on saving local buildings, businesses and amenity areas. The breadth and quantity of community interest in acquiring land and property has been heartening to see and indicates that, in many ways, Scotland’s land reform journey continues to head in the right direction.
However, despite this progress, there are a number of concerning issues which are preventing this community ambition from being fully realised. In 2014, the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group, of which I was vice chair, offered 62 recommendations for the Scottish Government to consider in developing an ambitious land reform agenda for Scotland. While several of these have been adopted, such as the formation of the Scottish Land Commission and the proposals for Land Rights and Responsibilities Statements, many remain to be implemented. A land value tax and other fiscal measures, inheritance law, compulsory purchase and sale orders, and potential upper limits to how much land that can be held by a single private owner have still not been adopted.
A map detailing the scale and breadth of community landowners in Scotland, broken down by council area.
Map produced by Heather Yearwood.
In terms of diversifying the land ownership pattern in Scotland, despite progress having been made in supporting communities to acquire land and property, still only 3% of Scottish land is in community ownership. More, therefore, remains to be done. In the first instance, although the Land Fund has received further financial support from the Scottish Government, it needs to be more flexible and agile to respond to opportunities which communities are identifying. As rural land prices continue to rise in response to the carbon credit market and commercial forestry pressures, the notional £1million cap per application is no longer realistic in encouraging more community ownership. More flexibility is required in applying this cap, along with evaluating alternative hybrid partnership models of ownership which will create local community benefit. Other funding collaborations, involving, for example, the Scottish National Investment Bank, and the creation of a Community Wealth Fund could assist in expanding community ownership. The option of acquisition of land by the state, with the intention of transfer to communities in the longer term, could be incorporated in the proposed Community Wealth Building Bill.
In a similar vein, although the Community Right to Buy legislation introduced in 2003 was groundbreaking, many aspects of it are no longer fit for purpose. It needs to be easier for communities to register interest in land, rather than being tied up in bureaucratic and logistical complexities before they are even able to develop their ideas. We need to build on the support HIE offers communities to enhance capacity at the early stages of a project so they are best placed to take advantage of their rights, as well as ensuring that existing learning and experience is shared between community groups, and also with public officials.
The Scottish Government is now developing new Land Reform and Community Wealth Building legislation. Community Land Scotland will be producing more specific proposals on what these Bills should contain. Will this legislation provide the opportunity to secure real community empowerment? Will it allow communities to have a say about what happens locally and to build community wealth through diversifying the ownership of land and assets? Will the Scottish Government have the same ambition and confidence as communities I have seen throughout Scotland over the last 25 years? There is a great prize to be won.
Dr John Watt OBE has worked extensively in the Highlands and Islands for almost 40 years/ He established the Community Land Unit in Highlands and Islands Enterprise, chaired the Scottish Land Fund for 9 years and was vice chair of the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group. John is also a Board member for Community Land Scotland.
For further information contact Dr Josh Doble, Policy Manager at Community Land Scotland.