Understanding Urban Community Landownership
5 February 2024
The first of a blog series sharing learning from our urban action research project Community Ownership Hub: Glasgow and Clyde Valley.
Scotland has a long history of community landownership. We are celebrating 100 years since the first buyout in Stornoway town, and Knoydart will be reflecting on 25 years of landownership this year. A robust and proven model for community landownership has developed in rural areas, and in 2016 community landownership rights and supports were rolled out across Scotland. This gave every community access to the Community Rights to Buy, the Scottish Land Fund, support organisations, and the vibrant community land sector.
Community landownership allows democractically governed community bodies to take ownership of land and buildings to address their needs in the public interest. The Scottish model requires a locally controlled organisation to exercise democratic control over the property. This approach was developed in rural areas for larger landholdings, but has proven adaptable to the ownership of a wide range land and buildings across Scotland, with 754 different assets now in community ownership.
As the community landownership model was applied across Scotland it quickly became clear that urban communities were facing additional challenges in their buy outs, including:
Our Action Research Approach
From 2020 to 2024 Community Land Scotland designed and delivered a pilot urban community landownership enabling hub, providing additional resources to communities and delivering action research on how to support urban community landowners. The Community Ownership Hub: Glasgow and Clyde Valley’s aim was to accelerate community landownership in Scotland’s largest urban area. Five objectives structured the project:
The Community Ownership Hub has worked closely with community groups and decision makers, and we’ve shared our learning as we progressed. In 2024 we will be winding up this urban pilot, and setting out new priorities for supporting community landowners in Scotland’s towns and cities. As part of this we will be writing blogs on each of the project’s objectives to share insights. Further detailed reports on the work will be published in the coming months.
Raising the profile of community landownership in urban areas
A key challenge we set to tackle was promoting the potential of community landownership and land reform in urban areas. There was little knowledge of community landownership, and lots of misconceptions — we wanted to raise the quality of the conversation.
Communities tackling privately-owned land
One widespread misconception was that community landownership was limited to transfers from public bodies– “It’s not all about asset transfer” became a joking tag line. The majority of Scottish community landownership buyouts have actually been purchased through a negotiated sale from a private landowner, similar to any property purchase. We have worked to move beyond this misconception, building on Community Land Scotland’s members’ history of private purchases. Reflecting the national situation, the majority of the sites communities have asked us about in the Clyde Valley have been in private ownership.
As communities asked us about projects, we developed our knowledge of the types of privately-owned land urban communities are interested in. We learned about the prevalence of historic land uses like privately-owned bowling greens, and how communities can step in when a company dissolves and the land becomes ownerless. We helped community groups get to grips who owns small pockets of land at the back of tenements and housing estates– sometimes this was owned by one organisation (often with inaccurate contact information), and sometimes it was all the residents of the surrounding homes. We talked through the implications of taking on vacant and derelict land with community councillors, gardeners, activists, and interested residents. One day we tackled the mystery of the disappearing building (it had burned own).
With information in hand, community groups progressed their projects as they wanted. Diverse urban groups worked to apply community landownership processes to urban landholdings. Sometimes it worked well. However, it was clear that the system had unnecessary challenges in certain circumstances.
Trusting in communities
25 years into land ownership in Knoydart, the community owns and operates eight organisations including a pub, shop, bunk house, forest, garden, houses and venison processing business. There is little doubt of the community’s ability to deliver. Experiences of urban community landowners starting their landownership journey can be very different. Decision makers consistently don’t understand the potential types of land and delivery models available to communities, and don’t trust communities’ visions.
Community groups we worked with dealt with a huge range of barriers, including being given the wrong information, being told they are overly ambitious, and needing extensive evidence on ability to deliver. Volunteer-based community groups, who had already achieved things like multi-year Covid response programmes and development planning consents, were taking on land purchases and burning out. Inclusion challenges were widespread– from language difficulties, to digital exclusion, to neurodiversity, to reported prejudice. The skills to deliver what a community needs in a way that the community supports are not necessarily the same as the skills to fill in paperwork. While community groups should have sufficient organisational capacity to own property, we have to appreciate that exclusion can be entrenched, and trust can be developed in multiple ways.
Urban Communities are very interested in landownership– but challenges and unequal progress are stark
From the beginning of the urban enabling hub there were much higher levels of interest we expected; 100 community groups have been in touch with us about potential buyouts in the Clyde Valley since 2021. Wide ranging success including buyouts completing, funding applications submitted, CRtB submissions, and new negotiations with landowners.
We will explore these outcomes in future publications. Headlines are:
There is high level of interest by Clyde Valley communities in buying land and building.
There is notable interest from communities suffering from poverty (70% of our enquiries, measured by SIMD, consistently over the last three years). This reflects other statistics such the 2020 Evaluation of Asset Transfer, and evidence from Edinburgh and the Lothians, and counters initial concerns that affluent communities would disproportionately dominate urban community land. It shows similar motivation to rural communities, who have acted on inequality they faced.
There is evidence of unequal progress, with those in areas with more resources progressing more quickly, and those suffering from lack of resources moving more slowly.
Progress is slow. Demand is not translating into ownership quickly. If we mark success by moving forward significantly in the process (such as starting negotiations with a landowner, or submitting a Community Right to Buy application) 16 community groups are currently progressing successfully with our ongoing support.
Urban landholdings are complex, and data is not freely available. We analysed 57 sites in detail for community groups, and data complexity and lack of transparency is a significant barrier. Multiple landowners, shell companies, absentee landowners, lack of up to date information, options to develop land, and planning applications all have to be understand by communities in order to be proactive over urban land. The data is held in a number of places, not always freely available, and not always accurate.
One community is purchasing a play park, which is on a “residue title” with 99 split-off titles, and they cannot get a valuation. Another community has been tracking down the correct landownership details for a title creditor to allow them to submit a Community Right to Buy application; the landowner has no obligation to provide correct contact details. A large landowner refused to talk to a local community about a key site, but it’s not clear how much land they hold over a number of organisations and land titles, and the local community was then strongly discouraged from asking questions.
The urban community land sector is growing, and succeeding, but the financial circumstances are difficult with the cost of living increases in particular hitting renovation projects for newly purchased projects. These challenges come at a crucial time in the sector’s growth.
What is next?
Urban and rural communities have similar visions and needs, wanting land and buildings to deliver local needs. Both have proven to be passionate about, and skilled at, addressing inequality.
Seven years into developing an urban community land sector, the amount of interest in the Clyde Valley is exceptional and growing. However, the context is different than the rural land reform sector at a similar stage in development. The exceptional level of interest in areas of poverty is fundamental to understanding how to support urban community land sector. The fragmented nature of urban landholdings, with multiple owners and titles, makes data transparency even more important.
The priorities for urban land reform going forward need to reflect the interest in, and potential of, urban community landownership, and in land delivering more for the people of Scotland. There is a significant risk of community landownership being yet another policy applied from elsewhere to urban communities, not something which comes from the communities themselves. There is also a risk of land reform focusing on big urban policy issues like land assembly, or large Derelict Sites, which are important but in which most communities have little say, or stake, in. Community-led approaches should be fundamental to making more of Scotland’s urban land—we have the framework to do this, and the interest is there. Otherwise concentrated power, inequality and wealth extraction are built into the future.
Refinements to the processes, like Community Right to Buy, are needed and appropriate at this stage in the sector’s development. Difficult questions need to be asked about how policies and projects are foisted on communities, and how we can move towards a system which responds better to communities.
As we improve processes, we also need bring communities to the table as equals. Slow and unequal progress by community groups means enduring support is needed, and we need to improve processes to be more inclusive. We need to meet communities where they are, listen and support them as they explain their vision for their local area, and give them the resources to make this happen.
Written by Carey Doyle, Urban Hub Manager