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February 27, 2013

An urban right to buy

The draft Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill will not feature in the programme of our event at the Parliament in April – it won’t have been published by then.  But that won’t stop a certain amount of speculation as to what it should contain. Now that the huge response to the consultation document has been fully sifted and published, it’s clear that some of the ideas that were mooted in the consultation document have attracted substantial and widespread support.


The Herald,13/2/13 

A DECADE ago, in what remains one its finest hours, the Scottish Parliament passed landmark legislation giving rural communities the right to buy the land they worked.

The Land Reform Act allowed rural communities to register an interest in land and gave them first refusal to buy if and when it came up for sale.

It has been used across the Highlands and islands and, if the latest attempt succeeds, the most southerly tip of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway, will also move into community ownership.

The motivation behind land reform was to create a more equitable basis for ownership, sweep away the last vestiges of feudalism and end a system that kept hundreds of thousands of acres in the hands of absentee landlords.

Extending community right-to-buy legisation to Scotland’s town and cities is an idea whose time has come. 

Four years of recession and economic stagnation have left their mark on Scotland’s urban spaces. High streets are blighted by boarded-up shops. Unused public buildings are falling derelict. Tracts of vacant land have become dense jungles of weeds. At the same time, shrinking budgets mean council services are being cut. The lean times are forecast to continue for many years to come. Communities will want – and might need – to band together to fill gaps.

The Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Bill is designed to give people the opportunity to step in and improve life on their doorsteps and the moribund spaces nearby. The bill is expected to include an “urban right to buy”, allowing communities to purchase land and buildings in a similar way to rural areas (though whether government money will be available remains to be seen). It also looks set to provide a “community right to grow”, letting groups take over disused land while the owner waits to develop or sell it. How splendid it would be to see people growing their own spuds on land banks aggressively accumulated by supermarket giants.

The Government’s simplified “easy read” consultation suggests there is broad support. An overwhelming 85% felt more land should be available for allotments and community gardens. Nearly three-quarters backed the right to buy, while two-thirds wanted the so-called right to grow. 

There is opposition from business leaders, who believe such rights would discourage private investment, and public bodies which are concerned about transferring power and property to untried community groups. A balance will have to be struck.

But in Derek Mackay, the local government and planning minister, the Bill has a committed and able champion. He believes the Bill will become a new landmark for Holyrood, just like the original Land Reform Act, and could effect the biggest transfer of power since devolution. If it strengthens communities and helps transform Scotland’s urban wastelands into the bargain, those claims will be justified.