August 26, 2015
Why land reform must be urban too
Say land reform and it’s a fair bet the word rural springs to mind. But it’s a perception badly in need of correction if the problem of vast tracts of vacant or derelict land in our towns and cities is ever to be resolved. The Land Reform Review Group had some interesting things to say about this, most notably the proposal to introduce a new instrument – compulsory sale orders. Prof David Adams, an advisor to LRRG, gives his take on why the urban component of land reform needs much more attention.
Imagine that an area one and three quarters the size of Dundee lay vacant or derelict, and that most of it had lain in that condition for at least 20 years. Would there not be demands for the Scottish Government to take action? Would there not be debates in the Scottish Parliament about the unacceptability of such a state of affairs?
Well, the truth is that an area of such size does indeed lie vacant or derelict in Scotland. It’s enough land to build around 380,000 new houses without encroaching on a single green field, in the very unlikely event that it were all used for housing. About 11,000 hectares in all. That figure has hardly changed for the past 15 years and more than half of the land has been in the same condition for more than 20 years. It’s simply spread around Scotland, not concentrated in a single place.
However, there are many more in places such as Fife, Glasgow, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire than elsewhere in Scotland. And the land is concentrated in the most deprived communities, with more than 50 per cent of people in the most disadvantaged datazones living within 500 metres of a vacant or derelict site, compared to only around 10 per cent in the least deprived zones.
The sheer scale of vacancy and dereliction, and the fact that it had changed so little for so long, should demand urgent action from the Scottish Government. So it’s surprising that, when the Government introduced a new Land Reform Bill into the Parliament this June, it had virtually nothing to say about urban vacant and derelict land.
And it’s even more surprising because the report on which the Bill is largely based (that of the Government’s own Land Reform Review Group), made precise recommendations to help reduce land vacancy and dereliction. Ironically, these have been passed to yet another round of consultation, while the Government presses ahead with a Land Reform Bill that is largely rural-based. But important as rural areas are, that’s not where most people live.
So what did the Land Reform Review Group recommend to transform land use in Scotland’s towns and cities? A new Housing Land Corporation and more public-interest led development to boost housebuilding and urban regeneration; streamlined compulsory purchase procedures to modernise laws that date back to 1845; measures to overcome fragmented ownership of development sites and enable quicker development; and, intriguingly, the introduction of compulsory sale orders to confront owners who hold on to vacant or derelict land unnecessarily, when others could make use of it.
Compulsory sale orders (CSOs) would enable local authorities to require that specific land vacant or derelict for an undue period of time should be sold by public auction to the highest bidder. The local authority would have powers to organise the auction if the owner failed to act, or if the proposed arrangements for holding the auction were unsatisfactory.
Alongside private developers and public authorities, community bodies might also bid at auctions to provide more open space, allotments or community gardens as well as promote new development in their areas. But there would need to be measures to avoid speculative purchases by parties continuing to keep the land vacant.
Contrary to popular perception, urban vacancy and dereliction in Scotland is now primarily a matter of private, not public, land ownership. As CSO powers would be discretionary, it would be for local authorities to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to exercise them. But the Land Reform Review Group thought that keeping land vacant when someone else could put it to beneficial use impedes the chances of achieving sustainable and resilient settlements. In such circumstances, research has shown that a change of land ownership is often an important step towards re-use or redevelopment and that unrealistic owner expectations of what land might be worth is partly responsible for semi-permanent vacancy.
It’s time to tackle urban vacancy and dereliction. Not many CSOs might actually be needed to achieve this. But will the Scottish Government begin to take urban land reform as seriously as it does rural land reform?
Professor Adams holds the Ian Mactaggart Chair of Property and Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow. For more on the LRRG’s proposals visit