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September 23, 2015

Beyond the barriers

As the debate on land reform begins to explore whether new measures are required  to overcome perceived restrictions on community land based activities arising from the nature and style of land ownership, some new research from the Hutton Institute may offer up some answers. It attempts to move beyond common perceptions of the problem by designing a classification scheme which distinguishes different types of barrier associated with land ownership and then analyses the relative significance of each one. 


Deborah Roberts and Annie McKee, The James Hutton Institute

Exploring barriers to community land-based activities

For a copy of the full report click here 

Executive Summary

This report presents the findings of a Scottish Government-funded project looking at the land ownership barriers to community land-based activities.

There are numerous different community activities which require access to land and each community will have its own particular priorities. Each type of activity will, in turn, require different property rights. While the land reform debate has to date been dominated by the advantages and disadvantages of (outright) community land ownership, this report considers barriers associated with the distribution of all types of property rights and responsibilities between land owners and communities.

Aim of project

To develop a classification scheme of barriers to community land-based activities and to use this scheme to examine the nature and significance of each type of barrier for different:

• types of community activities (e.g. affordable housing schemes, cycle paths, renewable energy schemes, community gardens),

• types of land owners (public versus private; passive versus active), and

• geographical contexts (e.g. urban versus rural areas).

Where possible, the report also highlights the types of strategies that have been used to resolve conflicts between land owners and communities when they arise.

Research approach

Research was conducted in two stages. The first stage was a desk-based literature review including a review of the range of community land based activities that are typically proposed by community groups. Based on this, a draft classification scheme of ownership barriers to community activities was developed.

Stage 2 tested the robustness of the classification scheme and, where appropriate, amended its categories based on interviews with key informants from a range of organisations associated with community land activities. The interviews provided a large number of case studies from which the nature and significance of different types of barriers in specific contexts could be assessed.

The classification scheme:

The classification scheme splits land ownership barriers to community activities into four sets relating to: the nature of the land market; the strategies and decisions of land owners; (external) constraints on communities; and finally (internal) community characteristics and decision making. Some are thus barriers to the supply of land (from land owners) others are barriers on the demand for land (by communities). An alternative perspective is that some barriers are structural in nature, others behavioural. Table 2 in section 4 of the report provides a summary of the classification scheme.

The research confirmed the existence and importance of all four types of barriers. Often more than one barrier was found to constrain community activities from being developed. As a result, it often takes considerable time for a community to secure the required land rights. This in itself represents a barrier in so far as it increases the probability of the development failing at some point in the development process through either a loss of community momentum or the increased likelihood of an alternative use or user being found in the interim period.

Differences between community activities

Some barriers were found to be particularly significant for certain community land based activities. For example, multiple ownership is a particular problem for footpaths or cycle paths in rural areas while gaining sufficient community funding was found to be a particular problem for community housing developments. A reoccurring issue in the case studies related to planning. In particular, while not a direct barrier, extant planning permission can significantly increase the value of a property to the landlord and can place it out of the reach of funding available to the community regardless of the intended activity.

Differences between rural and urban areas

Within as well as across urban and rural areas, the significance of barriers varies as a result of patterns of land use and land tenure, culture and the attitudes of key stakeholders. Having said this, there were a number of specific barriers that were considered to be more of a problem in urban areas than rural areas regardless of type of proposed activity. These included barriers associated with land owner identification, divided ownership rights (securities and real burdens), multiple ownership, constraints associated with planning and higher community liabilities (associated with higher use and potential vandalism etc.). It was also suggested that reaching acceptable terms may be more problematic in an urban context as a result of higher land values, greater competition for land use and a narrower range of alternative sites on which communities can site their activities than in rural areas. Finally it was suggested that urban communities may be more likely to suffer from a lack of capacity although this was noted as a potential issue for some rural areas as well.

Differences between types of land owners

Apart from differences between public and private landowners associated with the regulatory and funding framework, there was limited evidence that certain barriers were associated with certain land owner types. 5

There was some suggestion that, compared to public sector or charities, private landowners can be easier to deal with as they have a tendency for more direct decision making. However, the key informants also highlighted that negotiations with private landowners can be unpredictable and with a higher level of risk, due to potential disagreement, trust and partnership issues. The role of advisors to private landowners was also noted as significant.

Scale of landownership was also identified by some interviewees as a factor which influences the likelihood of landowners agreeing to sell or lease land to community groups however the pattern was unclear and no overall trend was identified. For example, some argued that individual private owners of small landholdings are more cautious in engaging with community land-based activities. A key issue is that whilst in many cases there may be a possibility of finding alternative land for the community activity, a lack of engagement by a single large scale land owner in a locality can lead to disproportionate impacts.

There were clearer messages in relation to differences in the barriers associated with public and private landowners. The former tended to be viewed as more risk averse yet supportive of community initiatives and also progressive in terms of developing lease agreements.

Resolution mechanisms

The existence of barriers to community land-based activities is a potential justification for government intervention. Each category of barrier identified in the classification scheme arises from a different source and thus may require a different resolution mechanism.

Many of the structural barriers facing communities could in theory be overcome by changes in existing funding regulations and/or improvements in advisory services. Similarly, changes in planning regulations could potentially help to overcome any unintentional impacts of planning on land values or behaviour. Elements of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 were expected by interviewees to be helpful in addressing several of the issues identified in relation to community capacity-related barriers, especially in urban areas.

More generally, the case studies highlighted several different resolution strategies which had been used to overcome land ownership barriers to community activities. On some occasions this involved helping communities find alternative locations for their activities. In other cases external mediation and consultation processes had been effective in overcoming problems between particular landowners and communities, allowing activities to proceed. The classification scheme described in this report provides a basis for better understanding some of the barriers that can occur in developing community land-based activities and thus effective ways of resolving issues should they arise.