January 9, 2019
Force the sale
Communities will soon have a right to buy vacant and derelict land, if its presence is judged to have a detrimental effect on the community. Of course, the community may have neither the means nor the desire to own the asset in question – just a wish for whoever owns it to stop neglecting it. In which case, the local authority could, in theory, use its powers of compulsory purchase but it also may have neither the resources nor the will to own the asset. And in that case, you might imagine, it would be stalemate. But now there’s another way.
Radical new powers allowing councils to order the sale of “eyesore” derelict sites and vacant land across Scotland are to be introduced, the Scottish Government has confirmed.
Empty homes, abandoned shops, derelict hotels and gap sites could be among those targeted by the introduction of compulsory sale orders (CSOs) after planning minister Kevin Stewart said they would be introduced in the course of this Parliament.
The move to bring in CSOs by 2021 would allow councils to force owners to sell such sites at auction instead of allowing them to lie empty where they are seen to be causing “harm” to local communities by attracting problems such as anti-social behaviour.
However, there are concerns about whether councils will have the funding or expertise to bring forward such measures.
The CSO proposal was a key recommendation of the 2014 Land Reform Review Group.
Stewart has confirmed in a parliamentary answer the Scottish Government will introduce the orders by 2021 after proposals drawn up by the Land Commission.
Councils already have powers to buy land through CPOs, but this would involve the authority making the purchase itself, which it may not always have the funds to do. There is also a community “right to buy” for sustainable development, but it may not be appropriate for the smaller scale development envisioned for CSOs.
Shona Glenn, head of policy and research at the Scottish Land Commission, said: “The logic behind the proposal is to address quite a specific problem.
“Very often what you get with these vacant sites or empty buildings is that they’re in parts of the country where there isn’t an awful lot of turnover of properties, so there isn’t a lot of transactions going on. Very often they’re quite deprived communities.
“That creates a problem because it makes it very difficult to assess what the value of that property might be. And what that means is that it’s quite easy for owners of these sites to have quite unrealistic expectations of what the value might be.”
There are more than 3,000 sites of land lying derelict across Scotland and more than 30,000 empty homes.
A report released in August by the Scottish Land Commission said around 11,600 hectares of vacant and derelict land in Scotland with the figures not having changed substantially since the late 1990s, making it an “entrenched problem”.
Edinburgh’s Granton Harbour, the closed Ruchill Hospital and Provan Gas Works in Glasgow, and the former Broadford Works in Aberdeen are among some of the biggest derelict or vacant sites contained in land surveys collated by the Scottish Government.
But there are also believed to be more than 37,000 long-term empty homes in Scotland, the report estimated.
Although not all the sites would qualify for CSO, a significant number could.
Glenn said: “We’re not saying it could be used for any vacant land or any derelict property. We’ve specifically tried to focus in on relatively small sites and sites that are causing blight to communities.
“This issue of harm is really important.
“It’s not just any old property or site, it’s ones that actively cause harm. And I think when you phrase it like that it becomes more difficult for people to object to that because it is something that’s causing harm.”
But Alan Cook, commercial property expert and a partner with law firm Pinsent Masons, said any proposals would have to be balanced and “respect the right of landowners”.
He said: “Given the legal issues and evidence base that would be required to meet CSO requirements, it is debatable if local authorities will have the appetite, resource and expertise to adopt this new power.”
Cook also questioned whether properties chosen for compulsory sale would include those which have been shown to be capable of development, but where the owner had been “sitting on its hands” waiting for the value to escalate.
This may result in a sale which leaves the “property in new hands, but subject to the same issues which hampered development under its previous ownership”, he said.
Several gap sites in Edinburgh have been beset by development delays in recent years, including those in Haymarket and on Leith Walk.
Edinburgh City Council housing and economy convener Kate Campbell said: “Many people are struggling to find a home in the city that meets their needs. This means we need to make sure that all land and housing in the city is being well used.
“The work the Scottish Government is doing to give us additional powers to bring vacant land and properties back into use is very welcome.”