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July 31, 2019

Promised Land?

From a distance, Scotland could easily be taken for the Promised Land of community empowerment – primary legislation enacted, policies on place-based, community led regeneration and community ownership in the mainstream and most recently, the national watchdog for Scotland’s public sector, Audit Scotland, publishing a set of Principles of Community Empowerment as a guide for public bodies to integrate into their operations. So what more could be done to fully empower our communities? Quite a lot apparently, according to Andy Wightman MSP.

Andy Wightman MSP

The SNP and Conservatives joined forces to pass a “Tory-style Planning Bill” that means communities will have to wait for the means to govern themselves, writes Andy Wightman MSP.


At the heart of environmental concerns is the question of power: who has it, how they exercise it and to whom are they accountable.

Although the Scottish Government makes great play of recent moves to empower communities, the reality is different. The 2015 Community Empowerment Act was designed to give communities a voice and enable citizens to have more say over their local area.

But if this is to mean something, then we should be seeing results. Instead, for too many communities it feels like business as usual with monied developers holding all the cards. Look at plans over the old Sick Kids hospital building in Edinburgh, where the community bid was gazumped, or the ongoing saga on Leith Walk, where despite the wishes of city councillors a developer is dragging out the process and issuing de facto eviction notices to the small businesses that make that place thrive. The family-run Leith Walk Café is due to close this week when its ten-year lease is allowed to expire. It isn’t just a small business. It’s a social hub which contributes to the cohesion of that community.

When it comes to giving communities more control over their own place, over assets and land, we have seen a pattern emerge where policy ambition is stated, then watered down, then apparently abandoned. The recent Planning Bill was the first overhaul of the planning system in over a decade, and a huge opportunity to hand some control back to our communities.

I worked very hard to secure support for proposals to address the dramatic increase in short-term lets which has caused misery for so many people, hollowing out communities. I also moved amendments to allow for more balance in the planning appeals system by introducing equal rights of appeal. I tried to bring more democratic scrutiny to the construction of tracks in in the countryside and across our most precious landscapes.

After making some early progress, it was distressing to watch the SNP team up with the Tories to kill any hope of a progressive, community-centred bill. The lobbyists had been successful and the interests of developers and landowners won over those of the people who have to live with the consequences of a lop-sided planning system. The Conservative housing spokesperson lavished praise on a “Tory-style Planning Bill”, which was particularly telling. Again, it is about who wields the power. In Scotland, that is about who owns land and property.

Among the first acts of the Scottish Parliament were the right to roam, the establishment of national parks and the abolition of feudal tenure. But the fact remains that large-scale land ownership is concentrated in very few hands, and despite some modest successes, communities are as far from power as they’ve ever been. Common ownership of land should be the norm and not simply a response to market failure or disputes with landowners. Across Europe, things are very different with community-sized local government and widespread communal ownership of land. Scotland is an aberration.

In redistributing power, we need to focus on giving communities the kind of real power that is commonplace in Scandinavia. Green politics is based on the principle of radical democracy where communities have the means to govern themselves and deliver the solutions needed to tackle the climate crisis or housing needs. After 20 years of devolution, it is regrettable that so little progress has been made to that end.