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October 4, 2022

Community ownership skyrocketing 

October may seem an odd time of year for planting, but later this week seeds (of inspiration) will be scattered across the country. Community Land Week aims to plant these inspirational seeds in the imaginations of communities, leading eventually to a whole new crop of community land owners. And the appetite for community ownership shows no sign of slowing as the benefits become more widely known. With 63% of residents on Bays of Harris Estate recently voting in favour of buying the land they live on, and the community of Tayvallich aiming to follow suit, these are exciting times.

Ninian Wilson, The National

COMMUNITY ownership of land in Scotland has skyrocketed in the last 20 years, according to a Scottish Government study.

The Community Ownership in Scotland 2021 report has shone a light on how local groups across Scotland are purchasing land from private individual landowners.

The most recent figures, taken from December 2021, show an eightfold increase in the number of community groups owning assets since 2000 – rising from 84 to 711.

And in the year leading up to December 2021, there was an increase of 48 (7%) from 663 in 2020.

Reflective of this trend, the number of Scottish community groups has soared from 74 in 2000 to 484 in 2021.

How much land do community groups own?

The area of land now owned by community groups has significantly risen in the last couple of decades.

There is now almost four times as much community-owned land in Scotland since 2000, an increase of more than 155,439 hectares – more than five times the size of Glasgow.

In the year leading up to December 2021 alone, there was an increase of 252 hectares of land.

There has also been marked variation in the year-on-year increases in community-owned land – largely due to the purchase of a small number of very large estates, which were all in the Highlands and Na h-Eileanan Siar.

What is the spread of community-owned land in Scotland?

The areas with the most community-owned assets are the Highlands (165) and Argyll and Bute (94).

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the area of community-owned land is found in the Highlands and Na h-Eileanan Siar. 203,719 hectares of land are owned in these two community groups combined.

The area of community-owned land outwith these areas has also risen – a 70% rise has been reported in the rest of Scotland.

A total of 118 of the 484 community groups in Scotland own more than one asset. The most owned by one group is 13.

What are people saying about the figures?

Lesley Riddoch, an expert on community land ownership, has said the trend is a largely positive one – but not without a few downsides.

She pointed to the Isle of Eigg, which recently celebrated 25 years of community ownership, as an example of “the incredible resourcefulness that can be unleashed when local people are in charge”.

However, she added that there are negatives – including burnout for local volunteers who “struggle to become experts in funding, governance, health and safety, housing, business and other complex systems”.

Another point raised is the escalating price of land, which Riddoch says is making community buyouts “almost impossible” for some groups.

Riddoch used the example of Tayvallich in Argyll, which has a market value of around £10 million, something the locals there will struggle to afford when the maximum Scottish Land Fund grant is around £1m.

The bigger issue for Riddoch is whether the Scottish Government intends to end Scotland’s feudal land ownership structure through “expensive, taxpayer-funded community buyout”.

She adds: “There must be several other strings to the land reform bow and that means biting the bullet to finally tax large estates in the same way every other European country does.

“Community ownership is icing on the land reform cake. Where’s the cake?”

Maggie Fyffe of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust said: “If a community has the commitment & energy to progress a community buyout, they should be given every assistance. As we’ve found on Eigg, having the opportunity to decide, progress & manage what is important to the community can make a world of difference.”

Commenting on the report, Land Reform Minister Mairi McAllan said: “Communities know best what’s right for them, including when it comes to how they own and use local land and buildings. So it’s great to see that the number of assets known to be in community ownership has increased eightfold over the past 20 years.

“These sustained upwards trends in community ownership show real progress and delivery of the Scottish Government’s ambitions for land reform.

“Our 2016 Land Reform Act made various changes to land ownership and management and established the Scottish Land Commission. And the Scottish Land Fund has over a number of years helped many community groups bring their visions for thriving local assets to life.

“While this is positive, we know there is much more work to be done.”

McAllan went on to reference the upcoming Land Reform Bill, expected in 2023, as a “a significant step forward in ensuring our land is owned and used in the public interest and to the benefit of the people”.

She added: “It supports and extends existing work to pass more power to people and local communities, and to encourage responsible and diverse landownership and communities having a say in how land in their area is used.”