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December 13, 2022

Radical land reform can help

When asked why communities get involved in so many complex and arduous projects, I conclude that it’s simply down to the absence of any realistic alternatives. And in relation to the lack of affordable housing in rural Scotland, it’s become increasingly clear that only local people have the energy and drive to do something about it. Communities in ArisaigArranGigha, and Staffin to name just a few, are currently taking forward their own projects. In his recent blog, Calum MacLeod argues that this burden on communities could be eased significantly if the forthcoming Land Reform Bill is sufficiently radical.

Calum MacLeod

This blog is part of a monthly series about community-led housing in Scotland shared by the Communities Housing Trust and South of Scotland Community Housing

This month’s guest blog is written by Dr Calum MacLeod, a freelance sustainable development consultant.  Calum is originally from the Isle of Harris but is now based in Glasgow. He is a Board member of MG ALBA.

The Scottish Government is committed to introducing a new Land Reform Bill to Parliament by the end of 2023. Key proposals for the forthcoming Bill, contained in a recent consultation paper titled ‘Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation’, focus on imposing statutory requirements on large-scale rural landholdings, partly defined by Government as landholdings exceeding a minimum threshold of 3,000 hectares.

The Government proposes that such landholdings be subject to a public interest if they are to be transferred into new ownership by sale or other means. It also proposes that they should be subject to compulsory Land Management Plans, and a duty to comply with the currently voluntary Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement. The Government further proposes a requirement on the part of owners of such landholdings to provide prior notification of their intention to sell their holdings, to eradicate ‘off-market’ rural land sales that limit opportunities for community ownership.

Lowering the minimum threshold for landholdings from 3,000 hectares to 500 hectares for the above proposals, and considerably lower still for the ‘prior notification of intention to sell’ requirement, would greatly enhance the likelihood of them addressing the lack of affordable housing contributing to the depopulation and demographic crisis facing many economically fragile rural communities.

The new Land Reform Bill could also help tackle the lack of affordable homes in rural communities by amending the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 to introduce a new-use category in the land-use planning system, as previously proposed by Andy Wightman when the Planning Bill was going through Parliament. That would enable planning authorities to classify homes as primary residences, second homes or holiday lets, with planning permission being required for a change of use.

Community-led housing provision has long been a distinctive feature of community land ownership in rural Scotland, with both the Communities Housing Trust and South of Scotland Community Housing playing crucial roles in facilitating its delivery. The forthcoming Land Reform Bill therefore also needs to amend the suite of existing Community Rights to Buy to ensure they fit for the purpose of bringing more land and assets into community ownership to help provide more of that housing.

There is now an opportunity to take a genuinely joined-up approach to land reform and community-led housing development by including the above measures in the forthcoming Land Reform Bill. All the more so, if they are aligned with rural housing planning policy detailed in the recently published draft National Planning Framework 4 and the future Community Wealth Building Bill that is also on the Government’s legislative radar.