In 2013, Jonathan Brown observed in The Independent that Scotland had “the most concentrated pattern of private ownership in the developed world with just 432 individuals accounting for half of all non-public land.” At the same time, certain areas in rural Scotland, much like some remote communities across the Arctic, faced challenges such as population decline as a result of out-migration, inability to attract and retain talent, greater pressures relating to housing and employment, lack of security of tenure, inadequate business opportunities, neglected infrastructure and an ageing population.
The concentrated landownership patterns, deriving from Scotland’s longstanding feudal tenure system, holds true even today, despite the land reforms that have been introduced since the late-1990s. The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000, Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003 and Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004 had culminated in the abolition of the feudal property system in Scotland, while the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 had codified the right to universal access to land and established the community right to buy and the crofting community right to buy. As a result of these developments, however, recent years have seen a dramatic expansion of community ownership of land.
As a 2015-Impact Evaluation of the Community Right to Buy (in the period from 2004 to 2014), commissioned by the Scottish Government and produced by Ipsos MORI and Scotland’s Rural College, explained, “The Community Right to Buy was introduced as a mechanism for encouraging opportunities for community ownership of land and land assets in rural Scotland. The Community Right to Buy provisions give community bodies representing rural communities with a population of less than 10,000 the right to register a community interest in land and to obtain first refusal on the land when the landowner wishes to sell. In practice, [it] granted rural communities the right of first refusal on the sale of land through the right to register an interest, rather than giving communities an automatic or absolute right to buy.”
Although the Community Right to Buy (CRtB) originally applied only to areas with a population of up to 10,000, the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 amended the legislation so that, from 25 April 2016, it would apply to all of Scotland, irrespective of whether the population concerned is more or less than 10,000, or whether the land in question is rural or urban. The Scottish Government also clarified in its 2016-Guidance that while “CRtB is a pre-emptive right to buy land for communities throughout Scotland”, the sale must involve a willing seller. CRtB is not meant to be “a forced sale of land” or “a compulsory purchase of land”, or a means to “block or blight developments on land” or “stop the landowner from developing their land if the community disagree with their plans” or “prevent or block other interested parties from purchasing land”. The Guidance reiterated that the “right to buy needs to show sustainable development benefits for the land and the community”.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the registration process, once Scottish Ministers receive a compliant application to register an interest in land and send a copy of it to the landowner, inviting him or her to provide one’s views, the process automatically prohibits any action to transfer the land before a decision is reached. Once the landowner has made his or her views known to the Scottish Ministers within 21 days, and the community body – upon receiving the landowner’s views from the Scottish Ministers – has provided comments within the next 21 days, the Scottish Ministers must decide whether or not to register the interest within 63 days from the receipt of the compliant application. Once the land is registered, the landowner has to notify Scottish Ministers and the community body if he or she intends to transfer the land, which activates the CRtB, though a community body can negotiate a sale without the CRtB being activated.
Upon notification by the landowner, Scottish Ministers will provide the community body a time period of 30 days to confirm its intention to proceed with the exercise of its right to buy. Once such a confirmation is received from the community body, Scottish Ministers will bring in an independent valuer to undertake a market evaluation within 8 weeks, as well as a ballotter to conduct a ballot of the community’s eligible voters within 12 weeks. Scottish Ministers will then make a decision within 21 days about whether or not the community body can proceed with the right to buy. While the process, thus, does not equate to a forced sale or a compulsory purchase, it suspends the marketing of the land on the open market, offers the community body the right of first refusal, and determines the price of the property as one agreed by the landowner and the community body or the market value of the land as established by the independent valuer.
The 2015 Act also introduced a new right that enables community bodies to buy land deemed (ultimately by Ministers) to be abandoned, neglected or detrimental, even if the landowner is not seeking or willing to sell the land. The Community Right to Buy, in this regard, may apply where community bodies identify “an area of land which they believe is abandoned or neglected” or, perhaps of greater relevance to the Arctic, also “where the use or management of the land results in or is causing harm to their environmental wellbeing”. The Scottish Government’s 2018-Guidance insists, however, that before a community body applies to Scottish Ministers for consent to exercise its right to buy the land, it “must first try to address the situation by trying to buy the land from its current owner”. Likewise, where the community body opines that the use or management of the land causes harm to the community’s environmental wellbeing, the Guidance makes clear that it”must also try to remedy that harm by contacting any relevant regulator(s) and requesting that the regulator(s) take action in relation to the land” before it applies for consent to exercise the right to buy.
While these developments in relation to land reform may seem so quintessentially Scottish a phenomenon that they may not always garner the full attention they deserve even in London, they are, nevertheless, of relevance and interest to the Arctic as well. Scotland’s experience with land reform could provide valuable case studies for areas across the Arctic and Nordic regions that prioritise community regeneration or seek to build community resilience, especially remote and sparsely-populated Northern rural areas, which may have witnessed population decline due to out-migration or where attracting new talent and retaining a skilled workforce remain a challenge. This also holds true for areas that may once have been flourishing whaling, sealing, fishing or trading port communities, or bustling mining towns, but that have been abandoned or fallen into disuse or neglect since, but that still possess assets that can generate social, cultural and economic value through participatory and innovative community ownership and management. As suggested earlier, community buy-outs may also offer a much-needed recourse to communities that fear that the use or management of a certain land area by its current owners, or new owners to whom it might be transferred, could threaten their environmental wellbeing.
Needless to say, the Arctic abounds with examples of all of the above where, as seen, Scottish land reforms may serve as probably the most unexpected, and yet undoubtedly the richest, source of lessons and solutions. The Scottish Government, hence, has rightly included its mention in its Arctic Policy Framework. It notes:
“Transparency about who owns and makes decisions about land is also crucial to encouraging community regeneration. At present, only 3% of Scotland’s land is in community ownership. In order to increase this figure, we have created a number of community right-to-buy schemes that assist with purchasing land and assets. Thanks to these tools, the amount of land owned by communities has more than doubled from 93,000 hectares in 2003 (when the Land Reform Act came into force) to over 222,000 hectares today. The community buy-out of the Isle of Ulva in 2018 represents the most successful example to date. Bringing the island back into the local community’s hands will attract more people to live and work year-round on the island, fighting depopulation and encouraging sustainable development.”
The Isle of Eigg, one of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides, is arguably the biggest success story in this regard, though its transfer to community ownership occurred prior to, and partly provided the basis for, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Under the old system, Eigg’s residents were faced with challenges relating to poor housing, employment and infrastructure, which led eventually to the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust organising a community buy-out in 1997, with support along the way from the Highland Council, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the general public. Much of the decision-making and development since have built on community consultation, involvement and ownership.
Eigg subsequently has seen substantial population growth (from 64 in 1997 to over 100 in 2017), an economic boost from increased tourism and “all kinds of innovative ways of making a living“, a good community broadband system, affordable housing and security of tenure. Notably, in 2008, through the ingenuity of its residents, Eigg emerged as the world’s first community to launch an off-grid electric system powered almost entirely by renewable sources – wind, water and solar. Eigg’s success prompted Patrick Barkham to remark in The Guardian, “The Hebridean island of Eigg is second to St Kilda as the most famous of the smaller British isles. While St Kilda is renowned for its extinction as a place of human settlement, Eigg is celebrated for its rebirth.”
Such land reform schemes and the proposals for the expansion of community ownership have generally evoked a mixed response. In the more controversial case of the Isle of Ulva, which neighbours the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, the population had decreased from over 600 in the early-nineteenth century to just 6 in 2017-18, leading to the North West Mull Community Woodland Company organising a community buy-out. While the landowner, Jamie Howard, whose family owned the isle since 1946, had put up the island for sale, it had to be withdrawn from the open market once the North West Mull Community Woodland Company registered its interest, given the right of first refusal to the community body, necessitated by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. It also meant that all marketing had to cease until there was an outcome, and that Howard, in the end, had to accept an offer in line with what he had initially asked, based on the basic market value, but less than what he believed a beautiful and unique isle such as Ulva could have received if the property were to have been sold competitively on the open market.
The matter led to criticisms of the system as one “designed to bully him into submission” (Country Life); as one where “because it is government policy to encourage community ownership, and because the act defines how that should be achieved, the seller ceases to have any control over the process” (The Sunday Times); and one where “any rights he might have had as a property owner had been removed” (The Sunday Times). Magnus Linklaker also argued, “Let’s keep the clearances out of this. Using reheated Marxism is not a sensible way to debate the investment of public money at a time when hard-pressed urban communities are having to cut back on social housing, education and welfare. No one is suggesting that the people of Eigg, for instance, or Gigha, or Assynt, would regret for a moment their successful bids to become owners of their property, but since the government is committed to further community buy-outs in the future, it is only fair to ask that it should come clean over how much all of this is going to cost – not just in terms of the land fund, but the further investment of public money in boosting the infrastructure of these outlying areas in order to demonstrate that land reform is working.”
Are such community buy-outs worth the investment? In its Arctic Policy Framework, produced over a year following the community buy-out of the Isle of Ulva, the Scottish Government highlights the case of the Ulva Ferry community, just across the strait from Ulva on the west coast of Mull, as a clear success:
“The Ulva Ferry community on the Isle of Mull suffered from long-term population decline and geographical isolation, with few affordable housing options for local people, especially young families. As a result, the local school was threatened with closure. Thanks to a community-led project that involved local residents in the decision-making, from choosing the architect to approving the final design, Ulva Ferry saw the construction of new affordable and net-zero housing. An innovative system makes these homes highly energy efficient, tackling fuel poverty. New young families have moved to Ulva Ferry, increasing community resilience and allowing local people to continue to live, work and go to school in the area.”
Instrumental in the Ulva Ferry community’s success were its principal organisations, the Mull and Iona Community Trust (MICT), the Ulva Ferry Local Development Office (LDO) and the Ulva School Community Association (USCA). The successful community development projects in Ulva Ferry have included affordable long-term rental houses; the Ulva Ferry Pontoon, Shore Facilities and Gateway Centre; a sustainable Ulva Ferry Community Transport service and a public access defibrillator.
The film The New Lairds – Scotland’s Land Reformers (filmed and edited by Max Baring of Thomson Reuters Foundation) provides a balanced overview of the land reforms in Scotland, featuring the cases of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust in the Inner Hebrides (Highland council area), the Garbh Allt Community Initiative in Sutherland (Highland council area), the Linwood Community Development Trust in Renfrewshire and the Midsteeple Quarter Community Project in Dumfries and Galloway. It also focuses on the case of the Isle of Ulva in the Inner Hebrides (Argyll and Bute council area), with perspectives from both Jamie Howard, the landowner, and the North West Mull Community Woodland Community, the community body. Commenting on the links he sees between Scotland’s experience and the Arctic region, the filmmaker Max Baring told Polar Research and Policy Initiative:
“Rural landholding patterns in Scotland have their roots in the Highland Clearances and in the Victorian leisure expansion made possible by the coming of the railways in the 19th century. The land struggles that indigenous Highlands and Islands Scots face are different but not completely dissimilar to more recognisable indigenous land rights issues across the Arctic.
The challenges of building sustainable economies and communities are very similar in Highland Scotland and the Arctic region. Increased connectivity has increased opportunities for communities to diversify and remain viable while still physically remote. In Scotland, one of the main drivers being deployed to reverse out-migration and to increase the resilience of remote communities has been to encourage community land ownership.
Land Reform in Scotland has had moderate successes in land redistribution, but it has also made people think differently about who owns Scotland and opened up new possibilities in community ownership and has encouraged new ownership structures and put the emphasis on sustainability.”