Securing Community Land Rights in Scotland

Thursday, April 3, 2014

CLS Community Land Scotland"We believe that you can’t create a more socially just Scotland without tackling land ownership. Half of the entire country is held by just 432 owners and a mere 16 owners hold 10 per cent of Scotland. We want to see more of Scotland’s land in the hands of Scotland’s people and communities."

Scotland's history continues to leave a strong imprint in its rural landscape and society today, with this statement by Community Land Scotland (CLS) reflecting sentiments about land concentration most commonly associated with countries like Brazil or South Africa.

At the invitation of CLS, which was set up three years ago, I joined twenty members and partners in Inverness to reflect on their challenges and achievements. Inspired in part by reports from the Interlaken conference on upscaling recognition of community lands, CLS decided to reach beyond its borders to consider how their own work might resonate or link with global land reform and human rights movements.

My own exposure to land issues in Scotland began when I started postgraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1996, the same year a book was published called Who owns Scotland? Scotland is one of the only countries in Europe that never dismantled the structure of its landholdings created in feudal times.  It is a legacy that looms large in Scottish history with the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries which forcibly cleared people off the valleys in the estates of large land owners to make way for sheep. However, back in 1996, very little had been done to tackle land concentration in Scotland.

Now back in Scotland, I accompanied Peter Peacock, former Minister of Education who now dedicates much of his time to CLS, travelling through some of these valleys. We did not see many sheep; they seem to have been replaced by recreational hunting as the main landuse. The story of the past was clearly visible though, in the many ruins of small farmsteads that dotted the landscape.

We were on our way to the Isle of Skye, where ten years ago residents of Sleat formed a Community Trust to purchase some of the estate on which they lived. This was not a ‘restoration’ of community land as it has happened in a piecemeal fashion, but rather an effort at acquiring the land needed to enable community-owned enterprises and services. It started with land for a community-owned windfarm, and since expanded to include a residential development, broadband provision and a 1,000Ha forest.

Yet despite the differences with, for example, Tanzania, where securing community tenure rights is more about formalising customary tenure systems, some common outcomes seemed apparent. Through gaining community land rights local institutions were formed that were giving the community a stronger voice. It provided an avenue for the community to define their desired future, to identify opportunities, and take collective action to realise them. This seems to have been a turning point for some communities that had until then been facing relative poverty and long-term decline and outmigration. In the worst cases, such as the remote Knoydart, the buyout allowed tenants whose homes and local infrastructure were crumbling due to neglect by the landlord to acquire 4,000Ha of the land and homes they lived on in 1999, so as to start with the basics of securing proper shelter and then continue to create local opportunities through activities such as tourism.

Knoydart had followed the earlier community buyout, the Isle of Eigg  in 1997, which has since then seen its population soar by 40%, albeit to 90 residents. Back then, members of CLS told me, no-one really believed that this would be the beginning of a wider movement for community ownership of land in Scotland. But it did provide the impetus for the eventual passing of the Land Reform Act of 2003. This act gave the rights to tenant Crofters to purchase their smallholdings from landlords, communities the pre-emptive right of refusal if their landlord put his land up for sale, and formalised the customary Right to Roam over undeveloped land. With lessons learnt over ten years, CLS is now working with the government towards a review of the Act, which they hope will extend the possibilities for securing community lands.

CLS now counts 43 communities who have bought out or are on the way to doing so in Scotland, covering 125,000Ha, including the first few outside the Highlands and Islands. CLS’s  efforts are simultaneously a national and a local struggle; nationally in gaining political and public support for land reform, and locally in demonstrating the tangible benefits to communities of moving from being tenants to being landowners. Their achievements, and of the many that work with them, are impressive. At the CLS 2013 annual meeting, the First Minister announced a goal to double the area under community ownership by 2020.

The challenges are also great. Like any country facing high concentrations of land ownership, challenging this structure also means challenging the concentration of economic and political power with which land ownership is so intertwined. CLS is now setting its sights internationally; on learning from land reform movements in other countries and on linking in with global processes that can support their cause. International law has proved double-sided, with a case of a landlord challenging a community buyout in the European Court of Human Rights (he lost).

CLS is examining the feasibility of proposing Scotland as a candidate for the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Good Governance of Land Fisheries and Forests. CLS members also identified closely with the concept of ‘People Centred Land Governance’ in ILC’s Antigua Declaration, adopting it in their own Bunchrew Land Declaration following the Inverness workshop, which in turn was tabled as a motion in the Scottish parliament.

Ultimately, CLS’s main challenge is to foster an open debate in Scotland about what is fair and just in building a future in which legitimate claims to land are given the consideration they deserve.