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New Challenges for the Social Land Sector

Andy Wightman, May 1999

This paper started life as a workshop presentation to the Not-for-profit Landowners Project Group. It was delivered at their residential workshop in Drumnadrochit on 19th May 1999. The paper has been edited with a view to making it more widely available to those interested in the growing body of material on the social land sector.


bulletGaining Government Recognition as a Representative Voice
bulletInfluencing the Debate on the Proposed Legislation
bulletVision into Public Policy
bulletConcluding Thoughts
bulletFurther Information


I was keen to attend this Not-for-profit (NfP) Land owner’s workshop as I carried out an elementary survey of non-profit-distributing property associations in the Highlands at a time when the topic was not so lively and exciting. Since I was first involved, the sector has grown considerably and now covers a diverse range of organisations, which are learning from each other. However, even today this part of the civil society – the social economy - is not well understood by our elected representatives, policy makers, academia, public servants or a sizeable proportion of the development profession.

I was also briefly involved with the Laggan Forestry Initiative, which has perhaps still not been properly born as a joint forest management venture. Their situation raises the issue of how communities and other civil society organisations can work together with the statutory sector. The challenge is to convince people of the need for a re-interpretation of the role of the state in the management of public land through such agencies as Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission and then to act in accordance with the new understanding.

The social land sector as a whole is faced with several challenges. This is due to the way in which the sector has grown and increasingly diversified to meet these new challenges and needs.

Gaining Government Recognition as a Representative Voice

Having spent the last 2 to 3 years capacity building, NfP groups must now develop a profile and a presence in public policy making. If the social land sector is not recognised within the next year by key ministries in the Scottish Executive and by the new Parliament, it will have missed an opportunity, with the likely result that the government will recognise only one body as the representative voice of landowners in Scotland – the Scottish Landowners’ Federation, whose members own 7 million acres. It has a membership of around 4,000. However the social land sector owns half a million acres in the Highlands and a further quarter of a million acres elsewhere in Scotland. It has in excess of 1.2 million members within the social land sector umbrella. It is essential to argue for official recognition from the government as a representative voice, for this influence counts.

Influencing the Debate on the Proposed Legislation

The concept of community land ownership is currently fashionable, but many political commentators define community very narrowly – as local people in a particular place – and fail to appreciate the complexity of a sector which includes conservation organisations, crofting communities, co-operatives, housing associations, faith organisations, national sports associations, partnerships and consortia, as well as local community property associations.

The current proposals certainly do not recognise the complexity and diversity of the social land sector. Therefore NfP groups also face the challenge of trying to influence the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the proposed community-right-to-buy.

The Scottish Office Land reform Policy Group’s recommendations seem to be designed to deal with acute symptoms as displayed in the high profile cases of Eigg and Knoydart, rather than addressing the underlying causes. They also appear to be an exercise in containment in the way they restrict the right-to-buy to communities which are able to meet very narrow conditions.

To be eligible under the proposed right-to-buy legislation, groups will have had to register an interest beforehand. Furthermore, the right appears to be restricted to those who live and or work on the land (i.e. tenants and employees).

A further restriction is that a community will only be able to invoke the right-to-buy when property is on the market. Much land in Scotland changes hands only rarely: a quarter of estates over 1,000 acres are still in the same family hands as in 1700, and half of the Highlands has not seen any change in ownership since the last war. Any registration of interest may be on behalf of the great-great-grand-children of those alive today.

So the challenge is to amend the proposed legislation to allow a high degree of flexibility over the eligibility criteria, sufficient to cover cases which cannot currently be predicted, and so allow for the variety and experimentation within the sector which has attempted to integrate social, economic, environmental and democratic needs in diverse ways. It is interesting to note that the White paper advocates that the right-to-buy legislation should only be exercised where the community members constitute a voting majority on the community trust. In which current situations is this the case? Certainly not in the cases of Eigg and in Knoydart.

A further challenge stems from the fact that many politicians have shunted the debate to the Highlands as if the issue of land ownership does not affect the rest of Scotland. However, the campaign for land reform was always intended to be a national movement. The social land sector has to go on reiterating demands for a rigorous critique of the current proposals.

Vision into Public Policy

The new Scottish Parliament will have much more time to discuss and debate issues and to build visions of the Scotland of the future. The challenge for social land sector is to grasp new opportunities and create a vision of the contribution that the sector can make and inject it into public policy.

There is currently great disillusionment with the state sector. Michael Forsyth, as Secretary of State for Scotland, proposed that the Laggan Forestry Initiative should be allowed to buy the solum to 3,000 acres for 75,000, while the Forestry Commission (FC) should continue to own the trees, but the FC objected. There are lots of opportunities to be explored, such as partnerships between the private, public, community and voluntary sectors.

Concluding Thoughts

My advice to the NfP Landowners Group is:

bulletKeep going
bulletBuild your presence, though this is not always an easy thing for small and fragile groups to accomplish when they are also struggling to achieve their own objectives. However, the social land sector has already demonstrated its ability to build a certain amount of capacity and you have a rich history of 150 years of organised efforts.
bulletBuild and publish your vision of the future.

The organisations represented at this workshop have already begun to react to the opportunity. May you and the social land movement grow and prosper.


To keep the agenda of land ownership in the public eye, in the absence of more big land buy-outs, all the diverse parts of the social land sector which are affected must speak out – tenants groups, housing associations, sports associations, etc. We need to generate a head of steam to allow us to question the fundamentals of the status quo, and not just the solutions which have been proposed so far by the Land Reform Policy Group, civil servants or one or two interested politicians.

We are insufficiently aware of our history of social land ownership in Scotland, which dates back over 150 years to the club farms of the 1820s. When John Murdoch advocated the setting up of the Commercial Land Company in 1875, he was driven by the Chartist vision of the National Land Plan. In the current land reform debate many civil society organisations have allowed themselves to be diverted by the bad landlord issue. We need to celebrate the coming together of the three strands of the social land ownership movement in Scotland:

bulletthe breaking up of Highland land, at the beginning of the 20th century, by the Department of Agriculture to create new and enlarged crofts (small holdings) for the crofting population of the region,
bulletthe outdoor recreational movements acquisition of mountainous properties during the period 1930 to 1970, and
bulletthe acquisitions during the last 30 years by voluntary nature conservation organisations of wildlife sites of national and international significance.

These three diverse strands of civil society are now entwined in sustainable development and must be part of the vision of the future.

We also need a more fundamental analysis of how to right the wrongs of the status quo. Rising land prices are putting land beyond the reach of local people. At the same time at least one firm of land agents is trying to persuade Japanese investors that they can achieve a 9 percent return on their capital by buying Scottish farms and taking advantage of the government’s Farm Woodland Grant Scheme.

We need public debate on such issues as a universal right of pre-emption in the public interest. This could be vested in the state, which could then exercise it on behalf of groups in the social land sector. This would save individual groups having to invoke this right on each occasion they wished to acquire land, which had come on the market. It has also been proposed that a community should be able to identify land in advance, and that a community which wants to take land into community ownership should be able to designate as much land as it feels it needs. We need to win acceptance for the idea that the land market should be regulated as a matter of principle. Once that is achieved, the debate moves on to such questions as: How should it be regulated? In whose interest?

The Land Reform Policy Group in its document Identifying the Solutions refers to the possibility of the human rights of owners being infringed, but this cannot happen if there is a willing seller. The European Convention on Human Rights protects owners’ rights to property against expropriation, but allows land to be transferred if the public interest demands it. Extending property rights may be regarded as being in the public interest. For example, the Duke of Westminster lost half of his Belgravia leasehold on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the judges ruling that the extension of property rights was in the public interest.

The current proposals for land reform are not sufficiently radical for many landowners to take them very seriously. Therefore the government should introduce some radical measures such as reforming the right of succession which would create such agitation that many less contentious proposals would be accepted.

Many big estates operate like businesses and are often run or advised by professional land agents and managers, who are skilled at accessing public funds and minimising tax burdens, while communities have to suffer severe financial constraints on small project budgets. Making available at local authority level information about the beneficiaries of state grant aid would be a very important step. The information agenda in land reform is a very important one. The main political opposition party has proposed that following the establishment of the new Scottish Parliament it should democratise all grants made to landowners from the public purse. This may seem a very radical proposal but it has been the practise of the government’s Enterprise agencies which supports both industrial and business development to openly publish this type of information. This policy of public disclosure has been operating for a number of years and many business people in industry and commerce view this as good and ethical practice. Disclosure of state aid to landowners is a necessary step if there is to be democratic accountability in local development.


The Social Land Sector comprises a diverse range of civil society organisations function in both rural and urban settings: community property associations; conservation, amenity and recreational trust (CARTs); crofting trusts, co-operatives, club farms; faith organisations; housing associations; and national sports associations.

  1. The Social Economy is the term given to a range of different citizen-controlled organisations: voluntary associations; community businesses; co-operatives, mutual and friendly societies.
  2. Recommendations for Action, Land Reform Policy Group, The Scottish Office, Edinburgh, January 1999.
  3. Land Reform: Proposals for Legislation, Scottish Executive, Edinburgh, July 1999.
  4. A legal term used in land title documents in Scotland as a means of referring to the ownership of the top surface of the Earth to a certain depth.
  5. Identifying the Solutions, Land Reform Policy Group, The Scottish Office, Edinburgh, September 1998.

  6. Further Information

    The Not-for-Profit Landowners Project Group can be contacted at the following address:

    Euan MacAlpine
    Convenor NfP Landowners Project Group
    C/o RSPB, Etive House
    Beechwood Park
    Inverness IV2 3BW
    Scotland, UK
    Tel: 01463 715 000

    Andy Wightman can be contacted at:

    9 Inverleith Terrace
    Edinburgh EH3 5NS
    Scotland, UK
    Tel: 0131 225 4139 (work)
    0976 696 967 (home)

    The author acknowledges the assistance of David Reid and Graham Boyd of the Caledonia Centre of Social Development in the editing of this paper.