Environment and Land Reform: relations between non-governmental organisations and community groups

The report examines relations between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community groups in the light of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.

4. Challenges for partnerships between NGOs and community groups

This section examines the perceived tensions between community needs and NGOs' mission. The aim of the chapter is to show the existing perceptions on both sides and to highlight the obstacles that the two groups face while working together.

4.1 Reconciling community needs with NGOs' mission

Research conducted shows that there is evidence of desire in the environmental NGO sector to engage communities, to work in partnerships, and to set standards of good practice. However, on the ground, the organisations often face a clash of interests between their agenda and the needs and expectations of the local people. As one interviewee explained: 'People who live on the sites that we own and manage might not have a direct interest in conservation'.

At same time, the NGOs have to manage their members' interest, who expect conservation and environmental protection to be their top priority. The membership of large environmental NGOs is often removed from the concerns of the local communities. In result, the expectations that funders and members have of what NGOs should deliver might be at times in opposition to what people who live in the conservation areas consider sustainable. According to one interviewee: 'They [NGOs] tend to see their community of interest as their membership. The people on the ground […] their interests don't matter, which leads to negative views of the organisation'.

In a discussion about the mechanisms in place to address the needs and concerns of local tenants, one NGO employee explained the difficulties of navigating the different expectations:

'I don't wish to just defend [our organisation], but it is not just a private interest, we manage all of our properties on behalf of all the people in Scotland, so all of our properties we own, we own on behalf of all the people of Scotland, and we try to take that into account. But there may be cases where the interest of the people of Scotland conflicts with the interest of the local community […]'.

As this quote illustrates, in some cases, a wider conservation agenda is prioritised over the concerns of the local population. NGOs find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances, where they feel that they are unable to satisfy the needs of all stakeholders. In result, they tend to prioritise the expectations of funders and members, rather than the local communities living on and around their estates. An inability to reconcile these conflicting needs and concerns emerged as an important theme in this research.

4.2 Public consultations and challenges with communication and engagement

Local communities are diverse places. Landowners, be that private or public or even a community, often find engaging with communities challenging. In contrast to private landowners who have a unified voice and a representative body that responds to their concerns, local communities are diverse, disperse and non-unified. There are sometimes conflicting views within the communities themselves and it takes time and experience to listen to people and work with them. As one of the interviewees explained:

'There is an assumption, status quo, by default, you talk to authorities, or the local council, local newspaper, but actually all of those are now being challenged, because there are more organisations and communities getting together, and when you actually try and find out what people think, other than assuming you know what they think, there are many surprises'

The challenges in reconciling NGOs' mission and community needs are reflected in how consultations with the community are planned and conducted. NGOs interviewed engage in consultations with local communities but there is little evidence to suggest that communities were actually involved in planning and preparation of long-term strategy. The two groups operate at different timescales and NGOs 'top down' approach is reflected in how they structure and run their consultations:

'When possible, we will always take on board concerns, and views and try to reach consensus, obviously. But we buy land to deliver our charitable objectives and that comes with obligations. Particularly, if it is a designated site, there are certain ways in which we will have to manage the land in order to get that into favourable conditions. With some things we can't be so flexible, there are some actions that we have to take.'

Interviews show that some organisations operate according to 5-year management plans that outline their list of priorities and activities. After 5 years, the plans are revised and community is consulted on the new set of management plans: 'We have always done that, it is just embedded in our practice, on that 5-year cycle we will consult people, let them know what is happening, what we are doing, when we buy a new reserve, we will have a consultation to let people know, what is happening, what we are doing.' As these interviews indicate, people living on or near the reserves are informed rather than engaged and their input is not incorporated into the plans on a large scale. As one interviewee explained:

'We get information from the communities that these organisations do not collaborate unless it is to deliver what they want to deliver. For them, collaboration at the local level means: 'This is what we want to do'' instead of ''How can we work together on this''. That makes collaboration difficult if not impossible'.

At the same time, however, a few of the organisations involved in this research recognised the need for improving communication with community groups and demonstrated a desire to improve their community engagement. As one interviewee explained: 'In fact, we are actually thinking at the moment, in terms of the Land Reform Act 2016, there is a Community Engagement piece in it. We already do a lot of Community engagement […] But we are thinking now, do we need to make that more explicit, do we need to provide internal guidance on what are the best ways to do it'. The primary interviews revealed that there is evidence of positive momentum from within the organisations to seek better methods of communication and engagement with local communities.

4.3 Limited possibilities for transfer of assets from NGOs to communities

The participants suggested that when people living on NGOs' estates purchase land, it is usually house sites for the purpose of receiving a mortgage and obtaining security. Portioning of grazing happens less frequently, however there are some exceptions. In Iona, crofting tenants requested for an opportunity to purchase their land from a land owning charitable trust. In Angus, there was an individual farming tenant who also accessed land from the NGO. According to the NGOs' records, large land purchase applications submitted by communities, however, are not commonplace.

Two NGOs expressed an opinion that some of their assets are classified as inalienable, which limits the opportunities for transfer to communities. Nevertheless, on some occasions, NGOs sell their land to their tenants. As the following quote indicates, transfer of assets from NGOs to communities happen infrequently and are technically limited by the legal status of charities' land.

'Normally we don't sell our land because we have an ability to hold land inalienable, whereas if you are a normal landowner and someone wants to build a bypass across it, there will be a compulsory purchase order. We, in theory, cannot be forced, we are not obliged, I dont think we are subject to compulsory purchase order. […] The net result of that is that usually, if crofters have asked if they can purchase their land, we said yes, we probably could say no and make a fuss about it, but we don't normally'.

This is a perception expressed by research participants, which is technically legally incorrect. From a legal perspective, even charitable owners might be subjected to compulsory sale under certain conditions - e.g. under rare circumstances such as major public infrastructure projects. What is important here, however, is that both NGOs and their tenants believe that charitable organizations own land inalienably and have limited possibilities for relinquishing their assets.

4.4 Differences in land management and working practices

Overall, NGOs interviewed highlighted that Land Reform Act 2016 prioritises ownership over the type and style of management and that communities that come into land ownership struggle to access resources for improving land management. As one participant explained:

'We are concerned that the Land Reform was very focused on land ownership and not on how land was used and managed. We want a better link between these two things. Changing who owns the land doesn't necessarily influence how its managed unless you have a clear idea of what you want that difference to be'

The discussion about ownership vs. management of land was a prominent trope in many interviews with landowning NGOs. When asked about community land ownership on or around NGOs' estates, research participants expressed sceptical views, highlighting challenges community groups were likely to encounter, such as: lack of access to financial resources following the buyout, shortages of time, lack of land management knowledge, lack of coherence and sustainability within the community groups themselves, lack of clear vision for the newly acquired assets. The majority of the respondents identified the main problem in the disproportionate amount of funding available for the purchase of land as compared to the resources available for developing and managing the land:

'That is a general issue we are finding, there is money for communities to buy land but not necessarily to manage it. It is not that private ownership is always bad, it is objectives that are set for the land that are often bad and Land Reform is not addressing the need to shift people's thinking on objectives'.

Community groups and large environmental NGOs also often struggle to work together due to incompatible working paces and capacity. This is illustrated well by the Arkaig Community Forest case study (see more on p. x).

In the interviews, both the community group and the Woodland Trust staff spoke about struggles to align their pace and working practices. From the perspective of the organisation, working with the community takes a lot of time because: 'We are not dealing with another professional group, we are dealing with volunteers who are doing this in their own time, they don't always act strategically, the decision-making process is not always very clear, they are groups of people who get together and talk about things but don't have a process in place to make decisions'.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the community group, Woodland Trust is a big machine that they struggle to keep up with: 'They like to be seen to be doing lots, being productive, pushing projects, pushing every angle of the forest - environmental, trees, social aspects, so there is a lot of projects on the go all at one time and our capacity struggles to keep the same pace, especially when some of us are away. For us this is probably one of the most crucial challenges […] we sometimes cannot keep up. We created an advisory board and that went really well, it helps us to stay involved and to push things forward'.

As this example illustrates, creating an advisory board facilitated communication between these partners. Yet, this example highlights that working pace and capacity are major obstacles for community groups and NGOs who wish to work in partnership.

The difference in working practices is also evident in how much community groups rely on individuals' input and commitment. NGOs have resources to recruit and hire component candidates who ensure the continuity of their work. Community groups, on the other hand, often rely on exceptional individuals and their voluntary contribution. The community advocates interviewed for this project demonstrated outstanding commitment to their work, however it can be argued that reliance on a handful of individuals might be unsustainable in a long term.

4.5 Challenges for communities in urban areas

According to the stakeholders interviewed, community land ownership in urban areas faces many challenges. Community groups in urban areas are vulnerable to the same pressures that their rural counterparts, including lack of financial resources, lack of human resources, and lack of expertise in navigating the grants landscape. However, according to the Scottish Wildlife Trust staff working in urban areas, urban communities additionally have a lesser connection to the land than rural groups and less knowledge and hands on experience about how to manage land, what are the resources necessary, and what kind of commitment needs to be made.

'Crofters and farmers, they already have a connection with the land so they get it, but in urban communities, its very difficult, you get very few community woodland projects that are successful, people sometimes think the forest will take care of itself but it won't, you have to manage it'

Interviews with the engagement officers in Cumbernauld indicated that urban communities are aware of these challenges and there are not many urban communities participating in the Community Right to Buy scheme. There has been a recent case of an urban community acquiring a church for a community center in Portobello[13] (Edinburgh), but there are no other instances of urban communities seeking to own larger plots of land for conservation or recreation.


  • Interviews indicate that people living on or near the reserves are informed rather than engaged and their input is not incorporated into the management plans on a large scale.
  • Both NGOs and their tenants believe that charitable organizations own land inalienably and have limited possibilities for relinquishing their assets.
  • The majority of the respondents identified the main challenge for community ownership in the disproportionate amount of funding available for the purchase of land as compared to the resources available for developing and managing the land.
  • Different working pace and capacity are major obstacles for community groups and NGOs who wish to work in partnership.
  • Urban communities have a lesser connection to the land and knowledge about land management. In consequence, very few urban communities feel capable of taking on community land ownership.


Email: Neil Davidson

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