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.

5. Opportunities, alternative approaches and potential ways forward

This section examines the alternative approaches to communication and collaboration between community groups and environmental NGOs. The following paragraphs introduce existing opportunities and potential ways forward for community groups and NGOs that wish to work in partnership.

5.1 Improving two-way communication and prioritising active engagement

In the urban case study of Cumbernauld (see more on page 29), Scottish Wildlife Trust took a less conventional approach to how they communicated with the community. In their work with deprived communities, the engagement officers learnt that it is key to embed a reciprocal relationship between nature and the local community. Instead of asking people to support preconceived conservation projects, as is often the case in other community groups, their starting point became: 'What can the environment do for you?'

Project leaders working in Cumbernauld are also local residents. They are embedded in the community which has helped them be aware of the needs and priorities of the people around them, which in turn has allow them to make a valuable contribution to the program as they can utilise and exploit their local knowledge and personal connections. This has helped them to devise attractive and relevant modes of engagement. As a policy officer observed: 'One of the things we discovered in the Cumbernauld living landscape is that traditional methods of engaging with the communities don't really work because it is quite a deprived community'.

One of the local employees explained: 'In a more conventional setting the environmental sector would put on a walk and expect people to turn up and be interested in biodiversity'. In Cumbernauld, instead of putting events such as a biodiversity walk or butterfly camp, the team hosts a general community gathering in the environment in question, in this case the form of a community BBQ, and engage with people directly to learn about their skills and interests. From that approach, targeted interventions about open fire practices, improvement of paths to ensure people's safety, and activities with an emphasis on mental wellbeing emerged based on community feedback.

Building on that, they designed activities through which people can acquire new skills that can enhance their work opportunities. By establishing personal connections, attending local events, and building trust through numerous informal encounters, the staff members can set up programs which are designed to appeal to the local residents and allow them to experience the environment around them in a new way.

'We organise community bbq, bringing people together, […], working with existing outreach groups, walking and talking with people not with the kind of ecological agenda to start with, it's all about spending the time and building trust relationships, some of these people will have probably quite chaotic lifestyles and they might find it quite difficult to engage, so it's about taking time to build trust, build their confidence and build their skills'.

The local engagement officers in Cumbernauld stated that they were committed to listening to the residents and to take onboard their concerns and observations. This approach is evident in one of their projects called Cumbernauld Green Routes. The project is looking to modify the centre of Cumbernauld and its links to surrounding communities by creating green routes which are accessible, safe and enjoyable.

In the feasibility study, locals were canvassed to assess opinions on how such a project should be developed. Through these consultations, it was established that fear of crime was a major concern preventing many from currently using the paths. This feedback was directly used to establish that the priority of paths be safe, clean, and visible:

'To make it safer, we improve the lighting, we improve the paths, we consider where people and traffic meet to make it safer, and it's just about giving people a voice, taking their concerns seriously and making them belief that they can affect change. And for that, they don't need a big degree, they don't need to give up that much time.'

For professional organisations, working in collaboration with the community on a local level can also function as a way of challenging engrained a and automatic working practices and cultures. As a local manager of Woodland Trust shared:

'They [community members] might raise questions we would not think about because with my experience we do certain things automatically, sometimes they give me an opportunity to stop my professional head from going - well I know what I am doing, and I will just do it, to yes, I should listen, what about this.'

The local team in Cumbernauld also works with the social housing providers. Social housing providers have properties and tenants on the edge of a many of the wild spaces in Cumbernauld. Cumbernauld Living Landscape works with the social housing provider find out what the opportunities and barriers are to engage with that green space and what can be done together to improve the access and safety for the people living in the area. As the policy officer commented: 'Being able to work with Sanctuary Homes is really important for us, because they can influence social housing development but also they have a particular target audience that we maybe don't know how to relate to […] so its not just about ecology, it is very much a social project'.

'We use volunteer trainings as an asset based community approach we tie into the strengths of the community and get in touch to understand it. These guys actually have tons of skills, tons of knowledge, especially about their own area, so why don't we work with that.'

An alternative approach to community consultation and engagement has been also shared by the Scottish Community Alliance. In Birnam and Dunkeld, which are engaged the contentious and complicated aspect of Transport Scotland's project to dual the A9, community members were invited to come up with a preferred road design that meets the needs of both the local community and Transport Scotland. The request for local people to submit their own ideas has had an overwhelming response, with 163 ideas being sent in from all parts of the community. The project is still in progress.

For the Woodland Trust, working with Arkaig Community Forest is their first collaborative ownership project. Due to the innovative nature of the project, the local staff often encounter new situations and challenges. They have to work with the community locally and also work back with the charity who are used to the situation where they own the land and they manage it how they see suitable. In order to facilitate two-way communication, senior staff and line managers were invited to come, see, and to understand the differences that come with collaborative ownership and management of the forest. As the local estate manager explained:

'I decided to support the community more and I invited the senior people to come in to see this and to understand that this is different. I have to explain to my direct line manager that we have to take them [the community], with us, there is no other way. There is still this mentality that this is our land and that we can do what we like with it.'

Linking local staff and the community groups with board of trustees and senior decision-makers is an important step in improving two-way communication and creating learning spaces for challenging the established perceptions and practices.

5.2 A networked rural development model: combining resources and strengths of community groups, NGOs and other stakeholders

Many of the research participants discussed the possible opportunities in collaborative partnerships with community groups interested in land ownership and management, highlighting that partnerships with NGOs can help community groups acquire funding and support. As a policy officer in one organisation observed:

'Whatever the model for land management, it will require a range of different skills and sometimes the environmental NGOs are good at pulling those different partnerships together. We have fundraising and developments tools so it's easier for us to put one of the funding packages on behalf of our partners'.

One interviewer shared an example of a community in Moffat, which initially refused an offer to buy land under the community right to buy scheme. However, after obtaining advice and resources from the Woodland Trust, they were encouraged and decided to proceed with the buyout. As the interviewee reflected: 'It is sometimes about creating better, more favourable conditions for the community'.

Reflecting on the existing and potential partnerships between community groups and NGOs, we recommend a transition to the networked rural development model. In this approach, place-based strategies are led by local people but are acknowledged to involve external partners in a mutually beneficial partnership.

This approach draws not only on local assets and local knowledge but also makes use of external assets and knowledge to augment what is available locally. The networked development model recognises the necessary contribution of linking local communities with activists, researchers, and non-governmental organisation who can share relevant experience and skills.

In 2016, the Woodland Trust partnered with Arkaig Community Forest, a small group of local residents, to acquire a 2,500 acre site (see more on page 27). The partnership between Woodland Trust Scotland and Arkaig Community Forest has the dual aim of restoring the forest and stimulating sustainable economic activity around it.

For the Woodland Trust, joining with a community group who was able to exercise their right to buy, offered an opportunity to access valuable assets at a set value. This shows how in a successful networked rural development model, both local communities and NGOs can benefit from the collaboration. As an interview with the project leader indicates:

'The driver for us was owning the forest and this was an opportunity to get involved in that off-market, there was a set value that we were happy with, and we were able to fundraise against that, so for us it was working with the community group to absolutely take advantage of the government scheme […] But at the same time, we saw the opportunity that working with the community was something new and interesting for the charity to move into […]'

As the project progressed, however, Arkaig Community Forest members, encountered another obstacle. They found it challenging to find time and resources to make use of their forest. As one interviewee explained: 'We do a lot on the meeting side, but in terms of actually getting people out there, many of us are working in the environmental sector anyway, they don't want to come back from work and do work again, and they want to be with their families over the weekend.'

To address this challenge, the community and the Woodland Trust decided to implement a Woodlots initiative[14]. The Woodlot provides an opportunity for the landowner to get small areas of forestry into management and to generate a modest return. Local people from the area can apply and sign a management agreement. In return for their work, they can build a small hut, have a place to spend time with their family, cut trees for firewood etc. Woodlots scheme will help the community to maintain the forest, to engage a wider community, and to generate an income. It is an example of a networked model which brings together NGO, local community, neighbours and nearby residents as partners who contribute their resources, time, and expertise.

5.3 Balancing environmental preservation with sustainable consumption and economic activity

In the case of the Arkaig Community Forest (see more p.27), the aim is to both restore the forest and to stimulate sustainable economic activity around it. The forest is owned in partnership by the local community and the Woodland Trust, who both share a vision for a decades-long forest protection and restoration. At the same time, however, the leaders of the project hope that the local economy can benefit from wildlife tourism and that people can develop businesses by using products from the forest[15]. Arkaig is not an isolated case, and other community land owning groups in North Harris, Gigha, Knoydart and others demonstrate that environmental protection and sustainable livelihoods can go hand in hand.

Key to delivering this model is extensive dialogue and a willingness to compromise on both sides. For example, the community group and the Woodland Trust both want sustainable livelihoods for the people living around the forest. However, for the Arkaig Community Forest that is the number one priority whereas for the Trust restoration of the forest is the first objective. To successfully work together, the two parties have to compromise and agree on management plans which work towards both forest restoration and economic development.

To illustrate the extent of the collaboration between the parties involved, the participants shared a story about a planned road development. Woodland Trust did a feasibility study and suggested to extend the road to the other side of the forest. Their main motivation was to make the forest more accessible and to make transportation of timber more viable:

'Although generally we object to development in native woodlands, we thought we could mitigate, the benefits of having the road would outweigh potential damage. But people did not want it. They did not want a road, they did not like the environmental and landscape impact of a road, they didn't think an environmental charity should be doing this. We disagreed but we had to listen to them as partners'.

To make this approach a success, it is key to work towards creating a context in which conservation objectives and community's needs can be seen as co-dependent rather than opposing.

Following the purchase of the forest, the Arkaig Community Forest established a cooperative through which members and non-members can be hired by the Woodland Trust to perform various maintenance tasks. This arrangement creates jobs and delivers skills training to the local community. It is hoped that in the future the local economy can benefit from wildlife tourism and establish businesses using the products from the forest. The aim is to see Arkaig Forest established as a benchmark for the joint regeneration of both its native forest and local community.

People involved and benefiting from this arrangement come from as far as Loch Arbor and Fort William, which shows the ripple effects that community ownership can have. Moreover, Woodland Trust is planning apprenticeship opportunities, where young people could join and get experience in different elements of forestry: machine driving, conservation, education. The programme will be people-centred and it will aim to showcase the opportunities that forestry can bring to them.

It is a common NGO attitude to work alone and not in partnership, people are so difficult to work with, community groups are a nightmare and I agree with that. But that's the point - NGOs that work with communities manage to create projects that are sustainable and last beyond their activities, beyond the big and shiny 5-year project cycle.

As the success of the fundraising campaign for Arkaig Community Forest highlighted[16], members and funders of the Woodland Trust were supportive of the idea of collaborative ownership focused on both environmental restoration and sustainable development. It proved that when thought-through and well-communicated, campaigns to raise awareness about the benefits of directly working with communities on conservation projects can be immensely successful.

The PR value of the collaborative ownership goes beyond the initial campaign, as there is an on-going interest in this partnership, which attracts researchers and academics from various institutions. Further research might focus on devising a social economic study to identify the benefits of this type of land management for other communities beyond the catchment area.

5.4. Addressing high private land concentration

Interviews with people involved in the Arkaig Community Forest highlight that most of the land in their area is owned by the Achnacarry estate. The Community Right to Buy created a unique opportunity to access land, which is usually unavailable to people living in that area: 'All the surrounding land here, 70 000 acres, is owned by the Achnacarry Estate, clan of Cameron, so thats as traditional as you can get, and then you have the little people here in houses on the fringe of it.'

In this context, access to a large portion of the woodlands has both economic and symbolic significance, as in the past the Arkaig forest belonged to the Cameron clan. The Community Right to Buy scheme allows for beginning to address the private land concentration issues and the isolation of the communities from the land. Asked about their motivation to exercise the Community Right to Buy, a community member explained:

'Here we don't have access to the land, we just don't, we are totally cut off, we are unable to access it for commercial gain, even just for a living, it's all owned by the estate and they don't sell, not up here, they don't sell any.'

At the time of research (July 2018), the ACF community group was preparing to purchase another small forest from the Forestry Commission, which is located close to the main road and a hiking trail. The land will be more accessible to the community and will offer more direct opportunities for renting out buildings for offices (for the Woodland Trust), housing for the community members or a café for visitors. Although this is still in the planning phase, the community's willingness to expand and to take on ownership of another asset demonstrates the empowering effect of this collaborative approach.


  • Key in successful engagement projects are local staff who build on their connections in devising locally specific and relevant engagement methods.
  • Part of innovative engagement methods is working with diverse and less conventional stakeholders.
  • To improve collaboration between community groups and environmental NGOs, it is key to work towards creating a context in which conservation objectives and community's needs can be seen as co-dependent rather than opposing
  • When place-based strategies are led by local people but are acknowledged to involve external partners, mutually beneficial partnerships can develop.
  • The Community Right to Buy scheme allows for beginning to address private land concentration issues and the isolation of the communities from the land.
  • Partnerships with NGOs provide resources to communities that wish to own land and can lead to empowering communities to take ownership of other assets.


Email: Neil Davidson

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