Exploring Barriers to Community Land-Based Activities - Research Findings

This is a summary of research that explores the views of communities on the barriers to community land based activities in Scotland

Exploring the Barriers to Community Land-Based Activities

Project aim

There are many different community activities that require rights to land and each community will have its own particular priorities. Such activities range from housing developments to community gardens, renewable energy installations to local paths. Each type of activity will, in turn, require different property rights. While the land reform debate has to date been dominated by the advantages and disadvantages of (outright) community land ownership, this project considers barriers associated with the distribution of all types of property rights and responsibilities between land owners and communities.

The project aims to develop a classification scheme of barriers to community land-based activities and uses this scheme to examine the nature and significance of each type of barrier for different types of community activities, types of land owners and geographical contexts (e.g. urban versus rural areas). Where possible, the project also highlights the types of strategies that have been used to resolve conflicts between land owners and communities when they arise.

Research approach

Research was conducted in two stages. The first stage was a desk-based literature review including a review of the range of community land based activities that are typically proposed by community groups. Based on this, a draft classification scheme of ownership barriers to community activities was developed.

Stage 2 tested the robustness of the classification scheme and, where appropriate, amended its categories based on interviews with key informants from a range of organisations associated with community land activities. The interviews provided a large number of case studies from which the nature and significance of different types of barriers in specific contexts could be assessed.

Classification scheme of ownership barriers to community activities (adapted from Adams et al, 2001)

Categories of barriers


Underlying cause

Deficiencies in ownership rights

A. Ownership unknown or unclear

A.1 Information on title deeds are incomplete, missing or difficult to access

A.2 Ownership in dispute

A.3 Owner lacks legal capacity (including executors/administrators)

B. Ownership rights divided

B.1 Land held in Trust [functionality of Trust]

B.2 Land subject to leases or licences [or subordinate real rights]

B.3 Land subject to mortgages or other securities

B.4 Land subject to restrictive Title conditions/real burdens

B.5 Land subject to servitudes or rights of way

B.6 Land subject to options or conditional contracts

Landowner behaviour

C. Assembly of ownership required

C.1 Ransom strips

C.2 Multiple ownership

D. Unacceptable terms

D.1 Restrictive terms of conditions of sale/transfer of lesser rights

D.2 Different valuations

E. Owner unwilling to sell or lease land

E.1 Retention for continued current use (includes for occupation/investment/making available to others on non-profit basis)

E.2 Retention for control or protection/conservation

E.3 Retention for subsequent own development

E.4 Retention for subsequent sale (due to indecision, postponement, uncertainty or speculation)

External factors affecting communities

F. Structural barriers facing communities

F.1 Inability to raise funding

F.2 Regulations and limitations to advisory support

F.3 Lack of legitimacy

Internal factors affecting communities

G. Community constraints and decisions

G.1 Potential liabilities of ownership disproportionate to community benefits

G.2 Differing community aspirations

G.3 Lack of community capacity

G.4 Lack of willingness to engage with landowner


The classification scheme

The research confirmed the existence and importance of all four sets of barriers in the classification scheme. Often, more than one barrier was found to constrain community activities from being developed. As a result, it can take considerable time for a community to secure the required land rights. This in itself represents a barrier in so far as it increases the probability of the development failing at some point in the development process through either a loss of community momentum
or the increased likelihood of an alternative use or user being found in the interim period.

Differences between community activities

Some barriers were found to be particularly significant for certain community land based activities. For example, multiple ownership is a particular problem for footpaths or cycle paths in rural areas while gaining sufficient community funding was found to be a particular problem for community housing developments. A reoccurring issue in the case studies related to planning. In particular, while not a direct barrier, extant planning permission can significantly increase the value of a property to the landlord and can place it out of the reach of funding available to the community regardless of the intended activity.

Differences between rural and urban areas

Within as well as across urban and rural areas, the significance of barriers varies as a result of patterns of land use and land tenure, culture and the attitudes of key stakeholders. Having said this, there were a number of specific barriers that were considered to be more of a problem in urban areas than rural areas regardless of type of proposed activity. These included barriers associated with land owner identification, divided ownership rights (securities and real burdens), multiple ownership, constraints associated with planning and higher community liabilities (associated with higher use and potential vandalism etc.). It was also suggested that reaching acceptable terms may be more problematic in an urban context as a result of higher land values, greater competition for land use and a narrower range of alternative sites on which communities can site their activities than in rural areas. Finally it was suggested that urban communities may be more likely to suffer from a lack of capacity although this was noted as a potential issue for some rural areas as well.

Differences between types of land owners

Apart from differences between public and private landowners associated with the regulatory and funding framework, there was limited evidence that certain barriers were associated with certain land owner types.

There was some suggestion that, compared to public sector or charities, private landowners can be easier to deal with as they have a tendency for more direct decision making. However, the key informants also highlighted that negotiations with private landowners can be unpredictable and with a higher level of risk, due to potential disagreement, trust and partnership issues. The role of advisors to private landowners was also noted as significant.

Scale of landownership was identified by some interviewees as a factor which influences the likelihood of landowners agreeing to sell or lease land to community groups however the pattern was unclear and no overall trend was identified. For example, some argued that individual private owners of small landholdings are more cautious in engaging with community land-based activities. With larger landholdings, a key issue is that whilst in many cases there may be a possibility of finding alternative land for the community activity, a lack of engagement by a single large scale land owner in a locality can lead to disproportionate impacts.

There were clearer messages in relation to differences in the barriers associated with public and private landowners. The former tended to be viewed as more risk averse yet supportive of community initiatives and also progressive in terms of developing lease agreements.

Resolution mechanisms

The existence of barriers to community land-based activities is a potential justification for government intervention. Each category of barrier identified in the classification scheme arises from a different source and thus may require a different resolution mechanism.

Many of the structural barriers facing communities could in theory be overcome by changes in existing funding regulations and/or improvements in advisory services. Similarly, changes in planning regulations could potentially help to overcome any unintentional impacts of planning on land values or behaviour. Elements of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 were expected by interviewees to be helpful in addressing several of the issues identified in relation to community capacity-related barriers, especially in urban areas.

More generally, the case studies highlighted several different resolution strategies which had been used to overcome land ownership barriers to community activities. On some occasions this involved helping communities find alternative locations for their activities. In other cases external mediation and consultation processes had been effective in overcoming problems between particular landowners and communities, allowing activities to proceed.


The classification scheme described in this report provides a basis to develop a better understanding of some of the barriers that can occur in developing community land-based activities and thus assist in identifying effective ways of resolving issues should they arise.

How to access background or source data

The data collected for this <statistical bulletin / social research publication>:

☐ are available in more detail through Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics

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☐ may be made available on request, subject to consideration of legal and ethical factors. Please contact <email address> for further information.

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Email: Richard Murray

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