Exploring Barriers to Community Land-Based Activities

This report explores perceptions of the barriers to community land based activities in Scotland

3 Insights from previous studies

Differentiating between structural and behavioural barriers

Whether or not a community can use a particular piece of land for a particular purpose depends on decisions made by those who hold the rights to that land. These decisions, in turn, are made within the context of the land tenure system, that is, the set of rules and regulations which define how land is held, used, and transferred including associated responsibilities and restraints. Given this, several authors suggest that, when trying to understand the nature of barriers to community activities, it is useful to distinguish between those which relate to 1) the system of tenure (structural issues) and 2) the motivations of those who hold land (MacGregor, 1993; Adams et al., 2001).

In particular, Adams et al. (2001) in their analysis of the re-development of brownfield sites categorise land ownership constraints into those which relate to 1) deficiencies in the extent of ownership rights in the potential development land, and 2) the strategies, interests and actions of those who hold such rights. The former includes, for example, cases where the power of the owner to sell land with immediate vacant procession is restricted by one or more lesser rights on the same piece of land. The latter reflects the various factors which influence land owner behaviour which, as many previous authors have stressed, extend beyond the economic rational typically assumed to explain land use patterns at an aggregate (national) level.

What property rights do communities need?

Table 1 illustrates the type of activities frequently included in Community Action Plans. Each community will have its own particular priorities as reflected in the types of activities proposed and each type of activity will require different areas and combinations of land and buildings and, critically, different levels of property interests. In some cases, for example a community music festival, the requirement may be to use land in agricultural use for a short period. Apart from negotiating liabilities and responsibilities with the landowner for the duration of the event, no further transfer of ownership rights is required or demanded. In other cases the community may wish to become the outright owners of the land and associated property either because this is a requirement of external project funding, because of broader community ambitions, or because of the permanent nature of the proposed development (for example community affordable housing developments).

Some land based activities such as footpaths or cycle paths in rural areas are likely to require assembling property rights from more than one land owner. This places additional demands on communities as it requires agreement from all owners. Adam et al.s' analysis of constraints to commercial brownfield developments suggests this may also be a major problem for urban community proposals. However it is equally possible that in some rural areas, a single large-scale land owner may have influence across more than one type of proposed community activity in which case his/her behaviour is of critical importance. Related to this, a key issue in determining the significance of land ownership barriers is the extent to which a development is restricted to a particular site or whether the community has a degree of choice in terms of where it is located or on whose land it falls.

Table 1: Examples of community land-based activities


  • Village halls and community centres
  • Community shops
  • Affordable housing
  • Renewable energy installations
  • Business centres
  • Harbour improvements and developments
  • Car parks
  • Petrol stations


  • Local paths
  • Cycle paths

Enhancing the village environment

  • Community parks and play areas
  • Community gardens and allotments
  • Community recycling
  • Sports pitches and facilities
  • Community woodland


  • Hosting music/ arts/drama festivals
  • Historical buildings

Active versus passive landowners

Focussing specifically on landowner behaviour and its impact on land development, Adams (1994) argues that it is useful to distinguish between active and passive landowners. Active landowners are those who develop their own land, may enter into joint ventures or make land available to others to develop. In contrast, passive landowners refuse offers from potential developers and retain land without development even though they may plan to do so in the distant future.

Some authors have argued that, in the long run, passive ownership behaviour is less important and will be addressed by increases in land prices (Ball et al., 1998). However, not all passive land owners are susceptible to monetary compensation and there are clearly costs associated with short run disequilibrium in markets illustrated, for example, by the presence of derelict land. Thus, in relation to community land-based activities, both types of land owner behaviour are relevant and should be included in the framework. The active versus passive distinction is applicable in relation to the transfer of lesser land rights required for a community-land based activity to proceed.

Alternative classifications of land owners

There has been limited recent academic research attempting to categorise landowner behaviour. Massey and Catalano (1978) differentiated between three types of private landowners on the grounds that they may respond to similar market signals in different ways. The first category, "former landed property" owners consists of the church, the crown and landed gentry. Here land is retained not for investment or income purposes but largely for social reasons (either private or societal) such as to protect its amenity value, preserve a historical connection or to make it available to others to use. Depending on the context it may also be a means of minimising tax liabilities.

The second category, "industrial landowners" includes those who need land as a factor of production. In an urban context, it includes manufacturing firms or service providers that need space to produce their goods/services. In a rural area it includes those in the primary sectors such as farmers who need land for agricultural production. Whether or not industrial landowners are willing and able to surrender existing property rights will depend on their current and future production plans as well as regulations (e.g. farm tenancies). Thus production-related issues including sector prospects, the cost of relocation and the ability to substitute space with other factors will influence their land-ownership decisions.

The final category of private land owners are "financial landowners" who, as their name suggests, are motivated mainly by the investment potential of land and property. They include property companies, pension funds and insurable companies but also individual private speculators in the land market. Differentiating between types of landowner in this way, even if not directly incorporated into the final classification of barriers, is a useful extra complement to the broader passive and active behaviours identified by Adams et al. (2001) and may help to identify alternative resolution strategies in situations where barriers arise.

Separation of rural and urban contexts

The review of previous studies highlighted that research on land ownership barriers has tended to focus on either a rural or urban context with a lack of cross fertilisation of ideas and findings across the two bodies of work. This is surprising as the issues facing developers and community groups in both types of area are common even if their relative importance and appropriate resolution mechanisms may vary. Reflecting the wider ethos of the current Land Reform Bill, this report proposes a classification of barriers to community land-based activities which is applicable across the whole of Scotland.


Email: Richard Murray

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