Impact of diversity of ownership scale on social, economic and environmental outcomes

Report on the impact of diversity of ownership on the socioeconomic outcomes for rural areas.


Land ownership scale is one of a myriad of factors that influence the economic, social and environmental development of rural communities. The complexity of ownership motivations, societal, policy and economic interactions in driving community development means that it is too complex to conclude that scale of land ownership is a significant factor in the sustainable development of communities.

The influence of landownership scale

A mix of policy (e.g. taxation, CAP, land use planning), economic (e.g. returns to land, industrial/business performance, recessions, depreciation) and social (owner objectives, demographic change, community aspirations) factors combine in unique ways for each landowner that can lead to the maintenance of scale of ownership or drive fragmentation. This mix of landowner motivations alongside the multitude of other factors driving change mean that it is too complex to disaggregate land ownership scale effects in the determination of local outcomes. That said, in some case studies land ownership scale was seen as enabling owners an element of control over some outcomes (environment, land use, housing, etc.), and that ownership change and fragmentation offered opportunities to a number of existing farm tenants to develop their business further.

However, even where fragmentation had occurred, the current owners of farms in one case study (E4) could not conclude that the ownership change and fragmentation had actually led to positive outcomes for the wider rural communities in their area, despite the clear individual benefits derived with fragmentation of land ownership being described as the most important driver of change from their families' perspectives.

Historic fragmentation of large land holdings generally resulted in the emergence of a wide range of sizes of land holdings, from houses with a small paddock to small estates. As agriculture has become increasingly mechanised and businesses have sought economies of scale, evidence from the fieldwork suggests that, as within the tenancy sector, there has been considerable (re)amalgamation of units in the last 50 years.

The quantitative data does suggest that there is currently greater agricultural intensity in those case studies where fragmentation occurred, but this needs to be interpreted cautiously since agricultural performance is determined by a multitude of factors and standard (average) output coefficients may over-estimate (e.g. for smaller farms) or under-estimate (e.g. for larger farms) actual output levels.

June Agricultural Census data also suggests that there are many more minor holdings in existence in the fragmented case studies compared to the unfragmented case studies. However, caution is required as these figures are heavily influenced by case study 1b where a high number of privately owned small holdings were created from the main estate break up in the early part of the 20 th century, and its accessible to a major urban area and has witnessed high demand for land and housing from an influx of commuters over the last 40 years.

The quantitative data also suggests that there has been greater population growth in the case studies where fragmentation occurred, but the influence of land ownership on population growth is unlikely to be simple or direct. Population growth reflects both employment and housing opportunities, and is reliant not only on the release of land for development but also on existing residents' and planning authorities' willingness to accept developments. Moreover, general declines in land-based employment means that job creation to retain and/or attract residents is more likely to be driven by business (or public sector) developments not reliant on land per se and/or by developments in (and good transport connections to) nearby urban areas. Hence, again, more detailed information on places of work and occupation of residents would be required to arrive at any firm conclusions on the effect of land ownership scale.

In the last 20 years, there has been considerable rhetoric about the scale of land ownership and how it may impact on the development of local communities. Overall, the evidence suggests that scale of land ownership, and land ownership change, can have an influence on the sustainable development of rural communities, but that it is only one of many drivers of change.

Drivers of Change

This research has highlighted that changes to scale of land ownership is only one of a complex set of interacting factors that drive change in the social, economic and environmental development of rural communities. There was a wide range of land ownership scales and degrees of land ownership fragmentation within the selected case studies and different local community development pathways that have resulted in quite different local sustainable development outcomes. Whilst it therefore may be tempting to conclude that the different local outcomes were related to land ownership factors, the research findings confirm that it is the interactions of other factors (as per the "Other Factors Framework") that have a very strong bearing on local development.

The key historical (and current) forces of change in the case studies were often reported by participants as not being directly related to land ownership, instead being driven by a range of general socio-economic factors: regional economic growth, mechanisation, reduced land based workforce, mobility of people, housing developments, tourism growth, infrastructure, communications, commuters, second homes, ageing populations, improved standards of living, etc.

Economic Change

The quality of communication networks was acknowledged to be vitally important, with poor transport linkages and slow broadband speeds commonly cited as hampering realisation of business aspirations. Where communications networks had been upgraded, they were credited with encouraging development, although relief roads to reduce local congestion could also reduce passing trade. Historically, the arrival of mains electricity was recalled as transformative. Similarly, renewable energy projects - hydro schemes in the past, wind farms more recently - were viewed as bringing jobs and revenue streams to local communities.

Other large-scale developments were also recalled as positive influences on businesses, jobs and working populations, for example military bases, mines, factories and port facilities - although if such enterprises closed the subsequent loss of jobs (some well-paid, high-quality, others less so) was difficult to recover from. The presence of large-scale employers was also acknowledged to raise potential problems of integration of employees with the local community.

Land-based businesses, particularly farms, were acutely aware of the direct influence of public-sector activities on business viability, for example reliance on the CAP and its domestic predecessors in terms of support payments and capital grants, or the role of the Forestry Commission in establishing and maintaining tree planting. The negative effect on employment of mechanisation in both agriculture and forestry was acknowledged, but accepted as necessary for competitiveness. Similar views were expressed about the increasing use of contractors for land-based work, by estate owners and smaller businesses alike.

Other businesses and wider community interests occasionally acknowledged land-based policy influences (including renewable energy), but more commonly focused on other public policy spheres. In particular, centralisation of health and education services was perceived as illustrative of local authorities' lack of understanding of rural needs and to be undermining long-term economic viability of some communities by limiting the attractiveness of living and working in such areas. The influence of policies on communications and other infrastructure was also mentioned.

The rise of supermarkets and, more recently, internet shopping was also widely viewed as a negative influence. Many local retailers had closed, compounding the loss of public services, with knock-on effects for local employment. Where retailers were still present, this was in some cases attributable to overall population growth through significant in-migration (facilitated by road connections supporting commuting), or to serving tourism markets.

More generally, tourism was identified as a major contributor to economic development, offsetting declining employment in primary sectors. However, there was recognition that many tourism-related jobs are relatively low-skill and low-pay. Moreover, many are filled by non-local workers travelling in to work and/or staying in staff accommodation, and therefore not becoming part of the local community. Similar sentiments were expressed about the participation of tourists in community events, with a shift to high-end tourism apparently exacerbating this relative to previous eras. Some large landowners have actively supported tourism activities, either directly or through encouraging tenants to diversify.

Separately, whilst tourists were acknowledged to helpfully boost demand for various types of local business, the impact of tourism accommodation on local housing and land markets was noted. In particular, the diversion of scarce housing for self-catering and/or second-home purposes was viewed as a significant impediment to retaining an active local population. In some cases, expansion by large accommodation providers (e.g. hotels, caravan parks) was out-competing aspiring locals seeking affordable housing or even housing plots. Where large landowners had resisted opportunities to enter into tourism accommodation or to sell properties for second homes, the retention of affordable rented housing was appreciated, and had helped to keep local working populations. A scarcity of affordable housing or housing plots was also attributed to (semi-urban) local authorities lacking an understanding of rural needs and failing to engage with locals - although the cost of servicing rural plots was also acknowledged to be high.

Land-based businesses referred more spontaneously to land tenure issues and to the possible effects of ownership scales, both in terms of the trend over time towards increased enterprise size and also landlord-tenant relationships. The availability of land to rent or buy for farm expansion was seen as a constraint on expansion, and some landlords were perceived to discourage diversification and to under-invest in capital improvements. However, other landlords were praised for seeking to support tenants and the wider community in realising development opportunities. In several cases, key individuals, including estate landlords but also other property-owning entrepreneurs and professionals, were perceived as exerting significant influence over local development through their control of key plots of land and access to capital plus established networking relationships and familiarity with the planning system.

Societal Change

As with the economy, described social changes across the case study parishes were attributed to a mix of discrete local events and more diffuse trends. For example, the loss of public transport (e.g. trains, buses), the closure of local shops (e.g. post office, grocers) and services (e.g. school, banks, doctors) were commonly cited as identifiable events weakening community vitality. Equally, wider trends such as declining church attendances, increasing car ownership (with tighter drink-driving laws) and greater reliance on multimedia entertainment were also commonly cited as negative influences on community cohesion and participation, as people had many more social alternatives than in the past.

Such factors were generally regarded as making rural areas less attractive to live and work in, contributing to declining and ageing rural populations. Conversely, the advent of mobile phone and broadband coverage was viewed as supporting community developments. Equally, improved local recreational opportunities and funding derived from an increasing variety of tourism/heritage projects plus from renewable energy developments were also viewed positively. Where populations had grown through in-migration, community cohesion was typically perceived by participants to have declined, although similar historical episodes were cited as evidence that this was not necessarily only a recent or current phenomenon. Notwithstanding often rather gloomy perspectives from fieldwork participants, the dramatic increase in living standards over the past 50 years was acknowledged. It is acknowledged that historical focus of the research led to sampling bias in the fieldwork participants - towards the older, longer term residents. These participants were therefore more likely to have positive memories of the past and be negative towards changes that have occurred than if there were more younger people and new residents participating.

Patterns of land ownership were not generally regarded as significant in determining social outcomes relative to other factors. However, two influences were identified. First, in some cases, large landowners played an active community role through support for and participation in local projects and events (e.g. funding of some community activities and provision of land for agricultural shows). Second, the right-to-buy policy for local authority housing and the sale of former agricultural/estate houses for private ownership were commonly perceived as reducing the availability of affordable housing in many areas, with second-home ownership further undermining the ability of rural workers to reside locally.

Environmental Change

Whereas reported economic and social developments comprised a mix of positive and negative changes, environmental changes were more uniformly perceived as improvements. For example, woodland planting and increased conservation/heritage activities were generally welcomed. Environmental designations, aspects of the CAP, and forestry grants and taxes were identified as key drivers of such changes, although the role of earlier incarnations of the CAP in removing dykes and hedges was also noted.

Infrastructure instalments (e.g. renewable energy, pylons) were acknowledged as impairing some landscapes, as were natural disasters such as widespread (storm) wind-throw of woodland and moorland fires. The renovation (or removal) of disused farm buildings was viewed as enhancing landscapes. The arrival of mains water, street lighting and traffic-calming measures were viewed as enhancing environmental health.

Land ownership was mentioned only infrequently in relation to environmental quality, noting the potential for large landowners to coordinate across wider areas but also for absentee landlords to neglect some aspects of land management.

Methodological considerations

The methodological approach developed through this research has proven that each of the frameworks (case study selection, outcomes and other factors) can be used as tools to assess sustainable development pathways and outcomes in comparative studies of rural areas. Whilst this study focused on six case study parishes under private land ownership it was specified that the project should not examine community or crofting ownership of land, thereby excluding large parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. However, there is scope to extend the methodology to examine differences in local outcomes from different ownership types (private, community, crofting, charity, etc.), across different models of estate based land management (new conservation based model versus traditional sporting and mixed estates) or across different geographies (e.g. local authorities, Local Action Groups).

Whilst requiring some background knowledge of estate ownership and geography the utilisation of GIS in the case study selection process enabled an impartial and scientific approach to arrive at pairs of case studies that were broadly comparable physically but had different land ownership patterns.

In addition, the other frameworks developed describe the types of economic, social and environmental outcomes characterising sustainable rural development and identify factors other than land ownership that also affect development. Whilst the process of collating historical information was often problematic (due to boundary changes, data consistency and data availability) and the processes of recruiting case study participants (with latent knowledge of change factors) difficult, the methodical approach worked well in enabling comparative analysis of the case studies.

There is scope to use the methodology in longer term studies to monitor the effects of changing scale of land ownership on the development pathway of local communities. A baseline position could be established for areas under control of large landowners where fragmentation is occurring, or has recently occurred, with replicates of the study conducted every five years to monitor longer term changes associated with fragmentation. Indeed this approach need not be limited to where land ownership fragmentation occurs but could be used to assess any major change in a location that is predicted to have major social, economic or environmental outcomes (e.g. road by-pass, establishment or closure of major employers, housing developments, land use change).


Email: Graeme Beale,

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