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.

Executive Summary


This research report was commissioned by the Scottish Government to offer some insights into the local impacts of differing scales of rural land ownership in Scotland on social, economic and environmental outcomes. The study considered three case study pairs of parishes, each comprising a parish dominated by one or more large land owners and a nearby comparator parish that had historically been dominated by one or more large land owners but is no longer due to ownership fragmentation at some point. The findings presented here are intended to inform both the on-going development of Scotland's land reform policy and current deliberations over the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill. [1]

Main findings

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 simplistic to conclude that scale of land ownership is a significant factor in the sustainable development of 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 interactions of other factors have a very strong bearing on local development.

Indeed the key historical (and current) forces of change in the case studies were often reported by research 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.

The types of change faced by communities are heavily influenced by location - more specifically accessibility of urban areas. Changes in land-based employment, demography and housing development were influenced by proximity to urban areas. Accessible areas had population growth and housing developments driven by urban based employment and commuting opportunities, whilst more remote areas had less population growth, higher shares of employment in farming, forestry, a growing reliance on the tourism sector and higher proportions of housing stock used as second homes and tourism accommodation. Choices made by land owners clearly influence the availability of land for housing development, but so do local and national policies (e.g. council/social housing, planning permission).

Economic change

Land-based businesses referred 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. However, whilst other businesses and wider community interests occasionally acknowledged land ownership as a factor, they more commonly focused on other policy spheres (e.g. communications) and general trends (e.g. urbanisation) as more important. Land-based businesses were acutely aware of the direct influence of support payments on business viability. Tourism was acknowledged as an important component in rural economies, but pressure on housing availability and employment quality were noted. Areas with fragmented-ownership did, however, exhibit higher agricultural output and higher population growth than concentrated-ownership parishes, though not necessarily attributable to ownership scale.

Societal Change

Social changes 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 and greater reliance on multimedia entertainment were also commonly cited as negative influences on community cohesion and participation. Patterns of land ownership were not generally regarded as significant in determining social outcomes relative to other factors.

Environmental Change

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. 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.


Each case study pair was selected through careful inspection of both current and historical data across Scotland relating to (in particular) land ownership, land use, land capability and remoteness. The scientific matching process controlled, as far as possible, for confounding factors to identify nearby and broadly physically comparable parishes with different land ownership patterns.

In addition to the selection framework developed to support objective selection of case studies, other frameworks were also developed. Drawing on previous research and published literature, these frameworks describe the types of social, economic and environmental outcomes characterising sustainable rural development and identify factors other than land ownership that also affect development. These frameworks were used to guide data collection and interpretation for each of the case studies.

Quantitative data from a variety of sources were collated to describe recent and current trends in each parish in relation to, for example, land use, population size and environmental condition. Qualitative fieldwork was then undertaken in each parish to elicit information from local stakeholders, including estate owners, farmers, other businesses and community representatives (although younger and in-migrant groups were under-represented).

The methodological approach adopted proved effective in structuring how data were collected and interpreted plus selecting broadly comparable cases for exploration. There may be merit in establishing more routine and/or regular monitoring of social, economic and environmental development in selected areas to help improve understanding of how various factors interact to influence outcomes in different locations.


Email: Graeme Beale,

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