One million acres by 2020: strategy report and recommendations

A report of the findings and recommended actions from the 1 Million Acre Short Life Working Group to get 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020.

1. 1. Why 1 million acres? What's the case for action?


1.1 Background

Community ownership is at the heart of the Scottish Government's community empowerment agenda. The acquisition and management of land can make a major contribution towards creating stronger, more resilient and more independent communities. The Scottish Government has an important role in supporting communities who have the ambition to take on ownership of land. Landownership is increasingly seen as an 'enabling tool' by many communities, with the ability to achieve a wide-ranging set of impacts and contribute to the continued resilience of Scotland's communities. [1, 2]

The whole Land Reform agenda is at its highest profile for some time as a result of a number of approaches that are taking place at the moment. The Community Empowerment Act (Scotland) 2015, and the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill both take steps to widen the opportunities for communities to take on ownership of assets, whilst simplifying the process. The Scottish Land Fund and the People and Communities Fund have both been increased, which will provide more opportunities to communities through access to funding.

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 frames ownership or control of land or buildings as the key element within effective community-led regeneration or development. Not only can community ownership help to safeguard or enhance local facilities, it is also seen as a means to generate income for community activity, increase community confidence and cohesion, enable communities to have more control over their futures, and support economic regeneration and sustainable development of the community. [3]

At the time of writing (October 2015) there are at least 480,000 acres of land estimated to be in community ownership in Scotland. The distribution of community land ownership across Scotland can be seen in the map above. To demonstrate the Scottish Government's commitment to supporting community land ownership the First Minister announced, in June 2013, a target of 1 million acres of land into community ownership by 2020.

Table 1 outlines the significant events that have led to the establishment of the 1 million acre SLWG and its final outputs.

Table 1: Timeline of 1 million acre short life working group significant events

June 2013 1 million acre target announced by First Minister at Community Land Scotland Conference in Skye



Land Reform Review Group final report published containing recommendation for Scottish Government to set up a short life working group to improve existing information on the numbers and types of community land owners and the land that they own, and to develop a strategy for achieving this target.



Minister for Environment and Climate Change announces commitment to take forward LRRG recommendation to set up short life working group

November 2014

2014-15 Programme for Government published, announcing a Scottish Government commitment to develop a dedicated resource within the Scottish Government to promote and facilitate community land ownership in partnership with stakeholders across the whole of Scotland in line with the LRRG's recommendation for the establishment of a dedicated community land ownership resource.

January 2015

1 million acre short life working group established with remit of designing a strategy to deliver the 1m acre target by 2020, including an agreed action plan outlining how to implement the 1m acre strategy. This will include shaping the functions of a new dedicated community land ownership resource within the SG as per the PfG commitment

March 2015

1 million acre short life working group commenced work



Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act passed and Land Reform (Scotland) Bill introduced in Scottish Parliament

Early November 2015

1 million acre strategy finalised and short life working group concludes

This document is a report of the findings and recommended actions from the SLWG in order to deliver the 1 million acre target.

Where does the 1 million acre target fit in? The 1 million acre target clearly measures acreages, but it is recognised that the impact of community ownership cannot be measured in acreage alone. When the then First Minister, Alex Salmond, set the 1 million acre target he recognised that "…size of acreage is not the only thing that matters. Of course land matters for economic, strategic, sometimes symbolic reasons, not just a question of size." [4] Community ownership is sometimes seen as an end in itself, as part of a shift towards a more diverse and dispersed pattern of landownership. The community empowerment agenda recognises this and sees community ownership as a means to an end: to support the development of more empowered, enterprising and resilient communities, capable of making a greater contribution within the future provision of public services. The advancing community empowerment and land reform agenda is helping to promote community ownership as relevant to all communities in Scotland. It has challenged the notion of community ownership being regarded as a predominantly rural issue to one that is equally relevant to urban communities as well as all communities out with the Highlands and Islands.

1.2 SLWG - remit & structure

In March 2015 the 1 million acre SLWG was set up with the following remit, to produce:

  • A summary of the benefits of community ownership and a vision and agreed set of principles to guide the 1m acre strategy
  • A definition of community ownership to be measured for the 1m acre target
  • A methodology for measuring progress towards the target
  • A strategy outlining how to achieve the target by 2020
  • An action plan outlining how to implement the target strategy to shape the functions of a new dedicated community land ownership resource

The SLWG has explored 4 workstreams which collectively informed the development of a strategy to achieve the one million acre target. They were:

1. Benefits of community ownership. This aim of this workstream was to provide a clearly defined policy statement on the Scottish Government's vision and principles for community land ownership linked to the three key programme for government themes of (1) Creating More, Better Paid Jobs in a Strong, Sustainable Economy, (2) Building a Fairer Scotland and Tackling Inequality, (3) Passing Power to People and Communities. It considered what benefits community ownership provides that leasing or management cannot and produced a summary of the available evidence around the benefits of community.

2. Identifying the community. This workstream agreed a definition of community for the purpose of measuring progress towards the 1m acre target and to decide whether the target should focus solely on community land ownership or whether it should also include community controlled land. It also identified what information is needed and what is currently available to measure progress. It then used this information to identify information gaps and make recommendations on how to fill these.

3. Supply of land. The aim of this workstream considered whether there is enough land available to meet the target. It also considered how to increase the supply of land available to be transferred into community ownership from willing sellers. Key focuses included types of land available for community purchases, implementation of the relevant sections of the Community Empowerment Bill, public asset transfers, identification of assets through the land register and Scottish Government Crofting and Forestry Estates.

4. Supporting demand. This workstream focused on a number of related areas, including how to develop a more collaborative approach which would optimise and build on the expertise and resources already available. Topics included how to inspire communities, peer support and mentoring, understanding community needs and visions for land ownership, community consultation and participation in strategy development, consistency in level of support for communities across the country (both urban and rural), building strength and capacity in communities for land ownership, availability of expert advice, reducing burdens on communities undergoing purchases, availability and flexibility of funding.

The SLWG focused on ownership and on the journey up to the point of acquisition. The group acknowledges that other forms of access to land such as leasing or management agreements can have an important part to play but the work of the SLWG focused specifically on outright ownership, and the degree of control and specific legal rights which ownership brings, and why ownership of land is important to communities. The SLWG has also not sought to compare private ownership or public ownership with community ownership as all tenures are capable of providing a wide range of benefits.

The SLWG agreed to focus on how to increase community land ownership in terms of the point up to acquisition and that post-acquisition support was out with the remit of this work. The group fully recognises the importance of on-going support throughout the journey of land ownership to ensure that the benefits of community land ownership become sustainable in the long term. The SLWG acknowledges that the community ownership journey does not stop at the point of acquisition and that post-acquisition support is also important and should be considered in other work.

Each workstream had a lead individual who also sits on the steering group which oversees the work of the SLWG and is responsible for producing the final outputs.

Work stream leads were:

Work stream 1: Sarah Skerratt, Scotland's Rural College ( SRUC)
Work stream 2: Ian Cooke, Development Trust Association Scotland
Work stream 3: Alan Laidlaw, Crown Estate
Work stream 4: Peter Peacock, Community Land Scotland

In addition to the workstream leads the steering group also had the following additional members:

- Stephen Pathirana, Scottish Government (Chair until July 2015), replaced by Steve Sadler (Chair) in August 2015.
- Sarah-Jane Laing, Scottish Land & Estates
- Rachael McCormack and Sandra Holmes, Highland & Islands Enterprise
- Bob Frost, Forestry Commission Scotland

Throughout this document there is a set of recommendations that together with the actions in table 2.2 form the 1 million acre strategy. This is summarised in Annex A.

1.3 Evidence - benefits of CLO

Community land ownership is part of a broader process of community-led, asset-based, development, reflected within the aims of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which is taking place in Scotland. Asset-based community development focuses not on the deficits of an area, but on the range of assets that exist, and use those to deliver positive, sustainable change. [5] It is an important part of an organic, bottom-up, people-centred process, responding to threats and opportunities and forging an alternative approach to large-scale, top-down solutions which have characterised regeneration in many parts of Scotland for decades. [6] As such, community ownership of land and other assets is a means to an end: one that has the potential to offer a range of different benefits.

In the next sections three distinct types of benefits that community ownership can offer will be discussed:

  • Benefits that are specific to community ownership and may not be realised through other forms of community management (e.g. leasing, management, partnerships)
  • Benefits of community ownership for communities as landowners
  • Benefits for the whole community

1.3.1 Benefits that are specific to community ownership and may not be realised through other forms of community management

There are distinct economic, social and psychological differences between owning and leasing or managing an asset. One of the key benefits of ownership is the higher level of security and control it offers, in turn contributing to building community resilience. [7] Although leases, management or partnership agreements are often suitable for communities wanting to undertake certain activities, these can often restrict what community groups are or are not allowed to do, and limit security of tenure. The stakeholders we spoke to highlighted that the higher level of flexibility to develop an asset that ownership affords can also be very important. This can be particularly important in the long-term, as communities' circumstances or ambitions can often change. In this situation, the weakness of a lease or partnership agreement is exposed if the communities' ambitions diverge from those of the owner, and the lease may not provide the flexibility required.

The higher level of security and control which ownership offers also has beneficial financial implications. The primary, tangible, benefit of asset ownership can be its potential to create increased financial sustainability. Having an asset(s) on a balance sheet is well recognised good accountancy practice. As both previous research [8, 9, 10] and our own interviews have shown, the security of tenure that ownership offers is often a prerequisite for attracting capital investment to acquire or develop the asset.

Through asset ownership communities can also increase the leverage which community groups have with external agencies, enhancing their ability to be treated as stakeholders and addressing potential power imbalances within partnership working arrangements. In some instances asset-ownership provides communities with the potential to bring money to the table. Community ownership can also change external stakeholders perceptions of the community - imbuing, as it does, a sense of continuity and stability. [12] This ability to rebalance partnership working is already evident in a range of areas. It is perhaps most notable in relation to housing where communities have collaborated with housing associations, the private sector and other community organisations in order to provide affordable housing. [13, 14]

1.3.2 Benefits of community ownership for communities as landowners

The benefits of community ownership are both material and psychological. In a material sense, communities taking more control of their own future, can contribute to the development of local skills; create new jobs, training and business opportunities; make physical improvements to the area; and improve access to services and activities. [15]

Community ownership can change people's perceptions of the land and develop new aspirations. [16, 17] It may enable people to recognise new possibilities that might not otherwise have been considered. [18] Once a community acquires an asset, a wide range of potential uses may materialise. [19] For example, the North West Mull Community Woodland Company took over 1,700 acres of plantation forest from the Forestry Commission in 2006. Timber felling and extraction provides a regular income, to be further boosted by a proposed micro-hydro scheme. Recently, the group has also begun to establish a woodland burial ground, which will also provide an additional income stream. Furthermore, the recent establishment of nine woodland crofts have created new housing and livelihood opportunities and are helping to reverse population decline. [20, 21] The establishment of woodland crofts is currently also planned by Kilfinan Community Forest Company, whilst a number of other groups (e.g. North Harris Trust, Knoydart Foundation, West Harris Crofting Trust) have also established other housing projects in order to encourage population growth.

As the example of North West Mull shows, this diversification of activities has important socio-economic benefits. Research of a dozen landowning community groups, with an average age of 11 years, shows that their turnover (including that of their trading subsidiaries) has increased from £1.7m in their first year of trading to £6.1m in 2012/13 and, that staffing levels have also increased fourfold during this time. [22] This ability to generate future income from the asset means there is an improved opportunity to create additional direct employment and also to reinvest in community infrastructure. [23, 24]

Community ownership and management of assets can also help to create a stronger sense of community identity and pride; and has the potential for increased social cohesion and confidence. [25, 26] These outcomes in turn contribute towards communities being more proactive and future-focused; thinking about their responsibility to future generations and increasingly taking decisions with this in mind. [27]

Although the above discussion has shown that there are clear benefits to community ownership, community organisations considering this option need to be equally mindful of the risks and challenges involved. Assets have the potential to become liabilities that can undermine community aspirations. [28] First, there is the obvious financial challenge in taking on what, in many cases, has been a loss making asset. Secondly, the fragile nature of the sector, due in part to its reliance on voluntary effort, can present challenges to the viability of individual buy outs and the sector as a whole. [29] It is therefore important that communities are provided with accurate information and sufficient support both in terms of land management and governance. This allows them to explore different options and choose the one that is appropriate for their situation.

1.3.3 Benefits for the broader community

The third set of benefits considered here are the benefits which the wider community obtains from community ownership. Due to the varied nature of the sector, the benefits for the wider community can vary extensively. Potentially the primary universal benefit is deemed to be the ability to influence decisions and have more control over future development, which community ownership delivers through more localised democratic accountability. [30, 31, 32, 33] Local decision-making and higher levels of participation in turn means that community-led projects are more attuned to local needs and priorities, and can be proactive rather than simply reactive in their outlook [33, 34, 35] . Although these communities may experience some quite heated debates on both specific issues and decision-making processes, [36, 37] , the level at, and ways in which, residents can and do contribute and participate in these debates may not be available in other ownership arrangements [38] .

Other benefits for the wider community, however, will vary according to a project's scope and aims. 'Harder' benefits, such as investment and jobs, may be achieved more quickly and at a larger scale within larger projects. [39] However, research has shown that community ownership has the potential to deliver clear economic benefit for the wider community. Community landowning bodies have often sought to invest in local development projects that aim to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the communities. An evaluation of 12 landowning communities shows that they have invested more than £34 million in local development projects, of which £4.5 million has been invested in housing, with a further £4.8 million invested in communication infrastructure. [40] The six estates included in this evaluation for whom data was available have shown that the value of contracts awarded to local business has increased by a factor of 43 (from £20,600 to £897,600) since these community groups took over their estates. [41] Furthermore, in these case studies, the number of private enterprises had more than doubled [42] , mirroring trends reported in other pieces of research. [43, 44]

Beyond these economic benefits there are also important social benefits for the wider community. Research has shown that landowning communities were more likely to experience population growth or retention. In a sample of 11 community-owned estates, 9 experienced a growth in local population, with four (Borve and Annishadder, Gigha, Eigg and Knoydart) experiencing more than 40% increase in population numbers. [45] The communities with the greatest increase in population were also more likely to demonstrate a good demographic balance. These figures counter trends in the rest of the North and West of Scotland which show a slight decline in population and an increasingly older demographic. [46]

The ability of a community to retain or even increase its population has further beneficial knock-on effects, for example keeping key local facilities such as schools open.

The retention of a vital community resource, often a priority for small community asset projects, is in itself a social benefit for the local population. The provision of community facilities, which at the most basic level provides a place for local people to meet and connect, is a pre requisite for any endeavours to enhance social cohesion and develop a greater sense of belonging. [47, 48, 49]

The human rights provisions included in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ( ICESCR) recognise that land plays a socio-economic role which provides a degree of stability and security for individuals. [50] The ownership of land by vulnerable groups can also serve as an empowering resource and helps to balance social and economic relationships in society. [51] Land, seen through a human rights lens (specifically the ICESCR), is a national asset, and part of the available resources to progressively realise human rights, such as a right to adequate housing, food, decent work and highest attainable standard of health. In this context the form of ownership does not necessarily matter, as long as the management of the land serves the public interest. [52] Thus, the human rights lens is not only relevant to community ownership of land, but also to other questions of land, such as when discussing rights to affordable housing, in tenancy arrangements for houses, agriculture and forestry, in creation of employment, etc. [53]

At the heart of the concern of many communities who have bought or are interested in buying land, are questions of basic human rights: [54]
a. The need for land to develop homes at affordable prices
b. The need for land to develop community facilities and jobs
c. The need for land that produces food securely
d. The need for land in pursuing the common good in developing more resilient and sustainable communities

Empowerment is a core pillar of the human rights approach [55] , as well as the Scottish Government's national outcome of "stronger, more resilient and independent communities", of which community ownership is reported to be at the centre. The Draft Land Rights and Responsibilities Policy Statement, which was included in the Consultation on the Future of Land Reform in Scotland, states that "The ownership and use of land should be in the public interest and contribute to the collective benefit of the people of Scotland". Furthermore, the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 includes the provision that Ministers have to regard the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in relation to (aspects of) the Community Right to Buy. [56]

In an international context, evidence shows that inadequate and insecure tenure rights can increase vulnerability, hunger and poverty. [57] As examples in Scotland show, communities who have obtained ownership of the land have often shifted their perspective to the long term and have developed a range of projects from upgrading housing stock to developing renewable energy projects, the income of which can contribute to the long-term socio-economic sustainability of a community. [58]

1.3.4 Conclusion

The above discussion shows that there is a broad range of potential benefits that owning land or other assets can achieve. It shows that land is a key asset within the range of physical resources available that can contribute to the sustainable development of Scotland's people and places. The local level of control and democratic accountability that is part of community ownership gives communities the opportunity to respond to local priorities and needs, ensuring that they manage their asset(s) in ways that maximise the benefit to the many. Through the delivery of improved and affordable housing, sustainable economic development and the safeguarding and development of local facilities and amenities, many communities are using their ownership of land as the catalyst for realising and progressing their human rights.

Additionally, the security and outright control that ownership offers allows communities increased ability to be proactive and future-focused, ensuring that community ownership benefits future as well as current generations. Furthermore, it also turns land into an empowering resource, increasing the skills and confidence of those involved. As such, the community ownership of land can be seen as part of the wider bottom-up, people centred approach where communities lead change for themselves and have more control of their own destinies as set out in the Regeneration Strategy [59] and in the recently passed Community Empowerment Act [60] .

1. The Scottish Government, with advice and input from sector representatives, establish an on-going programme of evidence gathering, research and evaluation of the community ownership sector and the distinct contribution it can make to achieving government objectives, identifying successes, operational and policy challenges that need to be addressed, as well as potentially having agreed indicators and outcomes of success. The Scottish Government should consider how this fits with the role of the Land Commission proposed in the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill.

Theme: Measuring and evaluating progress

1.4 Definition - What do we mean by community land ownership?

Workstream 2 undertook a series of evidence gathering and stakeholder engagement to define community ownership within the context of the 1 million acre target. An initial discussion paper was produced to consider the pros and cons of different options. After feedback from the project's Steering Group and a roundtable discussion with other stakeholders the following definition was agreed for the purpose of measuring progress towards the 1 million acre target:

  • 'Community' is defined on a geographical basis, which can be defined by postcode units and/or a prescribed area. This definition of 'community' has been chosen to reflect the importance of place, reflected within current Scottish Government policy and current legislation as well as the implicit objectives of the 1 million acre target.
  • A relevant 'community body' is required to have a number of essential characteristics, which collectively ensure that community owned assets are used for the benefit of the wider community rather than one particular interest group. The community body should:
    • Have a clear definition of the geographical community to which the body relates
    • A membership which is open to any member of that community
    • Be locally-led and controlled
    • Have as its main purpose the furthering of sustainable development in the local area
    • Be non-profit distributing
    • Have evidence to demonstrate a sufficient level of support / community buy-in
  • Ownership is defined in the legal sense: A legal title coupled with exclusive legal right to possession. The Short Life Working Group acknowledges that communities can and do lease, manage and jointly own (i.e. Equity stake) assets, but agreed that for the purposes of the target the definition should be restricted to outright ownership.

1.5 How much land is currently in community ownership?

The current baseline figure for community ownership of land and assets is 480,000 acres across 418 projects. This equates to 2.5% of Scotland currently owned by community bodies, as at September 2015. Table 2 shows a breakdown by local authority area of the distribution of land owned by communities across Scotland.

Table 2: Number and area of land owned by community bodies by local authority area


A wide range of organisations were contacted and the majority provided the data they had on community land ownership. The full list of organisations contacted can be found in Annex B. Most of the organisations who responded to our request were able to contribute data, although some either did not currently collect data on community ownership or were not aware of any community ownership projects. The data that was received from the remaining organisations varied in scope and detail, often a result of the initial purpose for which the data was collected. For example, not all organisations record the acreage of a community asset, and very few record suggested or achieved outcomes.

The information these organisations submitted has been collated into a single database. Following this, the database was 'cleaned up': duplicates were removed and projects which did not clearly meet the definition selected by workstream 2 (i.e. acquisitions by Housing Associations; leases rather than purchases) or which were not yet completed (or could not be verified as being completed) were separated out into separate spread sheets.

Finally, discrepancies in the data from different sources were identified. In the majority of cases these were easily identified, especially where they concerned operator errors (e.g. forgotten to convert from hectares to acres). Where the correct figure could not be established, the Registers of Scotland were contacted in order to obtain the accurate figure from the Land Register.

The baseline study has captured nearly all of the acreage in community ownership but the SLWG acknowledges that there will be many, especially smaller assets, in community ownership that are not included in this study. It is thought that community groups themselves will be best placed to share this information, although some of it may also be held by local authorities.

Community organisations have acquired land from a wide range of owners. Many of the largest buyouts have involved purchases from private owners, but community groups have also acquired assets from Local Authorities and public bodies. Unfortunately this information has not been consistently recorded, and we can currently only provide statistics based on the available information.

  • Of the more than 480,000 acres in community ownership, 52,000 have been acquired through the Scottish Government's Community Right to Buy process. The remainder has been acquired on the open market, through direct voluntary negotiations prior to or in the shadow of the law, empowered by the availability of the legislation, or through asset transfer (i.e. schemes such as the Forestry Commission's National Forest Land Scheme).
  • Around 10,000 acres have been transferred from the Forestry Commission to community organisations. This does not include land that is leased or managed in partnership with the Commission. Communities have also acquired land from other public bodies, such as the Ministry of Defence, Scottish Water and from the Scottish Government's Crofting Estate.
  • Based on the data collected it appears that local authority asset transfers mostly involve buildings and other forms of property, and therefore assets with a small acreage. However, many of these transfers have enabled community groups to save, establish or run key local facilities, ranging from community hubs to sports pitches and from piers to office and other forms of work space.
  • The majority of land, in terms of acres, within community ownership to date has been acquired in the form of whole estates (predominantly crofting estates) and forestry/ woodland. The types of assets acquired by communities to date can be seen in table 3.
  • Chart 1 below shows that the majority (76%) of land acquired by communities to date has been in rural Scotland.

Table 3: Type of land acquired by community bodies as at September 2015


Note: The whole estate and crofting estate categories may contain a range of types of land (e.g. a whole estate may contain woodland, farms, crofts and/ or buildings)

Chart 1: Urban/ rural distribution of community owned land in Scotland as at September 2015



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