Green land investment in rural Scotland: social and economic impacts

Outlines the findings of research into the range of potential social and economic impacts relating to new forms of green land investment in rural Scotland.

5. Conclusions

This research has examined the socio-economic impacts of new forms of green land investment in rural Scotland. The main conclusions are that:

  • There is a diversity of green land investor-owner activities and motivations. Motivations expressed by green land investor-owners and/or their representatives differ from community members’ perceptions of motivations.
  • The social and economic benefits and negative impacts of green land investment are dependent on the case study’s investor-owner. These impacts differ across case studies, with different investments affecting the same issues in different ways. For example, depending on the case study, recreational access is perceived to or may increase or decrease, or jobs may be gained or lost. Farmers and estate employees are the most affected by land use changes, for example regarding employment and livelihood impacts.
  • Whilst some of the case studies provided evidence of good practice in terms of increased accessibility, transparency, and community engagement, a critical negative impact was the perceived lack of community involvement in land-use decision-making. Participants suggested methods for positive community engagement. A lack of engagement reinforced negative impacts of economic power disparities between the green land investor-owner and the rural community, and a sense of community powerlessness.
  • Thriving rural communities are seen as a potential future if green land investor-owner goals are achieved but failure would have knock-on impacts for community sustainability and the local environment.

This research has sought to build an understanding of the social and economic impacts of new forms of green land investment that are occurring in rural Scotland. Through literature reviews and extensive case study fieldwork, this research provides evidence of these impacts (both perceived and actual) and responds to the research questions posed in Chapter 1. These findings are summarised here.

What are the different types of green land investment activities and the differing motivations of land owners?

Our research has illustrated the diversity of green land investment activities and the motivations of green land investor-owners who are carrying out these activities in Scotland’s rural land. Through a literature review and interviews, we have developed a typology of green land investor motivations (see Table 3) and define green land investment as follows:

“The purchase of, or investment in (directly through shareholding or changing focus of owner investment, or indirectly through intermediary companies) land to undertake nature restoration, regenerative land management or approaches that maintain or enhance natural capital, and/or sequester carbon emissions, differentiated from traditional ownership by the green motivations as a driver rather than a secondary outcome.”

Interviews with rural community representatives have illustrated a common perception that the primary motivation for green land investment is financial. Whilst most of the green land investor-owners involved in the case studies would not undertake the green land activities if they made a loss, at least two indicated that they would accept lower profits and at least one appeared not to be seeking any profit. Across the case studies, the green land investor-owners described their goals for investment as providing environmental and social benefits.

What are the social and economic impacts of green land investment?

This research has illustrated a range of potential benefits and negative impacts that green land investment activities may have on rural communities who live and/or work near to the landholdings. Benefits identified by participants across the case studies include:

  • Increased accessibility to the landholding
  • Increased transparency regarding land management plans
  • Willingness of the new green land investor-owner to increase community involvement in land management
  • Provision of training and education programmes to support skills development such as forestry and peatland restoration
  • Support for local businesses and tradespeople due to landholding developments (e.g. building renovations)
  • Support for tourism enterprises (and associated employment) and an increase in tourism
  • Housing provision for the community or plans to do so
  • Financial and in-kind support for local community initiatives

It was noted however that these wider social and economic benefits were dependent on the financial vehicle, economic power, and flexibility of the green land investor-owner; some were more limited in how they could contribute than others.

Negative impacts identified by participants included:

  • The social impacts of land use changes, such as the perceived increased risk of wildfire (which is also an environmental risk), where upland management has shifted from a focus on fieldsports (i.e. leading to the cessation of muirburn practices[25]), and fly-tipping (i.e. perceived as increasing due to fewer land-based workers preventing such activities).
  • Threats to recreational access and the aesthetic impact of activities such as afforestation and wind farm developments on landscapes (the latter bringing connected challenges regarding receipt of community benefit funding).
  • Changing employment and its potential impacts on local service provision, for example the decline in school rolls with outmigration of former estate workers.
  • Negative impacts on local housing provision, primarily through the conversion of housing to holiday accommodation.
  • Contributing to local house price inflation and a lack of affordable housing for locals where investor-owners have purchased housing on the open market.

A critical negative impact of some of the green land investment case studies involved in this research was the perceived lack of community involvement in land-use decision-making. This was believed to be due in part to remote management, persistent social hierarchies, and a lack of awareness or appreciation of local knowledge of the land. This disconnect and lack of engagement reinforced negative impacts of economic power disparities between the green land investor-owner and the rural community, and a sense of community powerlessness.

How does green land investment affect different groups within communities?

This research aimed to consider the views of different groups within rural communities. Interviews with a diversity of community representatives, as well as local business owners, tenant and owner-occupier farmers, and crofters, have illustrated how green land investment is affecting these groups, both positively and negatively.

Local businesses had benefited from investment (e.g. renovation, start-up grants, etc.) and employment opportunities (e.g. contractors and tradespeople), with the employment of local people and use of local services apparently a key priority of many of the green land investor-owners studied. This was not always possible, and landowner representatives noted skills shortages and availability as key barriers. Forestry services had benefitted and increased local employment in their offices. Local businesses had also been negatively impacted by the outmigration of former estate employees where this had occurred, and some jobs had been lost when former businesses were taken over by new green land investor-owners. Community members were not clear where and how many new employment opportunities had been realised.

Some existing estate employees’ roles had been changed to reflect environmental priorities, including gamekeepers, deer stalkers and ghillies; for example gamekeepers had become rangers and wildlife managers. In other areas, some had been made redundant when landownership changed, whilst others had chosen to leave due to the anticipated changes to their role given the new green land investor-owners’ plans. In these examples, there were perceived negative impacts on the wider community and local service provision due to outmigration. There was uncertainty amongst community interviewees regarding the number and timescale of new employment, for example within forestry.

Farmers, and in particular tenant farmers, were a further key group that had been affected by the changing landownership and land management objectives within the case study landholdings. As anticipated by many participants, while managing land for environmental purposes, certain types of agricultural production had declined across the case studies, and land use change in at least two case studies meant that former grazing land was no longer available for local farmers to use. There were concerns regarding the impact of the removal of agricultural activities on the ‘critical mass’ (or minimum number of agricultural businesses) necessary to maintain agricultural services. Of significant concern to some members of the farming community was the perception that tenant farming was not part of the long-term land management plans of the green land investor-owners. The farmers who participated in this research agreed with the need to reduce agricultural emissions, both individually and as a country, but they were concerned that they might lose their livelihoods because of expanding green land investment ownership and activities.

To what extent do private-sector interests support or conflict with the needs of rural communities and their interests? What are the wider and long-term implications of changes in rural land use and ownership for rural communities, as a result of new forms of green land investment?

These research questions were approached through conversations with representatives of communities of place and of interest, as well as the green land investor-owners (and representatives) regarding future visions, as well as ‘hopes’ and ‘fears’ for the future.

The primary vision expressed by community members was for ‘thriving rural communities’, which included employment and housing options for a diversity of people. Community members hoped that green land investor-ownership would support this vision, for example through housing provision and supporting employment. As mentioned, supporting training and education opportunities, in addition to community housing, was a stated aim of several of the green land investor-owners interviewed. Providing wider social benefits aligned with green land investor-owners’ stated values, but some had financial limitations in achieving those goals.

Community members’ visions also included an increase in biodiversity and enhanced ecosystem services (e.g. flood protection), which aligned closely with the objectives of the green land investor-owners. Community members also wished to see recreational and visitor access to the landholdings maintained and improved. This vision also appears to fit with the goals and management objectives of the green land investor-owners studied, for example where recreational access opportunities have been enhanced by the new landowner.

Community hopes also focused on increased community engagement, both directly with the landowner and having some influence in land use and long-term management plans. Our research shows mixed experiences in terms of landowner-community engagement on these landholdings, although there are opportunities to enhance positive engagement.

In terms of the wider and long-term consequences of green land investment, community participants feared that the green land investors may not achieve their goals, with knock-on impacts for community sustainability and the local environment. This concern is heightened where ownership is at a large scale. They also perceive a lack of community involvement in future land management plans, persistent power imbalances in land use decision-making and ownership, and the disempowerment of rural communities, despite relevant and traditional knowledge. Rural community participants feared that given the land management plans and business models of the green land investors, future employment options locally may be limited, with only a few jobs associated with forestry and low-level service jobs available in tourism enterprises. Community members reiterated their concerns that there are limited social benefits where green land investors are focused on the natural capital market, although this is disputed by some green land investor-owners who stated that they have plans for community wealth building and partnership-working with communities. Finally, community members highlighted that increasing scale and concentration of green land investor-landownership (providing both positive and/or negative impacts on rural communities) would continue without further land reform.

Overall, this research has highlighted that there are several areas of positive alignment between the communities of place (and the different communities of interest represented) and the green land investor-owners, which is an important finding for progressing the just transition. Community members agree with the need to prioritise land management that meets environmental goals, and support initiatives that lower carbon emissions and preserve biodiversity. Communities of interest representatives, such as local business owners, highlight the value of inward investment in rural economies provided by green land investor-owners, and support for training and education opportunities will have long-term benefits. In several case studies, it was clear that landownership and land management plans had become more transparent, providing welcome options for greater community involvement. This situation was not replicated across all case studies, and at times has led to critical uncertainties for rural community members, such as tenant farmers. The following section details recommendations arising from this research that aim to maximise the positive benefits and minimise the negative impacts arising from green land investment in rural Scotland.

As described in Section 2.4, the conclusions that can be drawn from this research may be limited due to lack of participation by different stakeholder groups (although the research design sought to minimise barriers), the secondary data available, and in particular, the short-term nature of the research project. One key challenge remains regarding how to disentangle the potential and actual impacts of green land investment activities on rural communities of place and of interest, from those that may arise due to other types of land use or land ownership. Many of the impacts identified in this report may be found where landownership motivations change (e.g. on change of ownership) or where there is absentee landownership/remote land management (e.g. challenging positive landowner-community engagement). One distinguishing feature that we identified through this exploration of green land investment was the significant economic power held by the new actors engaging in Scotland’s land market. For example, the level of funding available through some types of investment vehicles meant that issues relating to landownership scale and concentration may become more likely (and appeared to be occurring in at least two case studies), and that market forces may drive land use and land management change more quickly than can be accommodated through policy processes seeking to achieve a ‘just transition’.

However, both positive and negative impacts were perceived and realised, dependent on the motivations and activities of green land investor-owners. This demonstrates the fine balance of potential impacts relating to green land investment activities and the relative importance of how such activities are undertaken (and the agency of local communities), rather than who the green land owner-investor may be. Given this finding, caution must be taken in considering what impacts relate directly to green land investment, or traditional private landownership in Scotland (in particular where this is absentee ownership). This is important in the context of new land reform legislation in Scotland.

Nonetheless, more qualitative and quantitative research is necessary to provide further evidence to support these conclusions, and in particular the generation of long-term datasets based on co-produced indicators to demonstrate social and economic impacts across a range of landownership models and land use objectives. This initiative would be supported through greater accessibility of complete landownership data, integrated with regularly updated land use information, and transparency in land management plans.



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