International Perspectives Pose Questions for Scottish Land Reform

Land Commissioner, Megan MacInnes, reflects on last week’s Macaulay Development

Land Commission board portraits
Megan MacInnes, Scottish Land Commissioner

Trust workshop on Scottish land reform in a global context held at James Hutton Institute with participants from the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Ireland, South Africa, as well as the UK.

As a self-confessed land reform geek, getting to spend two days sitting down with people who are researching and working on land reform from around the world sounds pretty perfect. Last week was such an opportunity, with the James Hutton Institute bringing practitioners and scholars from more than ten countries together, to discuss how Scotland’s efforts at land reform fit within the global context.

From initially focusing on our own model of community land ownership and how it compares to community, communal and municipal land ownership in other countries during the initial webinar, the presentations and conversations became more wide ranging over the course of the workshop.

Some topics were all too familiar: the challenges for young people wanting to get into farming; the ways in which community land trusts and other community groups are improving access to affordable housing in urban areas; and the extent to which land reform, in any context, is connected to a wider range of needs – soft and hard infrastructure, economic development, access to finance and unfavourable policy environments.

Others were radically different: how local communities are responding to large-scale land grabbing for agribusiness in the Philippines; how first nation communities in Canada were using land and property codes to gain greater autonomy over their own reserves; and the challenges of campaigning for and implementing land reform where there are long-term conflicts and internal displacement such as Myanmar faces.

Much bigger-picture questions the group tried to grapple with were the need for a new conceptualisation of land rights and responsibilities within land reform, away from the traditional focus of private property rights, and on this Scotland has a lot to share. Likewise, whether the future trajectory of land reform is radical, based on social justice, or whether it is steady, evolving through existing structures and frameworks is something that is still up for debate.

My personal reflections throughout were on community land ownership – what could Scotland learn from other countries, and what do we have to show in return? From my own experience working on land reform in Asia and internationally (particularly around strengthening community land rights) the direct comparisons are tantalisingly close, yet elusive. This is because the historical and contemporary context of community land ownership in Scotland is so very different from community and customary land ownership in much of the world. In fact, the most obvious comparison between arrangements for community and customary land and natural resource governance internationally is our crofting system, but even then significant differences are clear.

What is clear though is that like in Scotland, models of community land and natural resource ownership have a clear and prominent role in achieving future sustainable development and delivering broad public benefits.

Where I think there can be lessons learnt are around the governance structures enabling community-based models of land ownership. This includes how ownership models can be transparent and accountable, how to overcome the challenges of limited capacity and high burn-out of community members, and how to ensure governance models are forward-looking and not just reflecting the past. If we are going to truly normalise community land ownership in Scotland then I think there is much to be learnt from international experiences of hybrid and joint ownership models between community groups, the public and private sectors.

Where Scotland is already demonstrating leadership in community land ownership globally is our focus on legal title (rather than just recognising access or user rights) and the explicit and positive connection between land reform and the economic, social and cultural human rights.

We ended the conference with suggestions for ongoing research, discussions and more gatherings – so I am sure we shall have plenty of opportunities to continue the conversations.

The international experience and discussions from the webinar will be incorporated in to the review of ‘International experience of community, communal and municipal land ownership’ we have commissioned and the final report from SRUC, in cooperation with the James Hutton Institute, the University of the Highlands and Islands, the University of Aberdeen and Ting Xu, will be published in the coming months.

Featured Image – James Hutton Institute

Advertisements

Community Land Summit

Policy Officer, James MacKessack-Leitch, reflects on the first community land summit held in Manchester on Wednesday 12 December 2018.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the first UK wide Community Land Summit hosted by Shared Assets and Community Land Scotland, bringing together a range of people to share experience of community landownership policy and practice between Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

After the warm welcome from Shared Assets Chair Mark Walton, and an overview of what’s driving land reform in Scotland from Scottish Land Commissioner Lorne Macleod, we heard from four different groups around the UK on their experience of community land.

Although we’re all relatively close neighbours, in some respects the difference between the four nations can be quite stark when it comes to community empowerment. An area where there was definitely more in common was the perception of some public land managers that the community either wasn’t interested in engaging or just doesn’t have the ability to. But had the community actually been asked?

The biggest eye-opener for me though came from Chris and Gloria of Skyline project in Wales, who told of a rural community surrounded by publically owned land, but largely disengaged from how the land is used and managed – and until relatively recently that land was even off limits to the community. From a Scottish perspective this clearly an unthinkable situation, but it also hits home how normal I see our responsible open access rights, and yet how radical this can seem outwith Scotland.

After a wee break we moved onto the panel discussion asking does community ownership serve the common good?

Perhaps unsurprisingly the answer was a resounding yes, of course. Where the differences between the panellists appeared was over the whether ownership was a critical factor or it’s really all about land management. There was also some very interesting points made about governance models, and especially what we could learn from municipal ownership in Europe, with Spain, Norway, and Turkey all getting a mention – something I’ll be very much following up as we progress the Land Commission’s Review of the effectiveness of current community ownership mechanisms and of options for supporting the expansion of community ownership in Scotland.

Ultimately panellists agreed to disagree on the ownership versus management question, but what it did highlight was the clear split in culture and history, particularly between Scotland and England. But linking a couple of points together, it may well be the case that because historic land enclosure in Scotland, not to mention highland and lowland clearances, was so harsh and radical even for its time, it’s perhaps an inevitable consequence that the modern debate around land ownership and reform here appears more radical too.

After lunch we went into the workshop sessions, I opted for “Creating the conditions for change” where we heard about the background to land reform issues from different perspectives, and the story of activism over decades that has had mixed results in different parts of the UK. This was followed by “Tackling the challenges” where we got a better insight into what happens after a community take ownership and has to pay the bills, retain and build community support, and keep the various partner organisations on board – which can be particularly challenging where the community asset is in reality a liability the Council has successfully offloaded.

Coming back together for the final discussion it was clear that the event had been hugely positive, and that there is still plenty more to learn about how community ownership works (and sometimes doesn’t) across the UK. Challenges are plenty, and progress can seem frustratingly slow, but there are some great success stories and more and more communities are beginning to realise the potential rewards of taking ownership of their land and future – and I for one have come away with a fresh perspective on how to make community ownership a normal and achievable option across the country.