Land reform and the democratic deficit

Land reform is a big deal in Scotland at the moment, with the new Scottish Land Fund with millions to spend, and legislation making community buyouts easier. If you thought this was just of interest to rural and outdoorsy types, think again: Land reform is coming to urban areas too.

The move to urban land reform to enable better local development  was a strong theme at Friday’s Community Land Scotland event, with the Scottish Government  Land Reform Secretary Roseanna Cunningham and Professor David Adams of Glasgow University both emphasising it.


Demolition. Kingsway flats, Scotstoun
Demolition. Kingsway flats, Scotstoun

Good new developments in urban areas can be transformational – the demolition of the old Kingsway flats here in Scotstoun and their replacement with a smart, green, well-built housing development is evidence of that – so  anything that lets broken-down, derelict sites be improved more easily in cities by people who care has got to be a good idea. Community buyouts coming to cities and letting communities like mine buy derelict land off land-banking owners is terrific, and with my community hat on and set at a jaunty angle I’m all for it.

But as I don the slightly shabby brown trilby of my profession and pull it low over my eyes, the dewy-eyed community councillor who organises litter picks and believes that everything can be done with goodwill and positivity vanishes and  is replaced by a cynical old reptile.

The first urban “community land” buyout after the new Scottish Land Fund opened this year was a church-turned-boxing-gym, the Broomfield Road Centre and church house in Glasgow. Great for that community, a chance to step forward.

It does however beg the question: isn’t acquiring and establishing community facilities like this that what local authorities are supposed to do? And from that comes the other question: how democratically accountable is the Barmulloch Community Development Company? I’m not singling out the good folk of the BCDS, who no doubt work tirelessly for the public good, and other community trust reps I spoke to at Friday’s event are adamant that they are democratic: they have even held secret ballots.

But community development trusts are taking on much of the work of councils: in Achiltibuie they told me they needed cash from a wind turbine to rebuild the pier because owners Highland Council didn’t have the cash; many are setting up industrial units and building infrastructure, and housing is usually a priority for them.

Lesley Riddoch has written about the democratic deficit in Scotland compared to the rest of Europe, pointing out that the average population of a local council with any real authority in Europe is a less than tenth of that here – real local accountability.

The fact that community deveopment trusts are springing up and doing so much good is great, but perhaps it’s also a symptom of that lack of democracy, and the move to urban land buyouts by community development trusts might bring home to the bulk of the population that lack of any really local elected authority with clout.