Barriers such as red tape, incomplete data and difficulties tracking down absentee landlords must be urgently tackled to help more urban communities access the right to buy land and buildings.
Campaigners told The Ferret that the benefits of community ownership of city land and buildings could be “huge”. But they said the process can take many years, involve “jumping through multiple hoops” and cost thousands in legal fees.
In 2015 the Community Empowerment Act gave urban communities the same rights afforded to those in rural areas. But some campaigners told The Ferret it had not yet been delivered in practice.
They called for a more straightforward and transparent process and said it should be less expensive and legally challenging.
According to official Scottish Government figures from December 2021, just five per cent of community buyouts were in urban areas. Since the 2016 legislation passed, 711 community buyouts of plots of land or buildings were recorded across Scotland – just 17 transfers were in an urban area.
However when The Ferret requested details of all urban community buyouts, it found a number of omissions, including that of Glasgow’s Kinning Park Complex, which was backed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Others left off the Scotland-wide annual statistics include Beatroute Arts, which completed the community asset transfer process in April 2021 after more than five years. Govanhill Baths, which confirmed its community ownership a month earlier after a high profile campaign lasting 20 years, was also missing.
Critics raised concerns that using statistics which were “full of gaps” meant policy being made “without a clear idea of whether it is needed”.
The Scottish Government said it gathered statistics from “several sources” but as some of these relied on self-reporting by organisations involved in asset transfers, the official data was expected to be “an under-estimate”.
Craig Dalzell, head of policy and research at Common Weal, said: “This isn’t the first time I’ve been made aware of important gaps in public data but that doesn’t lessen the seriousness of it.”
He claimed the community ownership transfers system was “complex and burdensome” even for smaller transfers in urban areas. “There are also known concerns about resources and funding for upkeep,” he added.
Jenny Reeve, director of Beatroute Arts – the first organisation to seek community transfer of a Glasgow City Council owned building – said the legislation offered “massive benefits”.
“We know that we can keep providing for the needs of our community and we don’t have to worry about anyone rolling down the shutters and telling us that’s not possible,” she said.
“But we really feel for everyone who is fighting to get through this process.”
She called for a more straightforward system to help other community groups own their land and buildings. “As good as the council legal team may be at commercial matters, it would help enormously if they had better understanding of, and sympathy for, charity and community empowerment law,” she added. “That would make this process easier for everyone.”
Angus Hardie, director of Scottish Community Alliance, said that to communities trying to buy in cities, the process could feel “like running up a downward escalator” and claimed city councils could be particularly resistant to hand over power to community groups.
The issue should be given greater attention in cities, he added, where, due to land values, there was “much more of a problem in respect of the concentration of land ‘wealth’”.
Due to the costs of urban land, involving community controlled housing associations with more capital could also be fruitful, he said.
The Ferret spoke to housing associations such as Copperworks Association and Spire View Housing Association – both community-run – which joined forces to buy Roystonhill Community Hub. It was the first urban project to be granted money from the Scottish Land Fund, opening its doors in November 2019 following a £40,000 award.
Since then the hub has run a wide range of community-requested activities, was able to open its kitchen to provide hot meals during Covid-19, and this winter will take on energy advisors in response to local needs. “It’s been the best thing ever for our community,” said Copperworks Housing Association chair, Maureen Flynn.
Carey Doyle, urban hub manager for Community Land Scotland, agreed that communities currently faced multiple barriers in completing urban ownership, including problems contacting absentee landlords or even uncovering ownership. She recently assisted a community group looking to buy a small land holding with at least 12 different owners.
“These are logistical challenges really, and we are working on making things easier,” she added. “Community land ownership has been transformative in hundreds of communities across Scotland, but the potential in urban areas hasn’t been delivered yet. It should be a normal option in cities, like it is in the Highlands and Islands,” she added.
Land reform minister, Mairi McAllan, confirmed the Scottish Land Fund will be doubled to £20m by 2026. She insisted community groups had support from “a dedicated case officer” as well as through the Scottish Government’s community land team.
“The number of assets known to be in community ownership has increased eightfold over the past 20 years, and there is now almost four times as much community owned land compared to the year 2000,” she added. “These sustained upwards trends show real progress and delivery of the Scottish Government’s ambitions for land reform.”
All companies named as having tax haven links were approached.
Who Owns Urban Scotland is an investigation by The Ferret looking into the firms controlling Scotland’s towns and cities. Support our journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month at theferret.scot.