Experts have called for “radical change” and an overhaul of Scotland’s laws to tackle thousands of vacant and derelict sites – an issue which has not improved significantly in decades.
Campaign groups, architects, politicians and researchers urged legislative changes to support the regeneration of urban and rural areas. Some 3,954 sites make up around 43 square miles of Scotland’s land – almost twice the size of Dundee – and the figures have not changed substantially since the late 1990s.
Experts proposed cutting property maintenance and improvement VAT, encouraging communities and councils to use existing laws and funding streams to tackle issues, and the better targeting of sites for regeneration.
Councils, building operators and owners were urged to overcome a “culture of neglect” which critics say has allowed buildings to fall into disuse and dereliction – an issue likely to be accelerated by post-Covid-19 closures. In some cases, falling masonry from Scotland’s crumbling tenements has led to injury and even death.
There have also been renewed calls for the Scottish Government to introduce a compulsory sales order (CSO) for councils to auction long-neglected land and buildings for regeneration.
The Scottish Greens said the government was “going backwards on land reform” and called for “more progressive and efficient local taxation”. The government said it was “committed to supporting the regeneration of communities” through ongoing initiatives while CSO legislation and other land reform proposals would be “ready for the next administration”.
The state – and impact – of Scotland’s vacant and derelict land
The Ferret previously looked at the 10 largest vacant and derelict sites in Scotland using data from the 2018 Scottish Vacant and Derelict Land Survey. The data is used by the Scottish Government to assess the scale of the issue and keep track of regeneration.
The 2019 survey found 3,954 sites, and showed a slight reduction in the overall amount of vacant and derelict land from the previous year – from 11,356 to 11,234 hectares.
In 2019, the Scottish Land Commission (SLC) found a third of the population to be living within 500 meters of a derelict site – a result of Scotland’s industrial legacy. In deprived areas, this figure increased to 58 per cent.
There are also 40,000 estimated long-term vacant empty homes in Scotland, according to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. However, architect Malcolm Fraser believes this may be an underestimate, with often unused flats above high street shops registered as businesses rather than residential properties.
Empty homes officers tasked with bringing empty properties back into use exist in 26 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. But there are none in Clackmannanshire, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Midlothian and Shetland.
Empty and derelict land and buildings, whatever the size, “can damage an area, resulting in social, economic and environmental harm”, deter local investment and pose a danger to the public, according to the SLC. This includes the increased likelihood of arson, vandalism and the dangers presented by decaying buildings, such as weak floors and collapsing roofs.
The severe impacts of a ‘culture of neglect’
George Allan is chair of Maintain Our Heritage, which campaigns for the better maintenance of historic buildings. He has personally campaigned on such issues since the 1970s and believes the UK has developed “a culture of neglect”.
Allan said falling masonry is an immediate risk posed by building neglect. There have been few stronger warnings than the death of waitress Christine Foster, who was struck by falling debris as she served customers outside an Edinburgh bar in 2000. Foster’s father later called for tougher regulations from the Scottish Government to help ensure safer construction.
But two decades on in 2019, the Conservatives’ Graham Simpson MSP said “very little” had been done to improve the maintenance of Scotland’s tenements. The convenor of a Holyrood working group on tenement maintenance, Simpson cited council figures showing “over 20 reported incidents of falling masonry” in the capital every month.
The issue was brought to light again in March when an Edinburgh resident left with life-changing head injuries caused by falling masonry accused officials of inaction, the Daily Record reported. Following a near-fatal accident during 2018’s Storm Hector, Lee Dumayne claimed that no one from Police Scotland, the council or the Health and Safety Executive had investigated the incident.
Such events are “regarded as acts of god instead of, as they should be, the completely inevitable results of the total failure of legislation and everything else to ensure that buildings are properly inspected and maintained,” argued Allan.
“Largely reactive” legislation and the bureaucracy of individual property rights means that “unless a building is known to be dangerous, a local authority does not have any power to intervene,” he said. Tenants and owners also struggle to initiate repair work in many of Scotland’s 584,000 tenements, which make up almost a quarter of housing stock.
With hundreds of commercial premises in Scotland already unlikely to reopen post-Covid-19, Allan urged councils to ensure that such buildings don’t fall into disuse and dereliction.
One such solution is the use of “live-in guardians”, he explained. This is where “often unconventional” empty properties are converted into affordable accommodation, which also provides a small income to handle maintenance until a permanent solution is found.
He cited the former Church of Holy Trinity in Islington, London, in which residential units and a kitchen were installed. “Residents pay around £160 a month and the only requirement is that they set up a rota to ensure there’s someone in the building at all times,” Allan said.
This compares to the many buildings that stay in perpetual disuse, like the Kirkton of Alvah Church near Banff, Aberdeenshire, which has been mostly disused for 70 years.
“These buildings are often sold and resold at auctions for increasingly lower prices but eventually attract vandalism, arson, etc,” said Allan. “It just shows how long it takes to find permanent solutions.”
UK government VAT ‘penalising care and repair’ of homes
Any work on occupied homes – apart from extensions to create new dwellings – is subject to 20 per cent VAT unless it has been completely demolished. By charging this standard rate, the UK government is “penalising care and repair”, according to the architect Malcolm Fraser.
The 20 per cent rate deters people from maintaining and improving existing buildings whilst encouraging demolition and new builds, often on green space, he argued.
Fraser called for a five per cent flat VAT rate across all building activity, which he said would improve housing quality and sustainability, create jobs, and strengthen communities by ensuring more houses are lived in. This reduced rate already applies to works on long-term empty housing.
The resulting increase in building activity from the lower rate would match, or even increase the government’s current building VAT intake, as well as cutting “VAT evasion by small builders” and “red tape”, Fraser argued. He also urged the government to revise its ‘five-year supply rules’ in order to ensure good development sites are not scuppered by land speculation.
“Once speculators have traded sites up to a level they can’t afford to actually build on, while retaining their required profit, they are allowed to designate the site as undeliverable and demand new land be found, preferably on the outskirts of the urban area,” said Fraser.
“The housebuilding industry would like us to believe that building unsustainably is just business as usual… but we need radical change”. He added: “Before we build anew, we prioritise caring for, mending and improving the fabric of our existing towns and buildings – our true eco-towns.”
The UK government did not respond to our requests for comment.
Regenerating derelict sites – what the Scottish Land Commission says
While vacant or derelict sites can have damaging effects, the SLC believes they also “present opportunities for regeneration and renewal – unlocking growth, reviving communities and reducing inequalities”.
In its statement of intent, the SLC highlighted different types of site regeneration, which it said are key to helping attract investment and creating jobs and wealth, particularly in deprived areas. Some derelict sites can be used to build new homes, thereby rejuvenating town centres, limiting urban sprawl and protecting green spaces, the SLC said.
One example is the former royal ordnance munitions factory at Bishopton, Renfrewshire. The 25-year regeneration project, and one of the UK’s largest, will bring about 4,000 new homes, transport links, amenities, health facilities, a community centre, a primary school, and green spaces.
Land unfit for building developments can be used for allotments and city farms to provide local food sources, new green spaces, or renewable energy sites to sustainably tackle fuel poverty, the SLC said.
For example, the Shettleston Community Growing Project saw potentially contaminated land in Glasgow turned into a community fruit and veg garden. The community group said it pays a “nominal fee” to rent the site from its owners, Glasgow City Council and Shettleston Housing Association.
To help accelerate such projects, the SLC said Scotland must make better use of data to target “persistent and problematic sites with productive potential”, which it dubs 4P sites.
The SLC called on the government to reform the land register and provide IT infrastructure to allow for a map-based portal, making it easier to identify opportunities – and barriers – in regenerating 4P sites.
The government “should prioritise 4P sites in funding, investment and policy decisions”, the SLC argued. “Traditional approaches… focus too narrowly on financial returns and often overlook wider benefits to society”. New approaches should assess benefits like positive social, environmental and economic impacts, and “the full costs of long-term dereliction”.
The government should also invest in 8-12 large-scale pilots to demonstrate how such sites can be returned to use, and build templates which can be applied to other, similar sites, the SLC argued.
Scotland also needs to embed a “socially responsible approach to land reuse in corporate culture”, the SLC said. Sites risking obsolescence must be identified, while derelict and long-term disuse must be deemed “unacceptable”.
Bellfield Church in Edinburgh, which had lain empty for years and been put on the market by the Church of Scotland, is one example of such a site. The community in Portobello was granted right to buy by the Scottish Government – after the scheme was extended to urban areas – to turn the church building into a community hub.
To counter “unwilling landowners who hold back development in the hope of future financial gain”, the government should give councils CSO powers, the SLC said. However, it highlighted that such cases were “not exclusive to the private sector.”
Regenerating vacant derelict sites, and how to fund them
Local communities must “get into action” and stop building redundancies, stressed George Allan of Maintain Our Heritage. However, he said communities were limited by funding streams from “short-sighted” conservation charities, which he said tend to fund restoration, but not maintenance.
In October 2019, the SLC listed 41 different Scottish and UK funding sources which could be used to bring vacant and derelict sites back into use. Funders included the Scottish Government, local authorities, the National Lottery, development trusts and charities, and private philanthropy.
Charities, community groups, social enterprises, local authorities and individuals can apply for millions of pounds grants and loans from funding streams collectively worth billions. Crowdfunding platforms can also be used to raise money for regeneration projects, including Spacehive, which is specifically for community initiatives.
We recently reported that the Scottish Land Fund, set up to help community buyouts, is heavily skewed towards a few local authority areas and more than £5 million was spent on buying assets already in public ownership. The current £50 million pot expires next year and the Scottish Government said renewing it will be a matter for the next parliament.
Scottish Government ‘going backwards’ on land reform
The prevalence of unused empty properties amidst housing shortages is “a symptom of an economy that doesn’t put communities first”, according to the Scottish Greens.
The party has “long argued this could be tackled with more progressive and efficient local taxation,” said the Greens’ land reform spokesperson and longtime land campaigner, Andy Wightman.
“For example, a land value tax of 3.16p per pound would generate enough cash to replace council tax and the uniform business rate,” he said. “Because it would be levied on land however it is used, such a tax would create an incentive to develop land to its fullest potential use.”
Bringing derelict land into “the non-domestic rates regime could be a catalyst for change”, Wightman argued. Also known as business rates, these are taxes paid on non-domestic properties to help pay for local council services.
He also called for councils to be given the power for CSOs, which he said “was quietly shelved” by the Scottish Government who were “going backwards on land reform”. In its 2016 election manifesto the SNP pledged to introduce CSOs during this parliament but last year admitted the power would not be delivered in time.
Wightman added: “Everyone in Scotland deserves a secure, warm home. It’s indefensible that so many lie empty, and it’s time the Scottish Government had the courage to do something about it.”
The government acknowledged that “there has historically been too much vacant and derelict land and buildings across Scotland” but stressed that work was underway to tackle the issue.
It cited examples of “significant investment in support of regeneration” over the current parliamentary term. These included the vacant and derelict land fund, the regeneration capital grant fund, and SPRUCE, as well as its long-term sponsorship of Clyde Gateway.
A spokesperson said the government aims to build on recommendations from the vacant and derelict land taskforce, and promised to target the most problematic sites. But due to the legislative demands of Covid-19, the government did not expect to be able to legislate for CSOs in this parliamentary term, the spokesperson confirmed.
“However, we remain committed to introducing a new CSO power for local authorities and will bring forward a package of proposals that addresses how authorities can assemble land, tackle problem properties and capture land value uplifts ready for the next administration to consider legislating on these matters,” added the spokesperson.
Header photo of the derelict gates rubber factory in Dumfries © Richard Webb (cc-by-sa/2.0).