Boost for community buyouts in Scotland

30 May 14
Scottish ministers are to relax Treasury rules on the sale of state-owned assets in order to free up land owned by the Scottish Government and its agencies for community purchase.

By Keith Aitken in Edinburgh | 2 June 2014

Scottish ministers are to relax Treasury rules on the sale of state-owned assets in order to free up land owned by the Scottish Government and its agencies for community purchase.

The change, long demanded by land reform campaigners, was trailed by local government minister Derek Mackay ahead of publication of the Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill, due to come before Holyrood later in the year.

Mackay told delegates at a Holyrood magazine conference that a key element of the Bill would be extending and strengthening right-to-buy provisions in the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act. Under this, communities, mostly in the highlands and islands, have been supported to buy out 500,000 acres of land from sometimes-reluctant landlords. First Minister Alex Salmond has said he wants that total doubled by 2020.

Land reform campaigners say a big constraint is the Treasury’s insistence on state-owned property being sold at full

open market value, enforced through the Scottish Public Sector Manual, which has deterred community buyouts and closed off a source of capital through the Big Lottery Fund.

Mackay said the Bill would release Scottish public bodies from the SPSM provisions. It would also scrap a rule restricting buyouts to unused public land or buildings and allow communities to lodge a business case for taking over properties in the public interest.

A key aim, he said, was to spread the community buyout movement from rural Scotland into towns and cities, as part of the wider aim of devolving power in local decision-making to community level.

Other measures will include putting Community Planning Partnerships on a statutory basis, guaranteeing third sector involvement in service delivery – which Mackay said might involve some rationalisation – and using localised business rates relief as a town centre regeneration tool.

‘Just as we believe as a governmentthat power should transfer from London to Edinburgh, so we also believe as a government that power should transfer from Edinburgh to communities directly,’ he told the conference.

Ministers had decided against legislating to enforce participatory budgeting, but still intended to encourage it. ‘Watch this space for how I think we can do that going forward,’ he said.

The plan to sweep away SPSM constraints on community transfers of publicly owned assets was welcomed by David Cameron, chair of Community Land Scotland, the umbrella body for community landowners. Cameron said the change could be enough on its own to deliver Salmond’s transfers target.

He told Public Finance that his organisation, backed by expert opinion, believed there were sufficient loopholes in the SPSM to facilitate community buyouts, but government departments and agencies had insisted the rules were ‘absolute and insurmountable’ in requiring assets to be transferred at full open market value. Mackay’s move will make clear that this is not so.

Public bodies in Scotland are under financial pressure to rid themselves of surplus properties, and some delegates expressed concern that the buyout drive would simply see communities lumbered with buildings the market didn’t want.

But Cameron said the 2003 Act had proved that community ownership could outperform traditional ownership models in terms of investment, housebuilding, asset value, population growth and job creation.

‘We want more communities in Scotland to have those opportunities, more rural communities and more urban communities as well,’ he said.

This article was first published in the June edition of Public Finance magazine


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