Blog: A Perspective on Community Ownership

Presented at “(Un)earthing new pathways for a justice transition: cultivating hope and food on contested terrains in Scotland, Amazon and the Arctic” Workshop, University of Strathclyde, in early 2022.

My introduction for community access to land did not come from Scotland. Four thousand miles away on a tiny island, under the hot sun, in the shadow of a volcano, I stood alongside the community in talks with the government. We fought for access to land to hold a community market – on an unused space in the centre of the village. Our nearest market was 2 hours away and the garden farmers had nowhere to sell their produce. The site we identified was perfect: central, easy to access, lots of foot traffic and plenty of space. We argued our points, highlighted the benefits; The government said no.

I am sure most people have heard a very similar story. This takes place all over the world, from where I was then, to where I am now. So, you may also be able to guess that community did not take no for an answer. The continued to fight. They shared their story, brought others on board – until one day, the government found themselves saying ‘Yes’. Now if you go down to that little unused space in the town centre on a Saturday morning, you will find everything from sweet pepper to breadfruit.

Sometimes, the community still finds that their access is challenged, because access is not ownership. Access does not necessarily give you control. Access does not necessarily give you rights. And so that really brings me to my year of community land ownership.

A year and a half ago, I joined Community Land Scotland. I told this same story in my interview. Communities recognising their needs and coming together to fill the gaps, meeting challenges but pushing through. A story that Community Land Scotland can identify with. The same story we see repeating itself time and time again across Scotland, in both urban and rural areas. So what I have experienced over my time at the Community Ownership Hub so far?

I work in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley. So that means I work (mostly!) with groups in urban areas. The project that I have been working on has been focused on what we term early-stage groups. In other words, groups that are coming together and starting to explore owning their land and buildings. We could not have predicted the sheer volume of interest we have had from the start. We have been in contact with 75 groups, 34 of which we have been in touch with regularly. But what does this show? Well, a number of things; It can be that a community is not having their needs met by other services; a community wants to save a site that is valuable to their community; maybe they have a different idea than a developer or they just want access to greenspace that is not at risk of being turned into a building site.

Between the pandemic and the environmental crises, there has been a change in the way that communities think about the spaces round about them. They have recognised the impact of coming together, they know they are able create positive change. From what I have seen in my work over the last year, communities have also realised the importance of being able to access land and buildings for the benefit of their communities. But the continual question is, who owns Scotland? And I have to say, that is not always clear. I spend a lot of time trying to un-muddy the water of who owns sites in and around Glasgow, and it has become clear that often owners themselves don’t know what they own. Furthermore, access to this information is behind pay-walls and would sometimes require a law degree to interpret correctly. In other words, this information is not easily accessible for communities looking to access land. My colleague Carey and I, we love land data and we love challenges. We spend time and expenses running down rabbit holes to make data clearer. But we have our limits too. Our main constraint is time, there are so many communities and so much inaccessible data. So in the New Land Reform act, we call for improved, integrated and accessible land information.

To move on to another lesson: deprivation does not dampen the desire of communities. 47 of the communities we have worked with have been from deprived areas. However, time and time again we see those with less resources unable to realise their rights. This is often through no fault of the community. For all of the ‘empowerment’ that is discussed, such as in the 2015 Community Empowerment Act, it seems there is a tendency to disempower communities as they take steps forward for themselves. There is a lack of trust — an assumption that those in deprived areas couldn’t possibly know what they want. Consultation is given where external plans are already made and set in stone, and imposed. What would it be like if they were listened to? Given access to what they need? Able to develop their community for themselves? We can see it working, look at us here, where we are able to discuss Dùthchas, and understand how it feels and what it means to us as individuals. And that spirit is growing.

In Greater Glasgow, there is high demand to return our green spaces to communities. For 33 of our groups, this is what they want for their community. This comes in a variety of formats, from community gardens to community woodlands, recreational spaces and nature conservation. The times have allowed many people to reconnect with the land, and they are now exploring their rights to that land. But they are met with many challenges along the way, which are not being resolved by the temporary solutions provided. Creating a viable business for a greenspace can prove difficult, most community gardens are not designed to make money…. So how do we support community greenspaces? It may be time to look to social capital and other innovative methods and partnerships to break down some of the barriers to accessing land, for the good of the environment and for the good of the community.

Although I know this is not unique to urban areas, one of the biggest challenges our groups are faced with is engaging their communities. ‘Community Engagement’ is a popular buzz term, but it can be hard to understand what it means on the ground. One person can have an excellent idea to improve a space, but is that vision shared? How do we bring everyone along with us? This idea is central to helping other to connect to the spaces round about them and allowing them to take action, in a way that is meaningful. However, meaningful engagement takes time and often moves slower than the land market.

Now, I don’t want to be all negative. There have been many successes throughout the last year. Inchinnan Development Trust managed to purchase their woodland. A natural haven in an urban environment. And they have not stopped there, they are moving forward with a second site and have identified a further 2 sites. They have managed to employ two members of staff and are moving from strength to strength. They are sharing their work and supporting other communities overcome their challenges.

Kinning Park Complex have completed the first (that I am aware of!) Local Place Plan in Glasgow. As a community owner, they are well placed to encourage other communities in realising the possibilities of the area. They are building relationships and partnerships. Further along on that journey, we can see the Spire View and Copperworks Housing Associations. They purchased a vacant and derelict site that they are in the process of redeveloping into a community green space, fondly known as ‘The Triangle’.

On Friday, the first consultation for the Broomhill Community Hub is closing. A group that wants to know what the community vision for the now closed Jordanhill bowling club might be. This started as an idea in February and has moved rapidly, to become something with the potential to change the community for the better. The community have given it overwhelming support.

It is important to see the successes as well as the challenges. They provide the inspiration we need to help other communities see that it is possible. They show people realising their rights, engaging their communities, and developing something tailor-made. No two projects are the same, but the combined experiences can make the process seem more manageable.

I was asked recently by someone outside the community land world what I would consider personal success in this job. It took me some time to answer. I would consider it a success when one of the groups that I work with is able to take a small step forward. A small step could be forming a steering group or sharing their ideas with the wider community. A small step could be seeing the possibility that one day, the land could be theirs.

By Heather Yearwood, June 2022