Professor David Adams
University of Glasgow
Eight months ago, Policy Scotland published six briefing papers on Urban Land Reform. A seventh followed shortly afterwards in response to the Scottish Government consultation on these issues. What’s has happened since? Well, there’s been significant public discussion, parliamentary debate and now proposals coming forward in political manifestos.
In recent months, urban land reform has been the focus of discussions in which I have been involved amongst professional bodies such as the RICS and RTPI, business interests such the Scottish Property Federation, planning and property consultancies like Turley and CBRE, cross-sector partnerships such as Edinburgh Development Forum, and community-based organisations like the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations. People are beginning to realise that land reform in Scotland may become just as important in urban areas as rural ones, especially in tackling urban vacancy and dereliction. Letters and comments on this have begun appear in the press. Some interests clearly see urban land reform as a threat, while others believe it is an opportunity. It will take time to persuade people that the aim of a better functioning urban land market is in (almost) everyone’s interest.
In the meantime, the potential for urban land reform has begun to generate parliamentary debate and some government commitment. During Stage 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, Patrick Harvie MSP (Co-Convenor of the Scottish Greens) proposed giving local authorities to power to raise to place a special levy on vacant and derelict land, claiming it could generate £250 million per annum. This was not supported by the Scottish Government, but only because it had already announced that it would itself consult on such a proposal, as part of its response on 2 March 2016 to the final report of the Commission of Local Tax Reform
Meanwhile, a strong coalition of support in favour of Compulsory Sale Orders, as previously recommended by the Land Review Reform Group, had emerged in late 2015 and early 2016 among Shelter Scotland, Scotland’s Towns Partnership, Rural Housing Scotland, the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and Community Land Scotland. After Sarah Boyack MSP, the Labour Environment spokesperson, tabled amendments to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill to introduce CSOs, the Scottish Government gave a firm commitment to act. Specifically, the Minister (Paul Wheelhouse MSP) announced that “that, subject to the outcome of the election, Scottish ministers will look to include provision for compulsory sale orders in the legislative programme for the next session of Parliament, once all the necessary preparatory work – including legal and practical issues – has been considered and resolved.” On that basis, Sarah Boyack withdrew her amendment and legislation is now awaited.
No other announcements were made on urban land reform prior to the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament, so we must look to the various party manifestos for clues on what might come forward after the May 2016 election. As well as the commitment to CSOs, the SNP Manifesto intriguingly promises that “As part of the Planning Bill, we will introduce a clean land and building clause to ensure non-domestic property owners cannot leave their properties in a state of neglect or abandonment.” It also commits the SNP to establishing ‘Land Scotland’ as a new land agency to manage Scotland’s publicly owned land in the national interest. It’s unclear at present how this relates to the LRRG’s proposal for a new Housing Land Corporation for Scotland.
While the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Manifesto promises to “continue to stand up against measures that undermine individual property rights”, it also proposes that “local authorities should compile publicly accessible brownfield land registers to allow housebuilders explore their options more easily.” The Scottish Liberal Democrats propose a land tax to encourage “derelict land in urban areas to be brought back into productive use” and promise to speed up the process of mapping all of Scotland’s land ownership.
The Scottish Greens argue that “Scotland’s 11,000 hectares of vacant and derelict land should be liable for non-domestic rates” saying that this would raise £250m a year for investment and encourage development on the land.” Controversially, the Greens also propose the repeal of provisions of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1959 to prevent local authorities from acquiring land for housing at existing use value. They argue that this will encourage public-sector led development of higher quality housing of all types.
Although the Scottish Labour Manifesto has yet to be published, it is expected at least to include a commitment to CSOs.
It’s clear that whoever forms the next Scottish Government, urban land reform will command much greater attention in the next Scottish Parliament than in the one that has just ended.