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Publication - Research Publication

Overcoming barriers to community land-based activities: gudiance

Published: 29 Jul 2016
Part of:

Guidance on good practice in overcoming barriers to community land-based activities.

59 page PDF


59 page PDF


Overcoming barriers to community land-based activities: gudiance
6. Challenges facing private landowners

59 page PDF


6. Challenges facing private landowners

A range of challenges facing private and third sector landowners were identified affecting their ability to overcome barriers to community land based activities. These included perceptions that the community lacks a cohesive vision. Interviewees shared experiences of community groups 'at odds with each other', presenting different views and aspirations, and raising the question of 'who' is the community. Indeed, interviewees agreed that there is a need to define 'community' and challenged the correspondence of existing legislative definitions with 'reality', e.g. the differences between crofting and non-crofting communities, plus communities of interest ( e.g. recreational land users).

Challenges arise where a community's population lacks consensus and it is difficult for landowners to decide which community group to work with when divisions appear. Furthermore, where a community land-based activity is proposed on land owned by multiple owners, there may also be division in views between landowners, thus: "other landowners didn't necessarily sing from the same hymn sheet".

The interviewees perceived a tendency of communities to object to new developments, unless there is housing or employment need. A fundamental challenge as expressed by the interviewees is that stakeholders (including communities) become aware too late of how the planning system works, and therefore, there are too few people involving themselves at the early, development planning stage. Landowner and community engagement may therefore be at too late a stage during the development process to be able to overcome barriers. Early stage discussions can identify current assets and potential, as opposed to late stage discussions that tend to meet barriers, for example, mis-matched timescales for development that inhibit partnership working. However, interviewees explained a sense of anxiety on the part of landowners with regard to open consultation processes, due to the need to manage expectations (especially where infrastructural limitations to development exist), in addition to scepticism, thus: "if you look to ask, you'll definitely get answers". They also highlighted a need to be 'politically careful' as to whether concerns raised through consultation processes are valid.

Interviewees identified several challenges arising from perceived limitations in community capacity, in terms of skills and knowledge. This can lead to a slow pace of decision-making/action by some community groups/leaders, limited business experience of some community groups, and concerns where active individuals were to depart from the community. Challenges also arise when messages are not understood, or there is a lack of knowledge and awareness by community groups, e.g. a lack of understanding of farming practices and cycles by those who live in rural areas. Community groups also may lack communication skills, and can struggle to articulate what their aims and intentions are; this type of communication underpins mutual understanding and respect. There may also be unwillingness within the community to assess alternative options ( e.g. different sites/buildings) for their land-based activity, therefore landowners may consider them inflexible. Interviewees stressed that community land-based activities must be "backed up by well thought through, costed, and deliverable plans".

In some cases challenges arise from an apparent lack of community interest in engagement processes, and a lack of direct contact between community and landowner. As experienced within forestry management planning, the interviewees reported that only a small number of people are motivated to comment, with key issues around recreation and maintaining the right of responsible access. Most don't respond due to lack of interest and distance from forests. Challenges therefore arise where communities are considered 'apathetic' ( e.g. failing to attend planned meetings) and presume that their proposals will be refused ( i.e. perception that landowners will say 'no'). In other cases the community may reject the opportunity to work with a landowner, or where engagement is not well received, e.g. people don't want to speak to the landowner or see them as 'normal', through maintaining a 'feudal' perspective. Interviewees believed that this indicates a need for cultural change. A further challenge, as described by interviewees, arises when a community group does not attempt to speak to a landowner. Indeed, one interviewee described an example where a steering group and feasibility study had been established, before the landowner was approached for land access. Experiences of planning applications from community groups that come 'out of the blue' can be a challenge to landowners, especially as it is easier to integrate community proposals with development plans (as previously described).

Private and third sector landowners are faced with challenges in overcoming barriers to community land-based activities where disputes arise between landowner and community, there are conflicting motivations, polarised relationships and a lack of trust between landowner and community (and at times, within the community group). Ongoing disputes between landowners and communities can create pre-emptive barriers. Interviewees explained, for example, that whilst farmers would like the rural community to 'enjoy' their land, disputes can arise when access is taken irresponsibly, e.g. during lambing season, disturbing cereal crops, etc. Landowner representative interviewees explained that challenges to engagement can be due to perceived rudeness, the rejection of landowners' ideas, individuals being made to feel uncomfortable, and even concerns regarding personal attack. Similarly, the apparently 'irrational and unreasonable viewpoints' that can emerge when land use decision-making becomes more participatory can be difficult to overcome on the part of the landowner, as community members can be seen to persist if their wishes are not accommodated for in the final land use plan.

Challenges also arise from entrenched viewpoints and potential loss of control by both parties. For example, it is reported that NGO landowners face 'resentment' due to their involvement in some community projects, despite community capacity issues. Polarised relationships can occur due to behaviours and circumstances (see Section 5.1). Whilst the example of one landowner demonstrates their desire to work in partnership with the community, interviewees perceived that communities generally view this landowner as a 'benign landlord' rather than an empowering partner.

Furthermore, whilst some interviewees believe that 'farmers should be part of the community', others explained that in their view there can be a different relationship between farmers and communities than that of estate owners and communities; thus, whilst estates can provide employment and facilities on their land, farmers tend to be more involved in the local community. Farmers can also be tenants of the estate (in addition to owner-occupiers); therefore inherent differences emerge. The interviewees agreed that a key challenge is the difference in perceptions between landowners and communities; in particular there is a sense that the community want to see the landowner as 'laird'; therefore a key challenge is how to change societal views more widely towards landowners. There is also a sense that landowners are 'damned if they do and damned if they don't', i.e. if they want to be part of the community, they can then be excluded.

The interviewees explained that at times, landowning trustees do not prioritise and therefore proactively support community land-based activities, especially where they do not fit with landowners' objectives. Where local debates are not central to landowners' objectives, landowners can take an 'ostrich approach', and avoid engaging with the issue. Conflicting motivations and objectives of the landowner ( e.g. conservation objectives) with the community ( e.g. employment and housing) can also contribute to challenges.

Uncertainty on the part of the landowner was highlighted as a significant challenge, reflected in a lack of confidence to initiate/participate in community engagement activities. This may result from family responsibility and expectation, political rhetoric around land reform, lack of experience in community engagement, negative perceptions held by the community, and/or personality type. In more detail, the interviewees described uncertainty regarding what is needed by the community and its location, as well as managing different views. Concerns also arise regarding the long term prospects for the community land-based activity/land use, therefore questions emerge including: 'what will happen when community use ends?' and 'will the government take on ownership/management?' There was a perception amongst the interviewees that landowners have concerns regarding the short and long term issues facing community groups. They are also uncertain regarding their role in the community and its development, thus:

"As a landowner, with communities living on the land…[complicated by some crofting and some non-crofting] - should we have a community development officer role really - to be helping to do that. Or should the community be doing that and we're just part of that process? At the moment, neither is really happening."

On the other hand, interviewees described uncertainties perceived by landowners that solely concern their business and personal interests. These include: (i) that the landowner will not be able to get vacant possession of a site if it is offered on a temporary basis to a community, and if they need to resort to legal action, then they risk reputational damage; (2) that the resultant land use may be 'inappropriate'; and (3) that community use could endanger the security ( i.e. property rights) of other land. The interviewees describe a fear amongst landowners of acting incorrectly and jeopardising their landowning continuity (with an impact on their family, for example). Uncertainty regarding the impact/influence of the Land Reform Bill [4] was highlighted by interviewees, in addition to the surrounding political rhetoric.

Perceived and actual resource costs are a challenge to landowners. Such costs can include estate staff time, specialist advice, funding for feasibility studies, support for project management, and facilitating community engagement activities. There is also a perception that creativity in community engagement can be restricted due to associated costs (and tight resources) as well as 'defensiveness' and mistrust. Landowner representative interviewees explain that land use decision making that is more participatory and requires facilitating a dialogue with a community is in turn more time-consuming. This could lead to less management time available, and due to a lack of funding, there could also be less access to specialist advice ( e.g. crofting expertise). This has implications for the availability of skills and how landowners' undertake estate management/future planning. Interviewees also highlighted commercial sensitivity which can impact on how barriers to community land-based activities can be overcome.

When barriers arise regarding a landowners' reluctance to sell land, interviewees recommended an increased understanding of the landowner's tax situation would be helpful. Therefore, the landowner may not wish to/be able to sell land (and at time desired by the community), because if the sale counts as a capital receipt then the landowner may have to pay 40% tax. Such tax consequences are also mentioned in relation to current and potential absolute 'rights-to-buy' for communities. Furthermore, interviewees representing third sector landowners revealed a lack of community and funder recognition of the landowners' fiduciary duty and conditions of ownership ( e.g. inalienable rights).

The interviewees also described issues associated with lease arrangements, including the potential cost to landlords of registering leases of more than 20 years in the Land Register [5] , as well as examples of defectively-worded leases and community groups that no longer functioning, therefore it is not clear who is entitled to end the lease. However, these problems must be kept 'in proportion' according to the interviewees and to satisfy the Registers of Scotland, therefore interviewees are in agreement with the intentions of the Long Leases (Scotland) Act 2012.

Interviewees agreed with the earlier report (Roberts and McKee, 2015), which they believe suggests that 'farmers are sometimes less willing to communicate with communities in order to take a project forward', due to the scale of impact on farm businesses [6] and the potential to lose income from transferring land ownership/management to communities. Thus: "small farmers…might have more to potentially lose, than a bigger estate - they could afford to lose a small piece of land, whereas a small piece of land to a farmer could be 25% of their income." In addition, estates may be better placed to offer alternative sites for community projects. Interviewees agreed that scale of business and land owned is a critical factor in how landowners engage with communities. Interviewees recommend that 'safeguards' /government interventions are established that understand the implications for the individual farmer, and assess the extent of landownership, land use, and the potential impact on the value of the business overall.

A further challenge as described by the interviewees is that of landowner capacity and skill set. At times landowners can be less well equipped to communicate an estate/business plan, which restricts their perceived transparency, and how well a community can understand their position. Landowners (and their representatives) are described as at times lacking in 'emotional intelligence' and empathy, although it is noted that this is very subjectively viewed. Nonetheless, apparently panicked and reactionary responses by private landowners to requests by local authorities or communities can generate a perception that the landowner does not wish to engage in discussion or negotiation. Interviewees mention a tendency for foreign and absentee owners to appear less motivated to engage, which can lead to a lack of recognition by the landowner of the representative community body, as opposed to individuals ( e.g. tenants).

Related to this challenge is that of perceived 'power imbalances' as described by the interviewees. Firstly, on the part of communities, it is recognised by interviewees that community groups are unable to afford the fees of land agents (or other intermediaries), in contrast to private landowners who can afford the advice of these professionals. Interviewees also highlighted a perceived sense of 'disempowerment' on the part of landowners, and rhetoric of 'landowners - bad, community leaders - good', therefore power is held in the hands of community leaders (see also 'polarised relationships' above). Challenges to landowners therefore include a perceived fear that being 'open' may lead to further 'attack'. Similarly, interviewees explained that the regulation of land-based businesses has increased, therefore reducing landowners ability and freedom in decision-making. The significance of ransom strips as a barrier (Category C1; Roberts and McKee, 2015: 15) is highlighted by interviewees, especially in relation to renewable energy developments. However, the alternative as explained is to increase the powers of wayleaves, and in turn reducing the security held by the landowner, who then 'cannot control what happens on their land'. Interviewees also proposed that a perceived 'sphere of influence' held by landowners is preconceived and less significant than assumed. In particular, interviewees described a lack of recognition of conservation landowners on a national scale, who struggle to raise their profile and therefore have their voice heard/ be able to contribute to debates.

6.1 Challenges and opportunities specific to geography/ activity type

Whilst most interviewees initially agreed that there should be no differences in barriers between rural and urban areas - for example, community dynamics are often shared, and the market value of property is calculated in the same way - there are practical differences, thus: "the principles in the round are exactly the same, but the realities of doing them is hugely different."

In rural areas, the issue of scale was raised, in particular the challenge of scattered rural communities hindering effective community governance, issues of transport and broadband networks (with associated communication limitations) and the role of small community bodies undertaking negotiations with landowners (which may be much larger institutions or powerful individuals). Whilst urban communities have a greater pool of potential community body members, there was a perception amongst interviewees that it is more challenging within urban areas to reach a consensus within a community due to the larger population. It is also necessary to negotiate with a greater number of communities of interest and range of stakeholders within urban areas. The interviewees considered that 'the rural is easy' with regard to accessing 'community' for engagement exercises, and in contrast, it is more challenging to engage urban communities within the 'responsibility agenda', e.g. to encourage local people to join boards, or generate income from asset ownership. For example, one public meeting can involve a significant proportion of a rural community, which would be very unlikely within an urban area. This challenge relates to the perceived limits of rural communities, in contrast to unclear community boundaries within urban contexts.

Specific challenges to overcoming barriers to community land-based activities in urban areas were anticipated to become more apparent as the community right-to-buy powers are implemented through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, and are likely to add 'complexity' for property owners. A key role for community councils is also mentioned in this context; however, interviewees also anticipate issues around community representation and the legitimacy of community bodies in urban areas ( e.g. tensions between development trusts and community councils in urban areas). Community viewpoints are perceived as more difficult to gather in urban areas, with the limitations of single ballots highlighted, and a lack of community cohesion. Interviewees raised common themes of the need for enthusiasm and leadership on the part of urban community bodies.

The role of property agents and intermediaries was considered to be different between rural and urban areas, with the latter focussing on commercial land sales/management, and with potentially different educational backgrounds and professional experience. The interviewees reinforced the role of professional culture and standards in overcoming barriers. Furthermore, interviewees recognised a greater use of third party agencies in urban areas, therefore less direct landowner- community engagement. This may be because in rural areas the personal impact of decisions is more evident. For example, the resident rural landowner has to 'live with the consequences' of decision-making, therefore wishes to maintain a good relationship with the local community. As one interviewee surmised, 'rural landowners work better with communities than urban landowners, because there is a greater need for them to do it.'


Email: Graeme Beale,