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"Balance" needed as Scottish parliament takes forward community land ownership proposals, says expert

Out-Law News | 13 Jun 2014 | 5:27 pm | 2 min. read

Legislation which would extend the rights of community groups to buy land and make it easier for abandoned land to be taken into community ownership has been published by the Scottish government.

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill also contains provisions allowing communities to take over public sector land and buildings where they can show that they can deliver greater public benefit with the property.

Property expert Alan Cook of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the new bill would require "balance" from lawmakers as it passed through the Scottish parliament.

"The Scottish property industry will be engaging strongly in the progress of the bill through parliament," he said. "It will be important for these new measures to strike the correct balance between the policy objective of strengthening the role of communities in influencing the stewardship of local property assets, on the one hand; and the right for property owners to be able to progress their own long-term asset management objectives on the other."

The new bill proposes extending the community right to buy to all land across Scotland, irrespective of the size of settlement in which that land is located or whether the land is in an urban or rural area. Currently, the right only applies to those in rural settlements with 10,000 residents or fewer. As at present, the right would only arise when the landowner wished to sell the property and communities would not be able to force landowners to sell.

Once in force, a community group with a registered interest in the property would be given the right to buy the property when the landowner wishes to sell ahead of any commercial arrangements that the landowner wishes to enter into. Community groups would be able to register an interest in the land with the Scottish ministers. In its current form, the bill contains some safeguards which would prevent the community from registering an interest in the land if the landowner has already entered into a contract to sell the property or has granted an option to buy to a third party.

The bill would also give community groups the right to buy abandoned or neglected land for the purposes of sustainable development. This right would apply where a willing seller cannot be located. The Scottish government is yet to set out the factors that it will take into account when deciding whether land is neglected or abandoned for the purposes of the new right.

The new right allowing community groups to take over public sector land and buildings could apply to groups looking for land to grow their own food, develop play facilities for young people or spaces for older people to meet and socialise, according to the Scottish government. The bill would also simplify the rules government local authority allotment sites and strengthen the duty on councils to provide sites triggered by actual demand, as well as protecting allotment sites from closure.

"This Bill is about enabling people and communities throughout Scotland to make their own decisions and to build their own future," said Derek Mackay, the local government minister. "Reforming the community right to buy, giving urban communities in Scotland the same rights as rural communities and creating access to public land and buildings is a momentous step forward."

"The legislation will empower communities who wish to take over public land and buildings where they think they can make better use of them than their current public sector owners and ensure their ambitions are supported by public bodies," he said.

The Scottish government intends for one million acres of land to be in community ownership by 2020.