This week I took part in the Stage 1 Debate on the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Bill.
The debate focused on proposals to extend the community right to buy, a mechanism which, since its introduction in 2003, has allowed rural communities the opportunity to register an interest in and purchase land for the benefit of the community where there is a willing seller.
The introduction of the community right to buy, and the wider Land Reform Act of 2003 which contained it, remains for me one of the most important achievements of the Scottish Parliament in its 16 year history. However, land reform remains unfinished business for Scottish Labour. The Community Empowerment Bill, along with the upcoming Land Reform Bill allow the opportunity to press for greater radical change.
The proposals being discussed this week seek to extend community right to buy beyond rural communities and across Scotland. They also follow through on Scottish Labour’s call for the right to extend to situations where there is not a willing seller. These are hugely significant steps towards providing an equal opportunity for people across the country to access control over community assets.
Alongside expanding access to community right to buy, the Bill also presents the opportunity to look again at the 2003 Act and to address the issues that communities and landowners have faced through its implementation. In particular, the complexity of the process and the importance of providing support to allow people to take advantage of the new powers need to be addressed.
The debate was informed by a report from the Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. As our report notes, while welcoming the general principles of the Bill, the devil will be in the detail. We’ve set out our views on the changes the Government needs to make to improve the bill and deliver on our ambitions.
In my speech, I focused on the provisions to allow communities to purchase land where there is no willing seller – the bill frames this as a right to buy abandoned and neglected land. I am concerned that the definition of abandoned and neglected potentially creates a barrier for community groups.
The Committee called for an ‘unambiguous and acceptable’ definition of what would constitute abandoned or neglected land to ensure that the proposals contribute to sustainable development. That must not just be about physical land and environmental issues but must equally focus on the contribution it makes to a community’s social and economic prospects.
However, the Scottish Government has indicated its preference to define these terms through regulations at a later date. While the committee was willing to cede this point, asking only that the subsequent regulations be subject to Parliament scrutiny, my Committee colleague Claudia Beamish and I disagreed with this approach. Our worry is that these words may prevent communities from benefiting from the right to buy ambitions the bill aims to deliver.
The definition of what land will be covered is central to the entire purpose of community right to buy and it is vitally important that this is clearly reflected in the Bill that is passed. Otherwise, we have been given fair warning by stakeholders that any attempted purchase would be open to legal challenge because the detail is not sufficiently clear.
This is one of a number of areas where the Committee will be closely scrutinising the passage of the bill. The test I will have when amendments are being considered is whether they can deliver radical and credible law that delivers new powers that communities can actually use.
The powers discussed during the debate are a vital part of changing the nature of discussion between communities and owners, and that is the prize to be now won – credible and tough backstop powers when needed, but with more constructive dialogue and debate to enable more community land ownership and use to take place.