Blog: Community landowners' responses to the Covid-19 crisis

Published: 28 Jul 2020

Author: Linsay Chalmers
Blog: Community landowners' responses to the Covid-19 crisis

Communities that own land or buildings in Scotland have been praised for their quick and innovative response to the Covid19 crisis. As the Development Manager for Community Land Scotland, their representative body, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing about some of the amazing work they are doing.

"There are now over 400 communities that own assets, and their ability to collectively overcome obstacles and successfully implement projects has stood them in good stead during the Covid-19 pandemic." - Linsay Chalmers, Fellow 

Ten years ago, I was very fortunate to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship by WCMT to explore the scaling up of community recycling in the USA. At the time, I was working for the Community Resources Network Scotland (CRNS), the membership body for community-led reuse, recycling and composting organisations. During this period, grants from the public sector were being cut and many CRNS members were trying to become more commercial - and grappling with the culture change this required.

During my visit to the USA, what struck me most was the entrepreneurial attitude and confidence shown by the social enterprises I visited, although the lack of a social safety net was quite sobering. When I got back to Scotland, I had the chance to implement some of the practices I’d encountered and invite several US social entrepreneurs to come to Scotland.

Several job changes later, I now find myself working with another group of Scottish communities that embrace the indomitable attitude I’d found in social enterprises across the Atlantic. My current employer, Community Land Scotland, is the representative body for community landowners. These are communities that have come together to collectively buy land or buildings: from islands to forests to town-centre buildings.

Linsay speaking at a Community Land Scotland conference in 2017 

When I first started as development manager for Community Land Scotland four years ago, one of our directors took me on a visit to a community in Harris that had purchased 7,225 hectares of land in 2010. At that time, the number of people living on the vast West Harris estate had fallen to 119 and the primary school was about to close. Local people knew they needed to do something radical to prevent the community from collapsing and they made the decision to come together to buy the estate.

Their first steps were to install business units, two wind turbines and a pontoon. When I visited, in 2016, they were in the process of developing a multi-use business space and venue, Talla na Mara, looking over onto the Isle of Taransay. On same site, they’d set up a hydro scheme, installed electrical hook-ups for camper vans, and six affordable houses were being constructed in partnership with a local housing association. A year later, Talla na Mara was up and running and had created ten jobs. By that time, the population of West Harris had risen to over 150, including seven pre-school children. The primary school never reopened, but the building was brought back to life as a business space with facilities for tourists.

This model, where communities take control of land and buildings, has become increasingly common in Scotland. There are now over 400 communities that own assets, and their ability to collectively overcome obstacles and successfully implement projects has stood them in good stead during the Covid-19 pandemic. At the start of the crisis, they quickly sprang into action - and directors, volunteers and staff, who thought they’d be spending the year implementing their business plans, suddenly found themselves directing large-scale Covid-19 operations from their kitchens and bedrooms.

The prescription delivery service run by Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn in the Western Isles, Scotland 

As David Ross, the author of our recent report Built-in Resilience: Community Landowners’ responses to the Covid19 pandemic, said: “If these community owners could buy and run an estate, a ferry or a woodland; if they could build a hydro scheme and new houses, or erect wind turbines; if they could secure income streams of tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds a year; they could be relied on to make sure Mrs MacDonald’s prescription was delivered and the shopping for the Cameron family was left at their front door.”

Interest in the model, which has long had support from the Scottish Government for its role in land reform and rural and urban renewal, has now spread. We and our members have had phone calls from across the public and third sectors, wanting to learn how community landowners were able to respond so quickly and effectively. Every year, our members host international visits from people interested in our democratic model of ownership, so it’s good to see that the model is now becoming better known across Scottish society.

We know that as society tries to capture this picture, our members - many of whom are in fragile rural areas or urban communities suffering from deprivation - are already moving on to their next challenge: how to safely support local people and businesses through the economic recovery. We will be there to help them through that journey.

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