A new right to buy for urban communities?


A consultation has been launched on a proposed community empowerment and renewal bill which looks at ideas to give local people a more direct say in what happens in their communities. One of the aims is to make it easier for communities to take over unused and underused public sector assets and to introduce measures to help communities deal more effectively with vacant property in their area.

Extending the right to buy

Although the consultation is wide ranging, one of the most interesting ideas for the commercial property industry is the proposal to extend the right to buy, similar to the one enjoyed by rural communities in Scotland, to larger towns and cities. This could allow people in urban Scotland to follow in the footsteps of recent successful community buyouts such as the former airbase at Machrihanish in Argyll.

Review of the current rural community right to buy

Currently rural communities have a pre-emptive right to buy land when it comes up for sale regardless of whether the property is in public or private sector ownership. This right can be used provided the community has registered a public notice confirming they may exercise that right over the property or land in question. The right was introduced by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 as a mechanism for encouraging opportunities for community ownership of land in rural Scotland. In terms of the Act a community can register an interest in land and if the owner puts the land up for sale the community has a pre-emptive right to buy it.

The Scottish Government has recently set up a Land Reform Review Group to review how the land reform legislation, which contains this right to buy, has worked to date and to bring forward proposals to make legislation easier and faster to use. Research findings on the success of the community right to buy have also recently been published. According to Government figures, 142 applications to register a community interest have been submitted to the Scottish Ministers and 95 have been approved. Interestingly this level of uptake is greater than was anticipated however of the 95 approved applications, only 33 have had the chance to go ahead and purchase the land and only 11 have been successful in doing so. The impact in terms of change in land ownership has therefore been relatively modest.

It seems that there are a number of barriers limiting the uptake of the community right to buy. These include land not coming on to the market, the legislation being too complex and lack of funding. The Land Reform Review Group are likely therefore to be looking at how to simplify the time consuming administrative process, how more technical help can be provided to communities and how more accessible funding can be provided to support community purchase and ownership. The results and recommendations of the group will be interesting as they are likely to shape any new community rights going forward.

What next?

In England & Wales Mary Portas' High Street review has recommended that communities be given rights to takeover vacant property in order to rejuvenate town centres. In Scotland, the consultation on the proposed community empowerment and renewal bill runs until 29 August 2012. It is expected that there will be a consultation on a draft bill in spring 2013 with a view to legislation being ready for introduction to the Scottish Parliament in winter 2013.

The consultation is worth a read as this article highlights only one of many ideas designed to strengthen community participation, unlock enterprising community development and renew communities.