Enhancing resilience through community land ownership

Contributor: Will Bugler

Six farmers share equal grazing rights to a piece of common land, all decide to exploit the pastures by grazing as many sheep as they can on the land. The total number of sheep on the land is unsustainable, the grass will be eaten down and the pastures badly damaged, to the detriment of all of the farmers. But nevertheless, no farmer, acting rationally, removes their sheep; better to maximise personal benefit and take as much as one’s neighbour. Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons has been used to explain the collective exploitation of common resources from farmland, to fisheries, to the atmosphere. According to Hardin “the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy”.

More recently, however, his view has been challenged. Nobel Prize-winning economist, Elinor Ostrom has studied common, shared resources in communities all over the world, and has found that the key ingredient that prevents decay and over-exploitation is collective organisation, institutions and decision making. The many examples of people working together collectively to manage common resources have challenged the inevitability of Hardin’s theory. A recent study from researchers at the Scottish Agricultural College has indicated that not only does community land ownership not lead to inevitable exploitation but that it can actually increase the resilience of ecosystems and the communities that they support.

Scotland may not be the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of equitable land ownership. Studies in the mid-1990s estimated that over half of the land in Scotland was owned by just 500 individuals; with 125,000 acres owned by Captain Alwyn Farquharson of Invercauld whose family was originally given the land as a gift by Robert the Bruce in the 14th century. But nevertheless, in the land of the landlord, Community Land Ownership (CLO) schemes have emerged; scattered across the country from the Highlands to the Islands. In total local communities have taken ownership of over half a million acres of land, and have begun to transform their communities.

The CLOs are reinvigorating communities that had once seemed in terminal decline, and local people are creating vibrant, resilient communities with houses and jobs to keep younger generations from leaving. James Hunter studied community land ownership schemes in Scotland for many years and his book on the subject, ‘From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops: Community Ownership of Land in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland’ offers many examples of the transformations that have been achieved through CLO. A case in point is that of the Isle of Gigha, the most southerly Hebridean island. The island had been in the hands of individual landlords for many years and under their inconspicuous stewardship, the community was had all but collapsed. By 2001 the population had declined to a little over 100; 75% of islanders having left. There were few jobs on the island and the quality of housing was very poor.

Gigha’s transformation began when it was taken over by the Gigha Heritage Trust and the local community began taking collective decisions about its future. Today the island is unrecognisable; over 40 homes have been refurbished, there are job opportunities and affordable housing for rent. For the first time, young people are moving back to the island causing the population to jump by 60% and the school roll is three times what it was just 15 years ago.

Hunter explains that community land ownership in Scotland has its roots in the old crofters’ associations that operated in the early 1990s. The then Scottish Secretary, the Conservative Michael Forsythe, visited the Assynt Crofters Trust.  He was impressed with what he saw and encouraged other crofting communities to do the same, prefixing his recommendation with the reassurance to his cabinet colleagues that he “was no Bolshevik”.

More recently Scottish land ownership has been allowed to flourish thanks to the 2003 Land Reform Act, which gives communities the right to buy their own land and the Scottish Land Fund which helps to finance the purchase. Supporting communities to purchase land in this way has proved to be a spectacularly cost-effective way of revitalising them. The total cost of buying the half a million acres that are currently under community ownership? A little over £30 million. To put that in perspective it is approximately 3 days worth of UK farm subsidies, or around one four-thousandth of the cost to the taxpayer of bailing out UK banks.

When researching the relationship between CLO and resilience, Dr Sarah Skerratt visited every community land trust in Scotland. In communities that ranged from just 23 inhabitants to those comprising over 11,000, she found that ownership stimulates communities to create businesses and build affordable housing. The resulting upsurge in population boosts school numbers and has frequently led to successful infrastructure projects such as large-scale renewable energy schemes. “There is currently a drive to enhance the capacity of rural communities to be involved in their own local futures,” says Dr Skerratt. “But only now are researchers beginning to have the systematic understanding of what works well at the local level”.

Her research supports other studies undertaken by researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance, that have shown that the resilience of social-ecological systems – such as fisheries, lakes or farmland – is most effectively enhanced through ‘adaptive co-management’ – using local knowledge from a range of stakeholders working together to make decisions that will benefit everyone. Local knowledge and community co-operation seem to be vital ingredients to enhance resilience. Once stakeholders no longer see themselves and their views in competition with their neighbours’, they tend to make better, more environmentally sensitive decisions that enhance the resilience of their communities.

The CLO model has broad appeal and can be applied very easily across the UK. From isolated rural communities to inner-city urban areas, CLO is proving to have the potential to rebuild communities in a way that benefits the local population. Brixton in South London, for example, has initiated Brixton Green; a community ownership scheme that is redeveloping an area of wasteland. The development is to include a ‘creative hub’ comprising space for community organisations, arts groups and a new post office, a ‘community hub’ that will improve access to a local school and provide a children’s nursery, training facilities and an integrated doctor, dentist and chemist and brand new street-facing homes with front gardens and space for allotments at the rear. Politicians frequently opine about the benefits, of ‘local decision making’, ‘decentralisation’ and the ‘Big Society’. CLO suggests that they could be on the right lines, but their rhetoric continues to appear hollow as local services continue to be placed in the hands of large private companies. Want local communities to make locally-appropriate decisions? Then give them ownership.

Watch Dr Sarah Skerratt talk about her research on CLO in Scotland: 

Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee. In 2009 he was part of the UK youth delegation to the Copenhagen climate talks. He holds a BA in Geography and an MSc in Environmental Governance from the University of Manchester.

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