What do we mean by community?

As sometimes happens, the theme I had in mind for my next blog post was overtaken by events, namely the publication this week of the Land Reform Review Group’s (LRRG) Interim Report. This is clearly an important moment, as it begins to hint at what the result of the Group’s deliberations will bring, or not, as the case may be – time will tell.

Although there are many significant individual statements within the report, the main message I took from it was the view that land reform should be about community ownership – and this rather troubles me.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a passionate supporter of community ownership and believe my community credentials are as good as the next man’s – I am a director of my local community company, a former director of the Community Woodlands Association and a committee member of a local community hydro project.

It’s just that I don’t think that community benefit need only be delivered through constituted community bodies, and that land reform is therefore much wider than this.

A ‘community body’ is rigidly defined in law for the purposes of community right to buy, under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (indeed many responses to the LRRG argue that a more flexible definition would be helpful).  Many other ‘official’ bodies have also adopted this as a de facto definition of a community body as a result.

One interesting feature of this is the way that the community itself is defined.  The community is those persons ordinarily resident in the defined area and eligible to vote; ie they are local residents. This is important as it highlights that under present arrangements when we talk about community ownership, benefit & control, we are talking about a form of local ownership, benefit and control. Other criteria applying to the community body refine this local dimension further, by ensuring that it is also open, transparent, collective, and democratic.

But how will local people, who may attend community company meetings or perhaps sit on its board, steering its development for the benefit of the community, behave when going about their own everyday business? Clearly their own personal interests will feature much higher in their priorities, but that is not to say they will not consider the wider community at all – after all they have to live with them, as friends and neighbours.

So more than likely, a local individual or business will manage their affairs not only in their own interests, but to support their fellow residents – or in today’s jargon, to deliver community benefit. In this way they may differ from a remote or corporate owner of assets who could have different priorities and answer to a different ‘community’.

Whilst recognising that in many situations, community control of assets may be the ideal, local control more generally must surely be the next best thing, as in its own way it delivers community benefit. It would therefore be good to feel that land reform discussions reflected a continuum of opportunities, but unfortunately it looks as if the debate has become polarized between community ownership, and private estate ownership.

It is also interesting to reflect on why we need community ownership of land. Whilst there is a philosophical point of view regarding this, there is also a practical one: the need for community ownership exists because in many cases it is so hard for ordinary individuals to gain access to land, and community ownership represents their best chance.

Take forestry for example: in Scandinavia, ‘community’ management of woodland tends to be through local and regional co-operatives of individual woodland owners.  The need for community ownership of woodlands, as we have developed it in Scotland, is less significant because ownership of woodland is itself so commonplace.

Consider also the role of the individual in crofting: although communal working is a key aspect of the system and widely recognised as such, at the same time every crofter has their own croft. Indeed, there are crofts without common grazings, but no common grazings without crofts. And crofting also recognises the importance of local residence, as discussed earlier: you must live on, or within 20 miles of your croft.

All of which is to argue that the community as local individuals deserve a place in the land reform debate, alongside the community as a formally constituted body.

And to finish, here is a lovely example of the community as individuals – informally, and unconstituted – working together: Helping with the Peats

One thought on “What do we mean by community?

  1. Ian Dow

    I see community ownership as a transitional phase that is vital if we are to achieve anything from a more diverse pattern of ownership. It’s been so long that we’ve forgotten how. It is important that communities come together and decide on the most appropriate path to regenerating their landscape and economies. In Knoydart, we have had 20yrs of reforestation across the peninsula running as part of a long term woodland plan that lays out utilised and diverse woodland with an aim to permanency of trees and people. There is still so much to do, but only now is there scope for other possibilities regarding woodland.

    It’s a healing process for people and landscapes and shouldn’t be seen as the end of the road. It would be a massive leap from the frying pan into the fire without this process. Our approach must reflect the ecosystem we are attempting to influence. Glacial, aeons you might say. It has many phases and many utilisation points. We must control our urges to right the wrongs of the past and instead learn from the mistakes of the past. Come together, grow slowly and grow strong, as individuals.


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