Community, Ownership, Land: Some Reflections

Olivia Oldham
7 min readJun 10, 2022

These three ideas are huge containers for a multitude of different perspectives, complex detail, and contextual nuance. But what do they actually mean? How do they work? And how, if at all, can things like law and policy go about changing how they operate? Generally, the answers to these questions are tangled up in one another, and coloured by a whole raft of emotional, historical and cultural context — which makes it all the more important to interrogate them closely, rather than taking them for granted.

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining a three-day workshop exploring the meaning of community and ownership in relation to land. The papers presented were hugely diverse: from how agroecological new entrants are (or aren’t) accessing community owned land for farming in Scotland, to the tools beyond community ownership needed for comprehensive land reform; from what tenement communities can tell us about the role of place in forming a community, to the role of land in the fulfilment of cultural rights; and many, many others!

As a brand-new PhD researcher (literally — the first day of the workshop was also the first official day of my PhD), I felt incredibly lucky and deeply honoured to have the opportunity to be in the room, and to hear so many clever, experienced, and wise people speak about their work and ideas. I can’t think of a better way to kick off the next three (or so) years, which I’ll be using to investigate issues of land reform, community ownership, and how these can support a transition to a more socially and ecologically regenerative food and farming system.

As I’ve continued to reflect on the presentations (and the conversations at the pub afterwards…) over the past week, a few key, overlapping themes — or rather, questions — have come up for me.* I’d like to humbly share these — mainly as a way for me to work out my own thinking: I think best by writing! — but also to share with others working in this space, as researchers, practitioners, law- and policy-makers, and those who are none of the above.

Do these questions resonate with you? Do you feel they’ve already been answered, and if so, how? What else would you add? While the following refers largely to the Scottish context of communities and land, it likely has relevance for other jurisdictions, too.

What can these questions about community, land, and ownership tell us about other issues, like the repeopling of the Highlands & Islands and other depopulated rural places; or about how to transform other large socio-ecological systems, like the food system? (Glen Coe | Olivia Oldham)

Question 1: What makes a (healthy) community?

I think this is worth considering it in a bit of detail, as the word ‘community’ is often not very clearly defined. In some ways, it can act as a placeholder word when we don’t know how else to describe a group of people. But is that a helpful way of engaging with collective land rights? What kind of community are we talking about?

From what I understand so far, it seems that the Scottish government has pursued a quite clearly place-based approach to most of its land reform activities. Through legislation, geographical communities have been given rights of first refusal over local land and assets. In some very limited cases, they have also more recently been given the right to compel the sale of property (though this has not yet been actually put to use as far as I am aware).

But is sharing a postcode really all it takes to turn a group of people into a community? Frankie McCarthy’s presentation on the laws of tenements in Scotland posed that question, answering it very clearly in the negative. On its own, even living literally in the same building is by no means a sufficient basis for community — at least if we understand a community to require some degree of meaningful relationships between its members. In his presentation, Bobby Macaulay spoke (among other things) about how the borders of rural estates can act like the borders of modern nation states. These often-arbitrary lines can divide up cohesive communities onto opposite sides of an imaginary legal boundary; conversely, they can encircle a disparate collection of communities who don’t necessarily have very strong links to one another at all. Because of the highly concentrated nature of Scottish land ownership, many community landowners have had to grapple with this exact situation when purchasing and managing the large estates on which they live.

I suppose the question is, while place and geographical proximity may well be factors in the development of some communities, what more is needed to create the conditions where these place-based communities can come together and flourish?

2. How can law and policy enable the maintenance (or formation) of powerful place-based communities, beyond land ownership?

Land reform, as Andy Wightman shared in his presentation, can be understood as the redistribution of power, as articulated through land tenure, use and ownership. In this context, it may well make good sense for the ‘community’ in community land purchase schemes to refer specifically to place-based communities who have a direct connection to the land in question. But, given my first question, what role might there be for the state not only to provide a pathway to purchase their land, but also to support those communities to flourish in other ways, regardless of whether they own their land?

Relatedly, how might law and policy be able to encourage place-based communities to remain dynamic, outward-facing, and welcoming? Can the state support communities in their ability to adapt to change — reconstituting themselves over time as members die or move away, and new members are born and move in — while still maintaining cohesion, trust, and a strong connection to place? The spectre of harmful and exclusionary in-group/out-group dynamics was raised several times over the course of the three days of our workshop in different contexts. In thinking about the meaning and value of community, it’s important to remember that just like any other community, there’s nothing inherently emancipatory or inclusive about small-scale and local communities (Purcell & Brown, 2005; Brown, 2005). Moreover, colonial history has tied Scotland’s land inextricably to the consequences of imperial expansion and enslavement (see MacKinnon & Mackillop, 2020). How can land reform and community development law and policy anticipate and address these factors? At the same time, how can they respond to Wendy Wolford’s recent suggestion that the idea of the Plantationocene might provide a renewed justification for smaller-scale, perhaps more ‘local’, land-based communities?

Perhaps, though, the question is even more fundamental — is fostering powerful, participatory and progressive place-based communities (alliteration only partially intended…) something top-down legal and policy change can even achieve? Or, is it better for the state to restrict itself to distributing resources and getting out of the way? Perhaps a more promising middle road is available, whereby the state might engage in the co-construction, alongside communities, of an infrastructure to support them to thrive and collectively imagine new futures on the land for themselves and future generations on the land.

What other kinds of rights, responsibilities, or relationships are needed to shift how we relate to one another, and to the land? (Loch Lomond | Olivia Oldham)

3. What, beyond land ownership, is needed in the legal and policy landscape of land reform to achieve self-determination for diverse communities, with different histories, and across different contexts?

Redistributing the balance of who owns land is one way to reform the power dynamics that are central to property relations. Enabling communities, not just individuals, to own land goes one step further. But both examples are restricted to ownership, which is by no means the only, or necessarily the best, way humans have of relating to the land. Neither is it the only mechanism for empowering communities to achieve collective land-based self-determination.

There are a huge array of different areas, mechanisms, approaches and branches of law that need to be created or reformed in order to build a truly comprehensive land reform programme — from planning law, to local government, to the regulation and management of water, to hunting rights. How might ideas drawn, for example, from new municipalism (see e.g. Russell, 2019; Russell, Milburn & Heron, 2022), or participatory budgeting, be deployed for the purposes of land reform and community empowerment? How can the land reform agenda move beyond the confines and structures of ownership?

4. When communities have achieved responsibility for the land, how can law and policy support them to develop or maintain the capacity for effective collaborative governance?

In a recent report, the Scottish Land Commission found that some people were concerned about whether communities who purchased land would have the capacity to manage it. Drawing on Jesse Ribot and Nancy Peluso’s (2003) theory of access — that is, that there is more to how and whether people are able to benefit from a given ‘resource’ than their legal rights to do so — I think this question is key. When communities gain the authority to make decisions about land (whether through ownership or some other mechanism), but are not also empowered with the tools to collectively make the necessary decisions and take the necessary actions, what implications does this has for their actual ability to access the benefits of that authority? Where these skills have been lost, how can communities be supported to relearn to work and make decisions collectively for the common good? At the same time, though, how can the state provide the infrastructure without imposing its own visions of what that community should look like, how it should operate, and what decisions it should make?

So, lots of questions, not many answers (yet) — I suppose that’s what the next 3 years are all about!

* I am grateful to all those who were present at the Groundwork workshop whose insights and wisdom I have drawn on and woven together for this piece. However, I make no claim to represent their views, and I take full responsibility (and I pre-emptively apologise) for any misinterpretation or error.

--

--

Olivia Oldham

Writer, Grower, Eater. PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh interested in land, food, community.