All change for better places

All change for better places

by aurora planning

As 2019 gets underway, it’s a good time to look ahead to what changes the new year might bring… One hot topic is of course the Planning Bill but, even for planners, this is not the only thing to look out for!  There is also the question of who controls land, with community empowerment and land reform set to be key themes from last year that continue apace in the year ahead.   In particular, as we touched on in our Spotlights last June, 2018 saw the introduction of a new right for communities to acquire land which is abandoned, neglected or causing environmental harm.  And then, towards the end of the year, the Scottish Government issued new guidance (available here) to support communities through this process with a view to bringing such land back into positive use.   On which, we now take a look at the relationship between the planning system, land ownership, and land-use decision making in the context of making better use of land in and around the places we live.

Very briefly, the community right to buy abandoned and neglected land allows qualifying community bodies to apply to buy land which is either (i) wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected, or (ii) being used or managed in a way that harms the environmental wellbeing of the community in which it is located.  Then, if an application is successful, the existing landowner is effectively forced to sell the land to the community body on terms set out in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.   A more detailed summary of the new provisions (prepared by Pippa) is available here.

Importantly, when considering whether or not land is abandoned or neglected, regard must be had to the extent to which it has, or is likely to have, a detrimental effect on adjacent land; the state of the land or building in question is not looked at in isolation, but it is the impact on the wider place that is important. Likewise, in planning, any proposed development needs to be looked at in the context of the wider place, and the impact that it may have on this to ensure that it is not just the right development but is the right development in the right place.

The right to buy abandoned or neglected land is however just one element of the land reform and community empowerment agenda in terms of who owns land - for example, we have the original community right to buy (which now applies to both rural and urban land), specific agricultural and crofting rights to buy, and the right to make asset transfer requests in respect of publicly owned land.   There is also provision in legislation (albeit not yet in force) for a right to buy land in the interest of sustainable development, and new proposals for land or buildings to be brought to the market by Compulsory Sale Orders (CSOs).

This brings a lot of things together, each of which could be covered by a blog in their own right.  But, in terms of land-use planning and decision making, it is worth looking at CSOs in a bit more detail.

Very briefly, CSOs are being promoted by the Scottish Land Commission as a new mechanism by which planning authorities could require abandoned buildings or small plots of derelict land to be sold by public auction to the highest bidder (full details of proposals for these are available here).  Earlier this month, Kevin Stewart, the Minister responsible for planning, committed to the introduction of CSOs in the course of this Parliament, with a view to these being brought in by 2021…

Essentially, CSOs seek to address the same issue as the right to buy abandoned and neglected land does, i.e. the negative impact unused sites have on the places in which they are located, not just in terms of visual impact, but also in terms of the loss of potential local development and regeneration opportunities.

The particularly interesting thing about the CSO proposals as they currently stand is the explicit connection to the planning regime, in that it is the planning authority that would have the power to trigger a CSO.    The authority would not, however, then have any active interest in the land once that sale had gone through (unlike for example current powers which allow local authorities to compulsorily acquire land for the purpose of regeneration, but which are rarely used due to the cost and administrative burden on the Council, but that’s another story).

In other words, the legislation on community empowerment and land reform doesn’t exist in isolation, and neither does the planning system.  Rather, the two are intrinsically interconnected.

So, as a prime example of this, one element of the Planning Bill currently going through Parliament of interest to many community-based groups is the proposal for Local Place Plans (LPPs), which would allow communities to prepare their own plan for the places they live, which the planning authority must then have regard to when preparing Local Development Plans.   The aim of LPPs is to empower communities to play a proactive role in defining the future of their place.  And, when combined with the full range of powers to acquire land (as outlined above) in order to then deliver that development, this could potentially be a significant game changer in terms of placemaking.

Of course, there’s always going to be a question about how to decide what the best use for land is, and who should be deciding that.   But the hope is that the more that those who might be affected by such decisions are involved in the decision-making process, the better the outcomes are going to be, and tools such the right to buy abandoned and neglected land, CSOs and LPPs should help make that happen.   At the same time, there is also a need for sufficient resources to be made available to allow both planning authorities and community bodies to effectively exercise the powers available to them.   So, while the spirit of the provisions outlined above is positive, it remains to be seen if the appropriate support and resources are provided to ensure that these actually are game changing in terms of delivering better use of land and, hence, better places.

Meantime, if you would like to find out about how aurora planning can assist you in any aspect of the planning process, please visit or email  And, to receive future blogs and updates by email, please click here

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