The law needs changed to help bring more derelict land back into positive use - Scott Geekie

In many parts of Scotland, the legacy of the nation’s industrial past provides an opportunity to unlock a positive future. The problem is that not enough people know where to find the key.

Scott Geekie is a Senior Associate in the Commercial Property team at Lindsays
Scott Geekie is a Senior Associate in the Commercial Property team at Lindsays

Most of us can think of a derelict site – perhaps one that was once a hive of heavy or manufacturing industries – that we would like to see redeveloped; where people have long said ‘if only someone were able to...’.

And there are undoubtedly fears that the number of these sites could grow if the worst-case financial predictions of the coronavirus pandemic are brought to bear.

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The fact is that communities do have the power to take charge of these sites, although it would seem to me that it’s perhaps the case that this is not widely known.

Legislation through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act allows community bodies to apply to buy land – including buildings – which is either wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected or is being used or managed in a way that is harmful to a community’s environmental wellbeing.

If an application is successful, the landowner can be made to sell the land to the community body, meaning any deal is not contingent on the landowner deciding to dispose of the land or buildings.

In some ways it sounds so straightforward. But, in practice it’s not – and that’s even without the not insubstantial need for the community to have the financial means with which to make the purchase.

The legislation is demanding – and rightly so in many ways.

However, the single-figure schemes which have been brought forward through this element of Community Right to Buy since it came into force in 2018 suggests the legislation, as it works currently, simply is not doing the job.

Change is needed to help get more people involved in bringing abandoned, neglected or detrimental land (as it is officially classified) back into positive use.

According to the Scottish Land Commission, a third of Scotland’s population lives within 500 metres of a derelict site, with almost 11,000 hectares of derelict and vacant urban land across the country.

The statistics alone paint a picture of the huge development potential.

Although not in response to the low Right to Buy numbers, the Scottish Land Commission recently published a report - Transforming Scotland’s Approach to Vacant and Derelict Land - setting out some recommendations that it hopes will help bring such sites back into use.

Landowners need to be aware that, if pursued politically and enshrined in legislation, the recommendations will change the field of play from their perspective.

For, while landowners might benefit from fiscal changes that would encourage them to improve their land, local authorities would be granted compulsory sale powers, potentially removing the ability for a landowner to leave land to see if its value improves at some point, which, of course, they are perfectly entitled to do as things stand.

Local authorities having the ability to force a sale certainly may enhance the ability to clear the logjam of vacant or derelict sites that exist across the country.

As part of the suggested measures, enterprise funding would also be conditional on land being maintained in an acceptable state. Interestingly, there is also a suggestion that corporate landowners should be encouraged to include a commitment to active property management in their social responsibility statements and, as such, avoid their sites becoming abandoned.

My experience, ultimately, is that no-one wants to see derelict sites. Landowners, however, want to get the best possible prices and communities want to see the most competitive deal bring them to better use. Finding that compromise is where the difficulty lies.

Transformation clearly requires imagination, innovation and investment. Legislative change can be a catalyst, allowing social, economic and environmental issues to be addressed.

Ahead of new legislation, however, if more vacant derelict sites are to be brought back into use, more communities need to know that they already have the power to pursue purchases, while landowners need to consider if “wait and see” offers real value against the liabilities that always run with ownership and the way the legal wind might soon blow – is a hands-off approach prudent?

Scott Geekie is a Senior Associate in the Commercial Property team at Lindsays

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