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Community Empowerment - New Rights, New Mindsets, New Thinking?

Community Empowerment - New Rights, New Mindsets, New Thinking?

A few days ago, a community organisation forwarded to me a circular letter issued by the Scottish Government – highlighting the roll-out of further community rights regarding neglected abandoned or detrimental land and (still in train) land for sustainable development. It’s a reminder – if any were needed – that the community empowerment agenda continues to roll forward. 

In the context of land and property, community rights are all too often perceived as a battlefield – communities battling with absentee landlords on large rural estates, or battling with local authorities to secure a future for long-neglected community facilities. There is a tendency for private sector landowners and developers to view these community rights as a threat, or at least an unwanted additional hurdle – and with a sense that they themselves are embattled, fighting to preserve the traditional rights of private property. The picture regarding public authorities is also quite mixed, with a suspicion that some of them are deliberately imposing lengthy and bureaucratic procedures in order to minimise the impact on their property portfolios; and again, with communities using the language of battle to describe what should be a supportive and positive engagement.

But…I wonder if we’re starting to detect a gradual shift in mindset, as those with an interest in property - private sector, as well as public sector - begin to adopt a wider perspective. For private sector housebuilders in particular, there is now some recognition (see my previous blog) that an exclusive focus on the traditional model of build-to-sell is creating more rather than less risk, as the focus of Scottish Government policy (as well as changing demographics and other factors) gravitate towards increasing the supply of other housing tenures. But there’s also a growing recognition that building houses (even in mixed-tenure schemes) does not in itself create the kind of communities that people want to live in – and that unless you have communities that people want to live in, you won’t get those houses sold (or rented).

So community rights – and, viewing this more widely, the kinds of values which underlie the community organisations that take up those rights, as well as the sorts of legal structures that reflect and support those values - start to become a focus of real interest, potentially helping to solve a problem for private sector developers as much as for communities, housing associations and public authorities.

One example of this in practice is the growing use of structures borrowed from the traditional community-led regeneration sector to ensure long-term sustainability for communal facilities, shared community heat and power (or renewables) installations and the like, within new large-scale housing developments. These structures harness the commitment of those living in the new development – creating sustainability for these physical elements, at the same time as reinforcing the community values that will help to ensure that the area remains attractive for future residents….and which in turn may help to unlock the potential for future expansion.

Another example is the emergence of some highly-innovative projects where the whole community proposition – including use of community empowerment legislation – is built upon a close back-to-back relationship with a private sector partner, where the element of the project which is led by the private sector partner provides the finance needed to give the overall scheme viability.

In each case, this is (to use the well-worn cliché) a win-win situation - creating a more vibrant and sustainable community, while at the same time delivering attractive investment returns for the private sector players involved.

So far as my own legal practice is concerned, I have had a foot in all three camps (if three feet is something that’s physically possible!) – helping private, public, and third sector clients to develop a wide range of  legal structures that seek, from different perspectives, to address the perennial issue of how to build balanced and sustainable communities.

That objective is one that we all share – and it’s a subject that is crying out for new mindsets and new thinking. I’m keen to use the opportunity of our forthcoming seminar on Creating New Communities (24 April) to help move forward the discussion, break apart the traditional battle-lines on community empowerment, and create some debate and challenge round these themes. All welcome – and I’m looking forward to a lively debate!

By Stephen Phillips
Partner

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