Community Land Ownership

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 30th September 2021.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

I am delighted to take part in this members’ business debate to emphasise the importance of community wealth building. It is as important in urban areas as it is in rural areas, because the exploitation that is experienced is common to both.

Across our country, we see widening inequality and increasing poverty among working-class communities, and an astronomical rise in the levels of wealth being hoarded by the super-rich. Against that backdrop, the premise of community wealth building is more important than ever before. It is a concept that brings a people-centred approach to local economic development, redirecting wealth back into local economies and putting control back in the hands of local people.

We know that it works. We can look at communities such as North Ayrshire, where the council’s Labour administration, led by Joe Cullinane, puts the model of community wealth building at the heart of everything that the local authority does. That approach means that more social housing is built, publicly owned energy generating facilities are developed and democratic ownership models are prioritised—all to the benefit of the community.

That is in stark contrast to what we have seen across Scotland in recent years. Local authorities have been faced with significant financial distress as their budgets have been disproportionately cut, and they seek an easy capital receipt with land disposals.

We know that, of the hundreds of millions of pounds of public land that the Scottish Government and Scottish public authorities have disposed of in recent years, at least 12 per cent has been purchased by one volume house builder, CALA Homes. A good example is the former Boroughmuir high school, in Edinburgh. It was sold for £14.5 million in 2015, and it has recently been redeveloped as more than 100 luxury apartments. CALA Homes advises prospective buyers that, at more than £800,000 per property, they will get a handsome return on their investment. Why was that return on investment not achieved by the community? Instead, it is achieved by anonymous landlords and land holders from all over the world. No one knows who those people are, but they are siphoning our communities’ wealth away from the city of Edinburgh, and that example is replicated across Scotland.

There is an alternative. North Ayrshire is one example, and Preston is yet another. Glasgow could benefit from such a model. Where Preston is reopening libraries and building new ones, Glasgow is closing its libraries because it is facing severe financial problems. At one time, Glasgow led the world in municipal socialism. As a city authority, it owned its tramways, its electric and telephone systems and its entire structure of public transport, and it was the biggest social landlord in the world apart from Hong Kong. However, over the past 30 years, all that social infrastructure has been rapidly dismantled and sold to private interests, where it does not serve the people, and where the profits are extracted.

The Scottish Government has indicated that it is exploring the idea of rolling out a nationwide community wealth building strategy. I would welcome that, but I place on record that it must be done not as a mere sticking plaster to mask the continued local authority budget cuts that are handed down from this place. Those cuts are compounded all the more by the insulting greenwashing that we see in Glasgow in the run-up to the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—with myriad corporate interests sponsoring pathetic interventions in the city’s built environment while there is broad decline and decay in its urban infrastructure as a result of decades of disproportionate budget cuts.

If we are to adopt the community wealth building model, that must be done alongside the creation of an industrial strategy that puts people and communities at its heart. I encourage the Scottish Government to revisit its proposed compulsory sale order policy, which it quietly dispensed with in the previous session of Parliament. There is an urgent requirement to bring that sort of power back to the forefront of our agenda to ensure that community wealth building is put back in the hands of communities. We must do that in order to take action in communities that have long been blighted by deindustrialisation and the disinvestment caused by budget cuts. I truly hope that the Government embraces the opportunities that community wealth building brings, and does not squander such opportunities as it has done so often in the past.