The Need for Land Reform

Janet Moxley
on : 
13th Nov 2015
Bulletin item expiry date: 
25th Dec 2015

  A small, fairly prosperous rural town like Biggar probably isn't the sort of place which immediately springs to mind in the context of Land Reform. However, just one afternoon walking around a identified several issues where Land Reform would bring improvements to the community.

Picture of school site with sign on fence saying "our land community council purchased vetoed by the council"First up was the now demolished Primary School (see photo to left). The council steam-rollered through a decision to demolish the building after the new school was built rather than convert it to another use. Many in the community wanted to see the historic old building on the edge of the conservation area put to another use, but the council refused to consider alternatives or offers to buy the building, and the community could only look on as an important part of their heritage was converted to a car park. The option for it to be used for other purposes such as a small business incubator, offices or housing was lost. Giving communities the right to buy would have prevented this vandalism.

Just round the corner is a vacant area of land which used to be Biggar Auction Mart until the foot and mouth epidemic put it out of business in 2001. It has been for sale since then, and although some of the site has now been sold, no-one has wanted to pay the asking price. Other uses for this land have been proposed including a community growing area, a skate park and a car park as an alternative to demolishing the old primary school, but with no community right to buy these have not been possible.

Another issue for a former Burgh such as Biggar is identifying what land the community already owns as "Common Good Land". This is land which belonged to the former Burgh, and which was passed to Strathclyde Region in 1973 and then to South Lanarkshire in 1996. Common Good Land should be ring-fenced in the council's accounts and inform from it used to benefit the town it is in. To qualify as Common Good the land must have been purchased or given to the Burgh for "non-statutory purposes (i.e land it was not legally obliged to buy as a result of an duty imposed on it by Parliament), so land purchased to provide things like schools or sewerage which a council was legally required to provide is not Common Good. However many parks and other open spaces in former Burghs should qualify as Common Good Land.

Person in Biggar public park with  "Our land" signSouth Lanarkshire Council  (SLC) claim that there is no Common Good Land registered for the Burgh of Biggar. However the Register of Sassines search sheets which record the property of the Burgh show several parcels of land which appear to have been acquired for non-statutory purposes. These include Biggar Public Park  (see photo to left) which was bought have after a three day public bazaar in 1907 and donated to the town, and the Burnbraes (see photo below) which was acquired on a 999 year lease from New College Edinburgh in 1938 for use as a pleasure ground. 

Janet Moxley in park with an our land sign

 At the very least SLC ought to be able to explain why these pieces of land are not Common Good. This might not seem important, but Common Good land cannot be sold without consent of the community who own it, and any income from the land or sales of it must go to the community. Large parts of Biggar Public Park are currently used as a caravan park, was well as there being a small cafe on the site. Income from these venues should be going into the Biggar Common Good Fund, but the lastest accounts available for the fund show no income of any kind, not even interest on the money in the fund.

Down the road in the Royal Burgh of Lanark a number of Common Good assets are registered, mainly because of the effort local campaigners have put into proving their existence to SLC; while in Hamilton research by land expert Andy Wightman and a community campaign eventually saw SLC conceeding that the area Strathclyde park developed as a retail park in the 1990s was Common Good Land.

At present registration of Common Good Land is haphazard, and seems to depend on communities having the determination and skill to plough through Register of Sasines information and the minutes of Burgh Council meetings held in the distant past. Those who aren't able to do this risk losing the land they already own into general council coffers. As part of the Land Reform process, a Commission should be set up to help communities in former Burghs research and register their Common Good Land.

Then there are the bits of land who nobody seems to own, at least while they need maintenance, but are suddenly owned when someone wants to buy them. Although there is a requirement to register land which is sold, there is still no requirement for a comprehensive register of all land ownership in Scotland. Tracking down land owners can be a time-consuming and costly business, if they can be found at all. 

And finally footpaths. Scotland differs from England in that there has never been a clear requirement for footpaths and rights of way to be registered. Council have to draw up core path plans, and are supposed to maintain footpaths where they have been registered, but increasingly lack the resources to do so.  The popular walk up Bizzyberry Hill on the edge of Biggar used a path which went across land which is currently being developed for new housing. Because the path which many people used daily never registered as a footpath the developers were not required to continue to provide this access once the new houses were built.

Even a small town like Biggar can show so many obvious examples of the need for land reform. Multiply these and other land related problems up across Scotland and it's obvious that Land Reform for urban as well as rural areas needs to be a priority in Scotland.