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Land & Communities – Community land ownership and health

Dr Bobby Macaulay

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There are strong connections between land reform and broader health and wellbeing. Land use decisions are being recognised for their significant impacts on health outcomes and health inequalities. In previous blogs in this 'Land &' series, it has been suggested that the ownership of land may also play a role, with community land ownership proposed as a potential means through which health and wellbeing can be improved. In this blog, Dr Bobby Macaulay outlines the practical means through which community land ownership can improve health in Scotland.

Of all the effects of community land ownership, health impacts may not be the most obvious. But while impacts upon health outcomes may take time to manifest and are difficult to evidence, that does not mean they do not exist. As I explore below, community land owners can improve health through the land-use decisions they make, and how they make them, in both rural and urban settings.

Democratic community governance

Large-scale and concentrated land ownership confers income, power and wealth on a small number of land owners, at the expense of local residents and other stakeholders. Such disparities are responsible for exacerbating health inequalities; the unfair and avoidable differences in health outcomes.

Through democratising decisions on both the use of land and the financial returns deriving from it, community ownership reduces inequalities in income, power and wealth, consequently addressing health inequalities and improving health outcomes. Furthermore, a strengthened connection between people and land following a buy-out can have implications for mental health, conferring confidence and pride on residents and stakeholders.

This form of local democracy is not without its challenges, with stress and fatigue being exacerbated by local conflict and division – consequently presenting potentially negative health implications. My own research found that this was especially marked for those involved in estate management and governance, such as elected directors. Thus, the success of community land owners in improving health will depend upon effective democratic governance, engaging members through participatory mechanisms and effective communication, to mitigate any such tensions.

Locally-accountable land use decisions

As communities seek to take on land, financial support (such as that offered by the Scottish Land Fund) is dependent upon the development of a detailed business plan ensuring that the asset will benefit, and is accountable to, the community. This imbues great potential in the newly-acquired land asset from day one, as the viability and potential impacts of planned developments have already been assessed, and supported locally. This is not the case with other types of land owner, suggesting that community ownership may be considered less risky than the alternatives in meeting a range of local and broader objectives.

In urban areas, proximity to vacant and derelict land is associated with detrimental health effects. A community landowner’s mandate to improve conditions for local residents encourages the acquisition of, and investment in, such sites, developing health-producing landscapes and restricting potentially harmful land uses. Further, community ownership can help revitalise town centres and contribute to a vibrant local economy, stimulating economic growth while improving the self-perception of residents and communities – a win-win opportunity for communities to improve the lives of their residents.

In rural areas, democratising land use decisions can create opportunities for investing in the provision and availability of employment and housing, both of which can have significant health implications. Through advocacy, co-production or direct delivery (not least in response to the coronavirus pandemic), community land owners can represent residents’ needs regarding the provision of local services and amenities. In many cases, these interventions are seen as a means to attract and retain population, especially to rural and island communities. Within the South Uist Estate, where much of my research was based, there were indications that these efforts were achieving success, with a consequent population revival claimed to be bucking the trend of rural depopulation. Such cultural and demographic continuity is considered to impact upon young and old alike, developing a feeling of local vibrancy and sustainability, and consequently improving mental health.

In short, community land owners can have a real impact upon the Social Determinants of Health – the conditions affecting our lives which influence health outcomes. Community land ownership is not a precondition of such impacts, which can – theoretically – be achieved by any land owner, community-based organisation, local authority or other actor (should they wish to do so). However, through the combination of the democratic governance of a significant income-generating asset and the legal compulsion to act in the interests (current and future) of local residents, community land owners combine the ability and willingness to do so in ways which other actors may not.

This conclusion presents further questions for policy and practice. Can community land ownership be justified as a public health imperative, especially considering the human rights-basis for the pursuit of each? Should community land owners be involved in decisions around public health planning, and should such engagement and activities be financially compensated? If management and governance affect the nature of health impacts, how can we ensure that high standards are maintained in this regard, and what would that look like?

While presenting compelling possibilities, little can be concluded regarding these questions without further robust research into the intricacies of the field. Thus, while there is emerging evidence suggesting that community land ownership can improve health, there is a need to strengthen this case. Only then can the health implications of community land ownership fully contribute to the increasing evidence base for the ongoing development of this facet of land reform.


Dr Bobby Macaulay is a Research Associate at the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College UHI and a Committee Member of the Scottish Land Fund.