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The Impact of Vacant and Derelict Land

Shona Glenn

Shona Glenn, Head of Policy and Research, shares her vision for tackling Scotland’s legacy of vacant and derelict land to reduce the negative impact that these sites are having on our urban populations:

It’s well known that life expectancy in Scotland is lower than elsewhere in the UK and that this cannot be explained by differences in socio-economic conditions alone. Even after adjusting for differences in poverty and deprivation (the main causes of poor health in any society) around 5,000 more people die in Scotland each year than should be the case.

A huge amount of research has been done over the years to explain this. In 2016 the findings from this research were brought together in a major report, which for the first time identified the major causes of Scotland’s “excess mortality.” One of the factors identified was an “adverse physical environment.”

The legacy of Scotland’s industrial past means that almost a third of the Scottish population currently lives within 500 meters of a derelict site. In deprived communities (which also have the worst health outcomes) that figure increases to 58%.

Fixing urban dereliction could play a major role in addressing health inequalities and improving wellbeing – but the benefits don’t stop there: in fact, tackling urban dereliction could help us solve some of society’s biggest challenges.

Think about it: bringing derelict urban sites back into use could help us provide new homes for people that need them (while limiting the need for out of town residential development.) They could provide space for growing food in towns and cities – helping us to cut food miles and tackle obesity. They could be used to create new urban green spaces, providing places for people to relax and enjoy the outdoors and an opportunity to improve biodiversity in urban areas.  Some sites may even have the potential to generate renewable energy.

The benefits of this are multiple and obvious – so why are we still arguing about whether we can afford to do it?

Part of the answer is about how we frame the question.

For too long Scotland’s legacy of vacant and derelict land has languished in the ‘too difficult’ pile. A problem that’s just too big, too nasty and too expensive to fix. If we want to change that then we need to change the narrative. We need to stop telling ourselves it can’t be done and recognise it for massive opportunity it is. 

There are signs that this is starting to happen – and the current public and political desire to address climate change have added impetus to this – but big ideas won’t be enough.

If we’re going to succeed in turning these ideas into reality then we need to create a policy environment that supports and encourages action. Part of this will require changes in how we value land and the costs and benefits of reuse.

Currently decisions about what to do with a site, including if and when to dispose of it, are usually made on the basis of fairly narrow cost benefit analysis. Anticipated financial returns to the landowner are usually the most important, and often the only, consideration and when these numbers don’t stack up, nothing happens.

And when the site in question has been vacant and/or derelict for some time, particularly if it’s located in a challenging market area or might require costly remediation, the numbers rarely do stack up. The result? A legacy of derelict sites some of which have been blighting communities for decades.

Making decisions based purely on financial returns makes sense for private landlords – you wouldn’t really expect a rational profit maximising firm to behave any other way – but it’s not just the private sector that behaves this way.

Although the public sector does sometimes take wider benefits into account this usually only happens when sites is part of a wider regeneration initiative. Where sites are part of a programme of disposals to fund core activity, financial considerations often trump all else.

If we’re going to succeed in addressing Scotland’s legacy of vacant and derelict land – and realising the benefits that come along with that – then we need to change this.

And we’re going to need new tools to help us do it. To help with this, the Land Commission has appointed a team led by BiGGAR Economics to help us develop a new approach for assessing – and where possible quantifying – the full benefits of bringing sites back into use and the full costs of allowing dereliction to persist.

Our aim is to develop an approach that will allow us to look beyond narrow financial returns and capture the wider benefits that the reuse of sites could generate for society. Over the next few months we’ll be working closely with stakeholders to develop and refine this approach – so if you’d like to be part of this process, please get in touch.