Changing Minds, Changine Lives
In Scotland, localism has taken a different form. In recent years a vision of community ownership of land has developed, not only to address historical grievances, but to remove landlord obstructionism as an obstacle to rural development, and to underpin a collectivist, asset-based community development model.
In essence, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave communities a first option to purchase feudal estates of which they were a part (The ‘Community Right To Buy’). Beyond this, crofting communities were given the power to exercise a pre-emptive, or hostile, right-to-buy the landlord’s interest in land under crofting tenure, where a majority of both crofters and the broader community are in favour and where this promotes sustainable rural development (The ‘Crofting Community Right To Buy’). A Community Land Unit was established by the regional development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to assist communities in drawing up their plans and in the purchase and management of land; and a Scottish Land Fund (initially of £10m, later increased to £15m) was set up with UK Lottery Money to assist rural communities to acquire and develop land and buildings. A further £6m was announced in February 2012. Communities typically establish a democratic and locally-controlled body (usually a company limited by guarantee) to acquire the land, draw up a business plan, and raise funding from gifts and loans to buy the land. Hunter offers a full, up to date analysis of the process, with detailed interviews with those involved.
Mackenzie sees this community-centred land reform not only as a movement towards collective ownership with strong historical resonances, but also as the removal of land from circuits of global capital, in turn permitting a re-visioning of the political possibilities of place and a commitment to social justice and sustainability. While the move towards collective ownership is borne out of historical claims to the land, rights are now defined in terms of the community of place, opening up rights to those who previously had none and so is inclusionary. Moreover, she argues, people are ‘written into the land’ through the exercise of collective rights. The interests of sporting landowners or non-local conservationists are challenged through the performance of community stewardship. Community wind-farms also reproduce nature as a worked landscape and, while they use the market to generate income, this is ‘mediated through a local and collective rather than global and corporate or private ethic’, such that the wind’s commodification becomes part and parcel of the community’s rights to the land and of their resistance. This is a very radical model of place-shaping.
This experience of community-based land reform illustrates many of the themes developed above. Central government and its agencies act to build the generative power of communities to imagine and realise their own futures. According to Bryden and Geisler, the state’s Community Land Unit and Scottish Land Fund have been ‘vital tools for community empowerment and enterprise in fragile rural areas of Scotland’. Even in the context of severe financial constraint, in 2012, Scottish Ministers announced a further £6m for the Scottish Land Fund, in partnership with the Lottery Fund and HIE. More than half the land area of the Western Isles is now in community ownership, with the majority of those islands’ residents having come together in their communities to debate the merits of community ownership, and then to develop strategic plans for the development of their communities – including, of course, how to pay back the loans. This has given people a new confidence in their abilities and potential, while at the same time requiring them to take responsibility for the future of their communities – with crucial help from a mostly supportive governance framework, even if many of the ‘managerial technologies’ of the central state, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, still work in opposition to local efforts. This experiment exemplifies the empowerment of communities of place, through the state becoming a catalyst for local action, mobilising less powerful actors and becoming an agent for change.
Despite this, not all branches of the state always act supportively. For example, the government’s environmental agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, objected to a proposal from the North Harris Trust for a small wind-farm which was supported by all the other statutory bodies, leading to much criticism of Scottish Natural Heritage as lacking local legitimacy, very much as portrayed by Mackenzie. Furthermore, sector-specific policies (such as the Common Agricultural Policy) continue to work against local development strategies. For example, decoupling of agricultural support together with poorly-targeted agri-environmental payments have eroded the incentive to farm these areas actively, such that livestock numbers in the crofting areas fell by a third between 2000-07 and were predicted to halve by 2010, with consequent damage to internationally important habitats as well as to incomes and identity. Similarly, economic development support has been focused toward larger businesses in more populated areas at the expense of micro-businesses in more fragile areas. Nevertheless, despite these deficiencies, these examples of the state actively empowering and supporting communities do illustrate the efficacy of networked rural development and the potential of this approach.
Of course, very few communities are interested or willing to take land into collective ownership as a platform for asset-based rural development, particularly in England and Ireland where strong taboos surround such notions. Even where there is interest, many communities lack the social capital, the networks and the capacity to mobilise collectively, and this raises important questions of how to build these capacities. In many places, too, divisions within communities make it unlikely that they could take advantage of the community right-to-buy, at least in the short term.
2.5 A Question of values?
One of the ways in which power is exercised is through framing debates and ways of thinking. One example is the way in which we construct our ideas of ‘countryside’ in different ways in different countries – with the British idea of countryside rather unusual in the European context.
Increasingly over the last few decades, there has been a tendency to see things primarily as commodities, and in terms of monetary values. Thus debates about the environment now tend to be couched in terms of ‘eco-system services’, which must be valued in monetary terms and for which payment must be made. Support for social and community activities is couched in terms of business models of financial returns, self-financing and financial sustainability: increasingly, it is suggested that such voluntary activities are only worthy of support if they can survive without subsidy, on a sound business footing. More generally, there is an assumption that markets
will provide solutions and that the only rationale for state action and intervention is market failure: in other words, there is an implicit acceptance of the superiority of markets over social values.
As Michael Sandel has argued in his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: ‘we live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society in which moral debate is replaced by the law of the market, and all value judgements are replaced by the question ‘how much?’.
Could the current financial crisis and the ensuing re-examination of some of the deep-rooted values and principles that underpin our institutions and government also offer opportunities for the emergence of new alternative forms of rural development, rooted in local cultures, values and movements – what Peck et al have called the ‘progressively variegated economy’?
Might place-based rural communities in the UK and Ireland lead the search for alternative values and alternative economic and social models?
In a recent article, Peck et al have argued that while the banking crisis has certainly brought the dominant ‘neoliberal’ approach to markets under fire neoliberal policies are deeply politically and institutionally rooted and may continue to survive in what they call its ‘zombie phase’. While such a climate would be constraining, as we have seen above, new models of economic development can still emerge and community-based land reform in Scotland already offers one prime example of this.
This brief discussion raises a fundamental question for the future of rural development. How far should rural development policy and practice conform to the dominant discourses of neoliberalism (such as competition, market failure, eco-system services)? And to what extent should it seek to develop alternative, radical new possibilities, asserting alternative values and ethical principles? Who is driving rural development? Either way, there are big challenges ahead in how to pursue rural development into the future.
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