The Scottish Land Fund (SLF) has been one of the most successful pieces of flagship legislation of the early years of the Scottish Parliament. Between 2001 and 2006, the land fund distributed £13.9million to 188 rural communities enabling them to take control of local assets ranging from Highland estates of thousands of acres to village halls.
It was established to emulate the success of early community buy-outs, such as the Assynt crofters and the Knoydart Foundation which had accessed funds from trusts, the Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Community ownership brought a new lease of life to areas which had been neglected by absentee landlords.
In combination with the Land Reform Act, passed amid controversy which included accusations of facilitating a Robert Mugabe-style landgrab, the land fund enabled other communities suffering from decades of decline and depopulation to buy their land and encourage new businesses. As a result many small and declining communities have seen an influx of new families and a growing primary school roll.
The SLF was established with £10m from the Big Lottery Fund in 2001 and its success led to an additional £5m in 2003. However, the land fund was closed in 2006 and replaced by Growing Community Assets, designed to build on the experience gained from running the land fund and to make the benefits available across Scotland, in urban as well as rural areas. It has also extended funding to enable people to acquire skills as well as buy land and buildings. The £23m awarded so far to communities across the country include far-flung rural outposts such as the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay, which has restored a lighthouse and woollen mill and doubled the number of visitors. One of the most expensive urban projects involves £1m to restore the derelict Maryhill Burgh Halls in Glasgow.
With only around £15m of its £50m budget unallocated, but a pile of applications amounting to many times that sum, the programme is due to end next June.
No announcement over whether it will be extended or replaced is expected until next year. In the meantime, some communities will lose a focus for regeneration because a private buyer steps in before they can raise the money. They include a number of Highland and island communities who are seeking to buy large parcels of land and that has prompted a call from the shadow rural affairs minister, Sarah Boyack, and Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Peter Peacock, for the land fund to be reinstated. There is no doubt that would be welcome in areas of sparse population, but Growing Community Assets has also proved to be the catalyst which is turning dying communities into thriving ones.
The Big Lottery is evaluating the lessons from both land fund and Growing Community Assets. No doubt there are improvements to be made in some areas, but the real lesson from both schemes is that enabling communities to acquire their own assets is a winning recipe in both urban and rural areas. The funding should be extended next year across the whole of the country.