Coming soon: The introduction of compulsory sale orders

Last year’s SNP manifesto promised to “bring forward proposals to modernise and improve powers for compulsory sales orders.”

land

It added “These powers need to be effective to tackle the blight of abandoned buildings and small plots of land in town centres and communities but also adequately protect the rights of owners.”

This manifesto commitment was reiterated by Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform at the Community Land Scotland conference in September 2016 and work is now underway within the Scottish Government to prepare for the necessary legislation.

Compulsory Sale Orders (CSOs) were initially proposed by the Land Reform Review Group in its lengthy report to the Scottish Government in 2014. They were intended to help target Scotland’s longstanding legacy of vacant and derelict land, which now totals over 12,600 hectares.

Almost a third of this land has been in exactly the same condition since before 1991 and over half since before 2001. It is concentrated in the deindustrialised parts of Scotland, particularly in the central belt, with deprived communities most severely affected.

Yet, contrary to public perception, a quarter of Scotland’s stock of vacant and derelict land is considered capable of development within five years and another quarter within five to ten years. That’s enough land for almost 220,000 new homes, if it were all devoted to housing, for example.

But too often, redevelopment of such land is held back by ownership constraints, including unrealistic perceptions of value and unwillingness to sell. These constraints can apply across all ownership types, but again contrary to public perception, over two-thirds of all vacant and derelict land in Scotland is owned privately and not in public-sector hands.

CSO’s would give local authorities the power to insist that land which had been vacant or derelict for at least three years is sold by public auction to the highest bidder. This would be a discretionary power councils could use to ensure sites transfer from passive to active ownership – a step research has shown to be vital to their redevelopment or re-use.

Local authorities would need to issue a planning statement to clarify what might and might not be allowed in future. Robust procedures would also be required to ensure the auction was fairly conducted and that speculative purchases by those intending to continue to keep land vacant or derelict were strongly discouraged.

Once CSO’s are introduced, they are likely to have an important psychological impact, improving the operation of urban land markets. They will discourage anyone hoarding brownfield land indefinitely, and will encourage a greater willingness to negotiate sales in the private market.

With over 27,000 long-term empty homes in Scotland owned by the private sector, a coalition of interests including Community Land Scotland, Rural Housing Scotland, Scotland’s Towns Partnership, Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and Shelter Scotland are pressing for CSO legislation to apply as much to empty buildings as vacant and derelict land.

The impact of CSOs is likely to be as a reserve power used by local authorities as a last resort – simply having them on the statute book will make owners realise that they cannot hold on to vacant or derelict land unduly without having serious plans to make beneficial use of it or to sell out to someone else who can.

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