New guidance puts social, environmental and community benefits at heart of land development

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Guidance published this week by the Scottish Land Commission places well-being as a central consideration when assessing the business case for developing vacant or derelict land.

There are an estimated 11,000 hectares of such land nationally and much of it sits in areas with the greatest poverty and deprivation.

The Commission contends that using a different framework to assess the potential impact of bringing sites back into use that takes account of wider social, environmental and community benefits will be crucial to changing Scotland’s approach to land reuse.

The Commission also maintains that a similar approach should be extended to all decisions about land use, recognising the importance of land and its management to the health, wealth and overall well-being of the population.

Shona Glenn, Head of Policy and Research at the Scottish Land Commission, commented on the new guidance: “This is not all about private ownership and profit.

“Forty per cent of land on the vacant and derelict land register is owned by the public sector.

“In urban areas particularly, fixing dereliction could play a major role in addressing health inequalities and improving well-being.

“Bringing derelict urban sites back into use could help us provide new homes, space for growing food in towns and cities, green spaces for people to enjoy the outdoors and an opportunity to improve biodiversity in urban areas.

“Some sites may even have the potential to generate renewable energy.

“We think the time has come to update and develop the traditional approaches to assessing the benefits of reusing land to reflect the broader perspective on economic well-being and properly reflect the way our environment affects every aspect of our lives.”

Decisions about what to do with a vacant site, including if and when to dispose of it, are most often made on the basis of fairly narrow cost-benefit analysis.

Anticipated financial returns to the owner are usually the most important consideration and when these numbers don’t stack up, nothing happens.

Sites in areas with inherent problems are an even weaker prospect for generating reuse.

Low land values can mean that owners often wait in hope of a better future return and the sites become ‘stuck’.

A longer-term, more collaborative and broader approach to land reuse is required and this is actively encouraged through the Scottish Government’s Place Principle.

Louise Macdonnell, Chief Executive of Development Trusts Association (DTA) Scotland welcomed the guidance, commenting: “DTA Scotland strongly agrees that vacant, abandoned and derelict land has a detrimental impact on the well-being of the community that surrounds it.

“Community-powered regeneration activity can create massive benefits for society, helping to improve health and well-being in some of our most vulnerable communities.

“This new guidance will make it easier for the wider benefits of this activity to be understood by decision-makers.

“We look forward to working with the Commission and piloting the guidance when our new Vacant and Derelict Land Project Officer takes up post later this month.”

Global issues such as climate change and the current coronavirus pandemic are adding to the impetus to change the way Scotland approaches development.

The new guidance has been designed to sit alongside Scotland’s National Performance Framework, which aims to get all agencies and people in Scotland working together to create a more successful country.

Douglas Cowan, Director of Communities and Place at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, added: “We welcome this guidance and agree that a more holistic approach will help bring such sites back into productive use.

“There are also good examples in our region and across Scotland where communities are re-purposing redundant assets and creating green space from previously blighted areas.

“A different approach that looks beyond financial returns will help unlock stuck sites and deliver lasting added value through a wide range of social, environmental and community benefits.”

The Guidance gives examples of outcomes of land reuse that should be measured as part of this new approach.

The Commission, through its new framework and guidance, wants Scotland to ‘look beyond narrow financial returns and capture the wider benefits that the reuse of sites could generate for society.’