DECADES of declining population in some of Scotland’s most fragile rural areas is being reversed by community land ownership, MSPs have heard.

Key findings of a survey by Community Land Scotland (CLS) were presented by its policy director Dr Calum MacLeod at Holyrood

and the picture they painted was said to be more encouraging than the bleak population projections for many rural parts.

Almost a third of survey respondents (31%) reported a rise in their resident populations in the last 10 years and around a quarter said their communities’ resident working-age population had risen in that time.

Similarly, around a third of respondents said there are more young people under 16 years of age living in their communities than there were a decade ago.

“This is good news for Scotland’s rural areas and shows the vital role that community land ownership is playing in helping to safeguard the futures of some of our most fragile rural communities,” said MacLeod.

In the survey, 41% of respondents said they had been involved in housing development on land they own, with 75% saying they intended to develop housing provision in the future. The majority who took part have undertaken a range of other initiatives in addition to housing, many of which are focused stimulating local business development and investing in infrastructure and services for community benefit.

Western Isles MSP Dr Alasdair Allan, who hosted the Holyrood event, said: “It is widely reported that areas like the Western Isles have starkly negative population projections for the coming decades.

“However, we also have an incredibly positive story to tell when it comes to community land ownership and the potential for communities to take an active role in arresting these trends.

“While a lot of focus – rightfully – tends to be on creating job opportunities in rural communities, ensuring that there is a sufficient supply of good quality and affordable homes is equally important.

“Many community landowners in my constituency have done really impressive work on this front.”

The report also found that rural members of CLS faced several challenges in pursuing housing developments in their communities.

These included construction costs, funding to support community-led development, availability of land and related physical infrastructure, and the availability of house builders to undertake building work.

One of the biggest challenges for rural community landowners is access to funding to develop housing – whether for rent, social housing or to assist self-build projects, as well as funding for other development initiatives.

MacLeod said: “Our members consistently called for better access to funding for self-build housing, particularly for the self-employed.

“Delivering affordable housing provision remains a priority for many CLS members who are existing landowners and for our members who aspire to take ownership of land.”

Housing Minister Kevin Stewart said: “Access to good quality, affordable housing is essential to sustain and strengthen Scotland’s remote and rural communities.”

He added: “That’s why we’re investing a record £3.5 billion to deliver 50,000 affordable homes across Scotland by the end of this parliament.

“I’m proud that over the first three years of our target period, 3171 homes have been delivered in rural areas through the main Affordable Housing Supply Programme. And we’re also increasing supply through our Rural and Islands Housing Funds.”

CASE STUDY 1: New kid on the block is now looking to the future

ULVA only came into community ownership two years ago through the North West Mull Community Woodland Company (NWMCWC). It is already attracting attention for its aspirations to repopulate the island from its current half a dozen residents to 50 within a decade.

This involves making housing available – through a mix of renovating existing stock and new builds –as well as initiatives to restart agriculture on the island, encourage new tourism-based businesses to grow, develop new visitor attractions and support the fishing community through infrastructure improvements. 

Wendy Reid, the NWMCWC’s development manager, has worked with community groups for many years and has witnessed what they can do to regenerate their own areas, including job creation, supporting businesses, developing housing and attracting more visitors. 

“Communities have taken matters into their own hands and worked incredibly hard to turn their local area around,” she said.

“Ulva is a great example of bringing all that learning together 
in a very remote and fragile community but one which has huge potential for future communities to learn from.

“Only a community group comprised of individuals from that community can have the drive, skills, access to resources and self-interest to deliver all of this. 

“All the hard work is done for the benefit for all the individuals – current and future – of the community. 

“This is one of the most exciting things about working on a community-owned island like Ulva – we are helping our current neighbours but also planning for how our community can grow and thrive well into the future.”

CASE STUDY 2: Resourceful islanders up for the challenge

THE Isle of Eigg is a prime example of a community turning geographic and resource challenges into advantages.

It is a fragile settlement which is often cut off by bad weather.
However, it is also a very vibrant and resourceful community which attracts attention from all over the world.

Its population has increased from 65 to 110 since the community buyout in 1997 and an increasing number of young, working-age people are making their home on the island.

The heart of Eigg’s continuing success and sustainability is its off-grid electricity system, which was developed, installed and is managed by the islanders themselves.

Holding down two or three jobs is the norm for many on the island, and its hub, An Laimhrig (The Slope), is undergoing a multimillion-pound redevelopment to serve its growing community for the next 20 years.

“Eigg seems to have a vibe all of its own, the community is focussed and resourceful and good at coming up with solutions to problems,” said Lucy Conway, director of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, pictured.

“The development of our off-grid renewable energy system is a great example of the island coming together to work out the solution to diesel generators, loss of supply and a fragility to create a system that uses our natural resources of water, wind and sun.

“People from all over the world come to see what we have achieved and learn lessons from our approach.”

Conway added: “Having a secure and sustainable energy supply is absolutely critical to our island continuing to grow and thrive. 

“Being in control of the island assets and having the community 
in control of that enables us to deliver this.”