Power to force people to sell unused buildings is long overdue – David Adams

Communities suffer when buildings are left boarded up and unused (Picture: John Devlin)
Communities suffer when buildings are left boarded up and unused (Picture: John Devlin)
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The Government’s recent commitment to bring forward proposals giving councils a new legal power of compulsory sales orders (CSOs) to tackle the blight of abandoned buildings and parcels of vacant and derelict land in communities across Scotland is to be welcomed, writes Professor David Adams.

For far too long Scotland has failed to tackle this problem. The Scottish Land Commission is working to transform vacant and derelict land and CSOs form part of this work by tackling abandoned buildings and small vacant and derelict sites in our towns and countryside.

Such sites often act as magnets for crime and anti-social behaviour.

This damages quality of life for existing residents and can deter inward investment, making it more difficult to bring about long-term regeneration and renewal.

So why is the new power needed?

In part, because the problem has remained stubborn; the amount of vacant and derelict land and buildings has remained virtually unchanged for 30 years.

And because CSOs can particularly help where a parcel of land is causing harm to a community, but there is no specific plan in place for bringing the land or building in question back in to productive use.

The new CSO power will be part of a toolbox of legal powers available to local authorities to use on a discretionary, case-by-case basis.

While communities and councils already have a number of policy instruments they can use to stimulate regeneration, these usually require a clear plan in place as to how the land or building in question will be used.

READ MORE: New powers will allow councils to order sale of Scotland’s derelict sites

In many cases, public authorities and communities have no specific plan; they simply wish to see the land or building brought back into productive use. Keeping land or buildings vacant, when someone else could put them to beneficial use, is patently not in the public interest.

CSOs could also help to address unrealistic owner expectations of what land might be worth. For example, in areas where property transactions are few and far between, owners may sit on the property in the hope that it will increase in value. The CSO proposal overcomes this by using an auction to reveal the true market value of a site.

Contrary to popular perception, urban vacancy and dereliction in Scotland is now primarily a matter of private – not public – land ownership. Bringing vacant land back into productive use can be of direct benefit to communities across Scotland.

Councils and landowners should be working together, to try to find solutions first, with the proposed CSO power a last resort. While it is not a magic bullet, it will be an important new tool in the regeneration toolbox.

The Land Commission has published an outline proposal of how CSOs could work in practice and the potential it has to make a significant difference, particularly in Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities, who are the worst affected by the problem.

READ MORE: In pictures: 10 abandoned homes of Scotland’s super-rich

Professor David Adams, Land Commissioner at the Scottish Land Commission, holds the Ian Mactaggart Chair of Property and Urban Studies at Glasgow University. He has researched and published widely on urban land problems and is particularly interested in resolving ownership constraints to urban development and tackling land vacancy and dereliction. He was previously an adviser to the Land Reform Review Group, working especially on the analysis of housing and urban land markets. He is professionally qualified as Fellow of both the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.