Compulsory Sales Orders: threat or opportunity for vacant or derelict land?

Commercial property specialist Ann Stewart assesses the Scottish Government's proposal to introduce Compulsory Sales Orders for vacant land and derelict buildings deemed to be having a detrimental effect on local communities.  

18 March 2019

Many communities in Scotland are all too aware of the problems associated with living next to land or buildings that are lying vacant or derelict, particularly in urban areas where neglected places are often a magnet for anti-social or criminal behaviour, becoming dumping grounds for rubbish, attracting vermin and generally posing a threat to the safety or health of those living or working in the vicinity.

The Scottish Government has concerns about the blight abandoned buildings and small plots of vacant land in town centres can inflict on local communities, and has been exploring ways to address the problem. One solution already available is the Community Right to Buy, which provides a route for communities to buy abandoned, neglected or detrimental land, even if the owner is unwilling to sell (see our article on this right to buy here).

However, while local communities may genuinely want to tackle derelict land issues by way of purchase, they may not have the resources required at their disposal to deliver the necessary improvements.  

Hoping to bridge this gap are proposals to permit local authorities to require the compulsory sale of land or buildings that have been derelict or vacant for some time, and that are having a detrimental impact on the local community. Exactly how the compulsory sale powers would operate is still being explored by the Scottish Land Commission, on behalf of the government, but the planning minister, Kevin Stewart, has given a government commitment to introduce these powers during the current Parliament.

Current thinking from the Land Commission proposes that local authorities would have the power to issue a compulsory purchase order on an owner of land or buildings that are vacant or derelict and causing harm, enabling the property to be sold at auction. It would be a requirement on the buyer of the land that improvement or development of the land must take place – the point is not to maintain the status quo, but to bring such land and buildings back into productive use. The powers would include the right for the local authority to buy the site back from the new owner if they failed to develop or improve the land within a set period of time.

These powers would be available to use as a last resort, the hope being that the threat of compulsory sale would persuade the owner to engage in a constructive dialogue that would lead to improvement, without the need to follow through to actual sale. Much of this is predicated on the notion that the main reason why some sites or buildings remain vacant is that the owner has unrealistic expectations about the value of the site, is unwilling to go to market as a result, and is "land-banking" the property until market conditions are more favourable. A sale under these powers is therefore designed to convert this "passive" ownership into active possession, which would result in development or upgrading of the property.   

Whether that perception is accurate or not is a moot point: there is no doubt that there are instances where owners of neglected property simply have no interest in making any effort to improve its condition, or even actively participate in the misuse of the land, such as using it to dump rusty old appliances and scrap metal. There is equally no doubt however, that many landowners, far from passively ignoring their property, are instead frustrated by their inability to develop a land holding due to an absence of adequate funding, or insurmountable difficulties or delays in obtaining the necessary planning consents.

It is also true to say that some pockets of vacant land simply have no development potential, and unless the local community, a philanthropic individual or even the local authority itself, is prepared to spend some money and effort in tidying them up, they will languish in their current condition. Some derelict buildings are simply too dilapidated to be economically viable to restore. 

The costs of bringing land back into productive use may also be prohibitive, due perhaps to contamination. It seems unlikely that local authorities will have the funds or resource to acquire such properties themselves, so the suggestion that they could re-acquire a property sold at auction to a new owner, or acquire it themselves using compulsory purchase powers, under which there needs to be a plan for how the land is to be used, may be wishful thinking.  

Yet the issue of vacant and derelict land and buildings needs to be addressed. 

Statistics show that in the year to March 2018 there were more than 37,000 empty homes in Scotland, and a corresponding 35,000 homelessness applications in the same period; it is an understandable reaction to the compelling juxtaposition of these statistics that there ought to be a solution within grasp, but the reality is of course more complex. 

The most recent Scottish Vacant and Derelict Land Survey (2017) discloses that there are around 11,600 hectares of vacant or derelict land in Scotland, although much of this consists of derelict mineral sites or land pockets in rural areas – the figure for vacant or derelict urban sites is much lower. 

The Survey deals with larger areas of land, and so many of the small urban sites, which these proposals are intended to deal with, are not included in this Survey. Indeed, there is no centralised register of land or buildings that may be subject to these proposals, but the numbers are clearly significant enough to merit attention. 

The rights of owners clearly need to be fully considered in whatever proposals are introduced by the government. The right to peaceful possession of property is an enshrined human right, although it is not, it seems, an absolute one, and must also be weighed against public interest considerations and the entitlement of persons to fundamental rights like food, housing and an adequate standard of living. 

The blight to some communities caused by land and buildings that are vacant or derelict can constitute serious interference with these rights, but any compulsory sale powers must provide the owner with a right to tell their side of the story. 

While the arguments for depriving an irresponsible and negligent owner of land they are abusing are persuasive, it is by no means clear that there is an avid market for such land or buildings, or that the problem can be alleviated by the imposition of such a power. As with so many social concerns of this type, the private sector alone cannot, and probably has little appetite to, deliver the solution, and public investment would be required to make any discernible difference. Without that, such proposals do no more than tinker around the edges of the problem.  

Given the constraints on the public purse already, it is unlikely that meaningful change is possible through these measures alone, or at all. What is needed is a concerted and comprehensive programme involving government, communities and the owners, collaborating to address the real underlying reasons for these blighted properties and the distress they cause.

The Scottish Land Commission paper can be found here.