The Multiple Benefits of Community-Owned Business

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By Social Enterprise Scotland

The multiple benefits of community-owned business

Community owned social enterprises are at the beating heart of both urban and rural Scotland.

Food co-operatives, Development Trusts, community-owned energy, social housing and much more are being run by, of and for the community.

There are many examples in Scotland. There’s Dig In Bruntsfield, the community grocery shop in Edinburgh, the Kinning Park Complex in Glasgow building a vibrant community facility, the Sleat Community Trust in Skye, the Inverclyde Development Trust and many more.

While some community owned businesses and projects may have a low financial turnover, their social and economic impact, particularly in a small community, can be huge.

Alongside the broader localist agenda community ownership can have a significant impact on people’s lives. This isn’t just about locally run businesses it’s also about local currencies, community food growing, tool libraries and local environmental schemes.

We shouldn’t underestimate what this means over the longer-term. With Scotland’s ‘missing tier’ of local government these types of businesses and projects are helping revive both local economies and local democracy.

The Development Trust Association Scotland (DTAS) and their Community Ownership Support Service (COSS) is driving the community ownership agenda in Scotland.

COSS has supported 800 communities in exploring asset transfer so far. This is when a community group applies to take over ownership or management of a building, land or other asset from a public body.

Since Scotland’s Community Empowerment Act went live in 2017 over 250 community groups have approached COSS with asset transfer enquiries. The vast majority have been about requests to local authorities but with interest in Scottish forestry, NHS and Police Scotland assets too.

Scottish local authorities have been publicising assets that are linked to the closure of services - and community groups have stepped up to the challenge. Moray Council closing community centres and Highland Council closing public toilets are just two examples.

Other assets have included pontoons, slipways, former town halls and schools. These transfers often involve community anchor organisations such as Development Trusts who understand the local community and have the capacity to deliver. 

However, there are still barriers to community ownership. The Scottish Land Fund has been a powerful tool for acquisitions. However, accessing development funding has become increasingly challenging. Unless steps are taken this will stifle future growth. The Scottish Land Commission recently published a report seeking to address some of these issues.

The concentrated ownership of land is also still a major concern. Despite some relatively radical reforms since devolution Scotland has the most unequal land ownership in the western world.

According to The Scottish Government 57% of rural land is privatised, around 12.5% owned by public bodies, 3% under community ownership and about 2.5% is owned by charities and other third sector organisations.

When land and other assets are in a few private hands it places barriers on communities. Housing, regeneration and economic development are held back by sometimes absentee or uncaring landlords. Land held in offshore trusts also means that the potential for big tax income to fund our public services is being denied.

A recent report from England demonstrated concerns that public assets were being sold off to private schools and developers purely to cut costs. Locality, representing community groups in England, has been running a Save our Spaces campaign to highlight these sell offs, as a well as successes in community ownership.

Alternatively when land, buildings and businesses are community owned they regularly lead to innovation and a renaissance in economic activity. One community project often has a ripple effect and leads to other activities.

In Scotland communities are increasingly seeking to do things differently. There’s huge potential to forge a different path. With more community owned enterprises we can continue to revive both local economies and local democracy to benefit everyone.

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Special thanks to Development Trusts Association Scotland (DTAS) / Community Ownership Support Service (COSS) who contributed to this article.

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