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David joined the Scottish Land Commission in April 2019 and his remit includes work on land assembly, placemaking, land value capture and affordable rural housing. He joined the commission from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations where he led on the delivery of new build affordable housing, planning reform, energy efficiency and regeneration. He has been involved in the delivery of new build affordable housing and housing led regeneration in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He was previously on the board of PAS, the planning and place charity, and a community based housing association in Greenock.
Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I’ve always worked in housing and placemaking. I strongly believe that a quality affordable home is the basis for so much in life – after my mum and dad divorced, my mum moved to a tenement flat that was then refurbished by a housing association in Greenock. Having that warm affordable home makes such a difference to someone’s life chances. In my early 20’s I completed a post graduate diploma in housing at Heriot Watt and since then I’ve always worked in housing – first developing affordable homes for housing associations in Glasgow and Edinburgh, then working on regenerating the Craigmillar estate in Edinburgh.
Could you explain a bit about the work you do for the Scottish Land Commission?
It’s looking at the role of land in delivering housing and new places. At the moment we aren’t building enough new homes and housing is unaffordable for many. Land reform can play a role in delivering more homes and better places by helping to reform the housing land market so that it functions more in the public interest. Our work applies to both rural and urban Scotland.
What are the main issues with land in Scotland that prevent the development of housing and other infrastructure that rural communities need to thrive?
A big issue in rural Scotland is market failure. The large private house builders who build most of the new homes in Scotland don’t build in much of rural Scotland as they can’t make the profits that they require to pay dividends to shareholders and cover the risk of bringing sites forward. Since the 2007 crash, many of the smaller local firms who had developed housing for sale in rural areas have gone out of business. This means that most new housing to be built in rural Scotland must be supplied by local authorities, housing associations or communities. Developing housing is time consuming and complex, so it’s a major challenge for local communities (but one that many have responded to).
How has land reform changed the outlook for housing development in rural Scotland?
Community ownership and community buyouts have had a huge impact. In places like the Isle of Eigg where there have been community buyouts, this has led to new affordable homes and a growth in population. In North Harris, community ownership has enabled the development of quality affordable housing, the provision of business space and the creation of jobs. This model can also play an important role in urban areas where there is market failure such as in town centres, building on the success of community led housing in rural Scotland – it is great to see the work being undertaken in Midsteeple in Dumfries, hopefully it’s something that we can learn from and replicate across Scotland’s towns.
How has your background in housing shaped the perspective with which you view land issues?
I think that I have an awareness of the role of land in creating homes and places that people want to live. When I worked for housing associations early on in my career, buying land was always a challenge. In Craigmillar I saw the benefit that the public sector and community having more control of the land and a greater say in the type of development and the quality of place that is created can have. I firmly believe that we need to make this type of public sector led development the standard rather than the exception if we are to deliver the homes and places Scotland needs, and this applies to both rural and urban Scotland.
What more can the government do to ensure that land can be made available to rural communities to facilitate housing developments?
The work of the Scottish Land Commission has found that to deliver affordable homes and better places, the public sector needs to take more of a role in land and development, reducing risk for developers and shaping the quality of new communities. Where this happens we create better places and can deliver more homes – the Commonwealth Games Village in Glasgow and West Granton in Edinburgh demonstrate this.
The same principles can apply in rural Scotland – if support is provided to communities to help bring forward land for development and reduce risk, then more affordable homes would be delivered to sustain communities and repopulate rural Scotland. At the moment, as I said above, it is often left to communities to manage this risk and complexity. While there have been some great developments, and the support of the Rural Housing Fund and the Scottish Land Fund has really helped, I think we need to do more to provide expertise to support communities.
In communities where landowners want to play a role in the development of their community, how can we ensure they are well supported to deliver necessary housing?
Enabling bodies do a great job in supporting communities and landowners to help deliver affordable housing. Rural Housing Scotland, the Communities Housing Trust and South of Scotland Housing Trust can all provide expertise and advice on assessing housing need, accessing funding and developing plans. There may also be a local housing association who can help to deliver the housing, reducing risk for the landowner and the community. I’d suggest getting in touch with one of the 3 enabling bodies, who have a great track record in supporting rural landowners and communities, and taking it from there.