Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee
Meeting date: Tuesday, January 17, 2023
Official Report 610KB pdf
Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Allotments, Budget Scrutiny 2023-24
Our second item is the consideration of evidence from the Minister for Environment and Land Reform on our post-legislative scrutiny of part 9 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. Last year, we undertook an inquiry and published a report on part 9 of the 2015 act. The Scottish Government has responded to that report, and this is our chance to explore that response.
We are joined by Màiri McAllan, Minister for Environment and Land Reform, who is accompanied in person today by James Hamilton, the branch head of food and drink trade in the Scottish Government legal directorate, and Tracy McCollin, the head of the good food nation team at the Scottish Government. We are joined online by Simon Bonsall, who is the senior planner from planning, architecture and regeneration division at the Scottish Government. I warmly welcome our witnesses to the meeting and invite the minister to make a short opening statement.
Thank you for inviting my colleagues and me today. Thanks also for your time spent looking at this important matter. I very much welcome the work that the committee has done and the recommendations that you have produced. I take them all on board.
I say that because local growing is very important to the Scottish Government. Part 9 of the 2015 act demonstrates the importance that we place on allotments as part of the wider picture of community growing. I mention the wider picture because I am glad that your investigation looked at the non-statutory growing environment, as well as allotments. I am absolutely committed to and convinced of the multiple benefits of community growing, and you set out a number of those benefits in your report. They include benefits for physical and mental health, social cohesion and biodiversity, as well as reduction of our carbon footprint and tackling loneliness and isolation. Among the benefits, you also included ageing well or healthily, which is really important. I believe in those co-benefits, and I believe that everyone in Scotland should be able to access them. A lot of the work that we are doing here will help us to progress that.
We have recently been living through a period of disruption. In many ways, that has served only to make the co-benefits much more important. We know that people turned to their natural environment as they took solace during some of the darkest days of the pandemic. When we were able to unlock, people sought cohesion and coming together after lockdown. Of course, the disruption has created a period of difficulty for governance, implementation and delivery, both locally and nationally. When part 9 was considered and passed, none of us could have foreseen the events that would follow.
Finally, I will make two points about delivery. First, the Scottish Government clearly has responsibilities under part 9 of the 2015 act. Those have been fulfilled by the letter of the legislation. The vast majority of the responsibilities lie with local authorities, which are best placed to make decisions based on their local demography, geography and resource. I want the Scottish Government to be a helpful broker of progress on that, but I do not want to impinge on local decision making. The second point about delivery is a practical one. I flag the point that we cannot escape the very difficult financial restrictions that local and national Government face just now, but I hope that, despite that, with the good work of the committee, which I want to take away and take on board, we can make progress in the months and years to come.
Having been involved in community growing for many years, both in Scotland and in New York city, I am sure that where there’s a will, there’s a way and that, if the opportunities are made clearer for people, through Government and local authority leadership, we will find the opportunity for the co-benefits that you have outlined.
Is there adequate data available to say whether the legislation has been a success? If so, what impact has part 9 of the act had over its five years of implementation? You have identified the co-benefits and things such as that, but I would like to hear a bit more from you.
There is no doubt that there is a substantial number of individual examples of the 2015 act having a positive impact, and not just through what the act has allowed local authorities to do and local communities to benefit from. We need to accept that there is a signalling effect by a Government creating primary legislation that makes those obligations, rights and responsibilities clear.
However, some years down the line, we cannot be blind to the fact that there are some ways in which things do not appear to have worked as we had expected. Waiting lists are long and growing; as you have identified, the availability of land remains a problem; and I know that the committee sees that the disparity of experience remains a problem. On the latter point, that could be so, but, equally, I am mindful of the need to recognise the different experiences in local authorities across the country. We all come from different parts of the country, and we will see different need. We need to remember that local authorities are dealing with different situations.
Your first point was about data gathering. The act does not place duties on the Scottish Government to collect or benchmark data. I am open to the idea that that could be explored. You suggested that the annual allotment reports might be a suitable place from which to do that, and I will consider whether that is doable and what the benefits would be to local authorities and the Scottish Government.
Thank you. It is really helpful that you are open to considering some form of data collection and benchmarking.
Moving on to local authorities and provisioning, there is clearly a huge unmet demand for allotments across local authorities. What can the Scottish Government do if councils fail to meet their statutory duties for provision, waiting lists and food-growing strategies? Why are some councils fulfilling those duties and others are not? Is more adequate resourcing required to support local authorities to do so?
I will take the final point first. Local authorities face different situations. Something as basic as the fact that a local authority has a geography that allows more people to have their own gardens will make a difference compared with an urban local authority that deals with fewer instances of that. They certainly deal with different local circumstances and different demand, and they need to make resource decisions about that and about where to place funding as part of the block grant.
To be very cut and dried, I say that if statutory duties are not met by a local authority, it is possible in theory to bring legal proceedings against it, but I say that only as a matter of fact; the Scottish Government would not want to pursue that. We would far rather work with local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, if need be, to work out constructively how to make progress together. We can do that in a number of ways, such as continuing with the tripartite group and considering whether additional guidance would be helpful.
I am conscious that we produced guidance on food-growing strategies but have not done so on allotment reports, and I accept that that might be a reason why there have been difficulties. We talked about considering benchmarking data and easing regulation on permitted development rights. The Scottish Government has all those tools and, ultimately, a legal power to bring proceedings, although we would not want to go there.
What you pointed out about additional guidance could be good. We talked in the report about the need for leadership. I imagine that, when a local authority is busy doing the work that it needs to do and it then needs to take on something new, getting into the new workstream is difficult, and guidance can always help to ease the way.
I will focus on the role of the coming Scottish food commission. The Government response to the committee’s report notes
“the links between the local good food nation plans and the food growing strategies”
and that those are for local authorities to determine. Given our very welcome move towards more sustainable and locally grown food, I am keen to hear the Scottish Government’s thoughts on the commission’s role under part 9 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and on creating the links. Good food nation plans are about local authorities procuring to their public kitchens, whereas part 9 of the 2015 act is more about local food community growing and such things. There is a connection, or there needs to be a connection, because I notice that there is confusion. If we do not make the connection, there could be confusion.
That is a good point. I will hand over to my colleague Tracy McCollin to say a bit more about that, given that she heads up the good food nation team. I see local food growing and provision for it, both in a statutory sense and more widely, as being part of local good food nation planning in a very practical sense, in that a food-growing strategy under part 9 could form part of what a local authority produces as its local good food nation plan. The provision in general of good opportunities for local growing is part of our vision for a good food nation.
I think that there is statutory provision under the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022 for the Scottish Government and local authorities to work together on guidance on the production of the local good food nation plans. I am sure that Tracy McCollin will correct me if I am wrong about that. Tracy, do you want to say a little bit more about the interplay in that?
Yes. I will pick up the final point first. Guidance was considered during the progress of the bill through the Parliament. It would not necessarily be guidance; there needs to be discussion about what would be most useful—whether guidance is the best way to go or whether there are other ways in which the Scottish Government and local authorities could work together when developing their plans. The national good food nation plan is under development, and we will learn lessons as we progress that. Those lessons will feed into the discussions that we will have with local authorities when they undergo the process of developing their own plans.
In the 2022 act, the food commission is very tightly linked to the plans. The food commission’s role will be in reviewing good food nation plans at national or local level. In the legislation, its role is very tightly linked to that. If there is something in the plans about allotments, community food growing or local food, that will be part of the mix of the commission’s review.
From what I have heard you say—correct me if I have picked it up wrongly—it seems that, if there is such a thing as a plan hierarchy, the local food strategy that comes out of part 9 of the 2015 act will probably sit underneath the good food nation plan. Is that how it will fit?
Yes. Perhaps James Hamilton wants to come in on that. What I was trying to say at the beginning of the meeting, convener, is largely what you described there. I would not want to say that the strategy sits underneath the plan; rather, it is part of it, as a reflection of the fact that local growing is part of our plans for a good food nation, of which there are other facets.
I echo that. I describe them as complementary. Good food nation plans enable local authorities to set out outcomes that they want to achieve, as well as policies that they intend to pursue to achieve those outcomes. There could be overlaps with food-growing strategies, in which local authorities will set out how they intend to increase allotment provision in their areas. Although good food nation plans must include the provision of allotments, local authorities must decide for themselves that that is one of the outcomes that they want to achieve.09:45
The Scottish Government has to specify functions that, while carrying them out, local authorities must have regard to their good food nation plan. Therefore, the other question that we are considering is whether to specify, as one of those functions, the food-growing strategy that is required to be prepared by a local authority under section 119 in part 9.
I would not describe it as a hierarchy in which good food nation plans take priority. They are very much complementary. Depending on how the Government and local authorities work to implement the good food nation plans, there is a very good chance that the two will be complementary to each other.
Thank you for that. We move to another area.
Good morning, minister and panel. During its inquiry, the committee got a chance to get out and meet organisations and individuals who are making a real difference in their local communities and who are passionate about the importance of food growing. We recommended that this be harnessed into a national forum to drive improvement. How soon will the Scottish Government reach a decision on the creation of such a forum?
I echo your initial comments—I, too, have had the opportunity to meet folks who either have started or are involved in long-running community-growing organisations. I have met more groups that have done that under the land reform legislation and with the support of the Scottish land fund than groups that have done so under the statutory allotment work. That is probably something for me to reflect on in this context. They are some of the most enthusiastic and excellent groups that I have had the pleasure of meeting.
I have viewed what the committee said on the national partnership forum and your comments on the tripartite group and its remit. I am keen that that remains a tight group with SG, local authorities and SAGS. I always forget what that stands for, but I think that it is the Scottish association of growing—
It is the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society.
I am keen that that group remains quite tight. However, I am interested in what the committee recommended about a national partnership forum. We already fund GrowGreen Scotland to the tune of about £20,000 per annum, in part to co-ordinate the community growing forum. My officials and I will go away and consider the extent to which the role that the group is undertaking is akin to what the committee has recommended as regards a national forum. We will see whether that role is already being fulfilled or what changes may be required or are desirable.
In your opening statement, minister, you said that delivery is a challenge at this time, given the public finances. I think that a national forum would be a really important element in bringing people together. Has the Scottish Government taken into account the costs of establishing a national forum? You mentioned that the GrowGreen Scotland initiative is funded with £20,000 a year. Have you looked at the costs of a national forum?
The figure for GrowGreen Scotland is £19,800 per annum. No, we have not yet looked at the costs of a national forum. I need to consider that, and it will require careful consideration about not just the costings but, equally, the value of a forum to the Scottish Government and to local authorities. As of today, a considerable bit of work is under way, backed by annual funding of nearly £20,000, which I think we will agree is not insignificant in the circumstances. I want to go away and compare what is being done now against that which the committee has suggested and consider what the gap is and how we might fill it, if that would be beneficial.
Thanks very much. We appreciate your willingness to take on that piece of work.
We will move on to a question from Annie Wells, who joins us online.
Good morning, minister. I will stay on the issue of funding. Many community organisations have told us that they still face yearly battles for funding for on-going projects that are proven to make a huge difference to people’s lives. Does the minister agree that sustaining existing projects is just as important as funding innovation? What steps is the Scottish Government taking to address that and ensure that funding can be accessed for on-going projects?
I hear two different concerns when I speak to groups across the piece. One is that they cannot get new funding, and the other is that new funding appears to be all that is available. There are concerns on both sides. I know that community and third sector organisations are calling out for reliability of funding and the ability to plan ahead that comes with multiyear funds. Of course, the Scottish Government has to work on an annual basis, and we are doing so in volatile economic circumstances just now.
As with much of this, I am absolutely prepared to consider how we can strive for more stable multiyear funding patterns, because I know how that allows groups to plan. The fairer funding practice should be adopted as far as practically possible. I will certainly aim for that.
Good morning, minister and officials, and thank you for joining us. You have already outlined where you think the committee’s work can make a difference but, specifically, does the Scottish Government intend to review the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, including part 9, to take on board some of the issues that we have raised?
That is a good question. Obviously, the act is wide-ranging, and you will know that my colleague Tom Arthur, in his ministerial role, is undertaking a review of the act, which was a commitment. A lot of work on part 9 had already started in advance of the commissioning of Tom Arthur’s review. We meet regularly; in fact, just last week, we had a cross-ministerial meeting on food that included the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands and colleagues from local government. It is certainly my intention to meet Tom Arthur specifically to discuss the recommendations of your report and our reply, so that that can, as far as possible, be built into his review.
That is helpful.
I have raised with you in the chamber the issue of auditing potentially available land, especially with regard to public sector bodies. The national health service has a significant estate that could be allocated for this use. Some organisations are doing that, but what plans are there in Government to carry out an audit and then ask public sector bodies to allow allotments to be developed? At the minute, there seems to be a bit of a closed-gate situation for many people who have come to me, especially here in the capital, having tried to access land that is owned by public bodies.
I do not currently have any plans for an audit, but that does not mean that I am not sympathetic to the view that public bodies should consider the scope to allow their land to be used in that way. I know that the question of whether the 2015 act should be extended to include other public bodies was considered. I do not think that that is necessary just now. Coming from the land reform portfolio, I see that we already have a suite of right-to-buy mechanisms that apply to public and private land, including a mechanism to buy abandoned or neglected ground to do further sustainable development, and the crofting right to buy. There are also negotiated purchases and sales that happen outside the legislation.
I see an environment with a lot of opportunity for that just now. For that reason, I do not currently think that the 2015 act should be extended beyond local authorities.
We heard that there are opportunities but that the finance to achieve them is not there, or it is to come from local authorities that do not have it. That is the financial problem for many people in using some of those bits of legislation, but I take on board what you have said. It might be helpful to investigate which public sector bodies even have the issue on their agenda. Some, such as the NHS, which should have an agenda to promote wellbeing and get people into such activities, would surely want to release land to do that. That was a helpful answer, and I thank you for your time this morning.
Thank you. I will take that on board.
I see around my region pockets of places where the NHS has allowed community growing on its land. I have certainly seen a lovely project in Tarbert that I think is called a sensory garden. Maybe we need a piece of work on the guidelines and on leadership, to signal clearly that we want this to happen more rapidly.
Part 9 of the 2015 act placed new duties on local authorities. Will the minister set out what funding went alongside those new duties for councils to increase the provision of allotments and community growing spaces?
Do you mean at the time of the passage of the act?
At the time, and in subsequent years.
I am afraid that I cannot speak about what happened at the passage of the act, as I was not in Government at the time, but any additional statutory responsibilities placed on local authorities are borne in mind when the local government settlement is considered. I know that the committee is and will be looking closely at this year’s settlement. For the purposes of the act, when legislation creates additional statutory responsibilities, that will be considered and will be part of the settlement, because it is part of the core funding. We expect local authorities to fund it from there.
Year on year, has consideration been given to increasing the allocation to local government to allow it to increase the provision of allotments or community growing spaces?
It is part of the block grant so, again, an assessment is made of the responsibilities of local authorities and the extent to which they may have increased in any given year owing to legislation. The block grant is the final figure from which we would expect it to come. I do not need to tell the committee about this year’s block grant; I am sure that you are looking closely at it.
In Wales, additional funding for allotments has been allocated, and you know why that is: the benefits that you stated are clear to see. Is the Government monitoring the impact that that additional funding is having in Wales, and is it considering following that path?
We always want to learn from neighbours far away and closer about how they manage such things, and I was interested in the evidence that the committee took from Wales. Since your report was published, Scottish Government officials have met their counterparts in the Welsh Government to discuss its commitments and how they think those are going. We absolutely will seek to learn from what they have done, and I will watch closely to see how achievable the doubling is and how the funding has worked in that regard.
The issue that I was hoping to probe was kind of asked by Miles Briggs, so I will extend it a little. It was about widening the scope of the act beyond local authorities, and you answered that. I want to make the leap from that issue to the wider issues in the proposed land reform bill. One of the proposals is to require those who seek to dispose of land and holdings on a large scale to give prior notice to communities. The inference from that is, perhaps, that communities will get first dibs on potential transfers or sales of land. Is that a way for communities to acquire pieces of land for the purpose that we are talking about?10:00
That is an interesting question. My experience so far is that a number of groups have either formally used land reform legislation to acquire land for purposes including growing, or they have been able to enter into a negotiated sale because landowners now realise that a suite of legislation requires that and it has that signalling effect. Of course, that is supported by the Scottish land fund.
Prior notice to communities is important because it can be an onerous task to not just constitute an appropriate body under land reform legislation but to buy and take on the land. The longer communities have to prepare for that task, the more able they will be to take it right through to purchasing and managing the land. For me, the real value of prenotification is in giving time for communities to prepare to navigate a sale and to plan how the land will be managed thereafter. That is already helpful in the community growing space.
Is there enough resilience in communities, given the time that they might need to consider such a transaction? Do you get a sense that communities will get first call on a land sale, or is that not your intention behind the provisions?
No. First, it is about believing that more people and organisations should have the opportunity to own more land. Secondly, it is about giving communities as much time as possible to prepare for the purchase, if that is something that they want to pursue.
As I said, it is a substantial task, but it is probably right that it is. We believe that with rights come responsibilities. That goes for large landowners under land reform legislation just as it does for a community organisation that is looking to buy land, but the more time and support that they have, which the Scottish Government provides under land reform legislation, the better.
Okay—thank you for that.
Does the support come their way when they enter the Scottish land fund process?
It is not necessarily directly linked with the land fund, but community bodies can approach our community right to buy team for guidance on navigating land reform legislation.
Thank you. We are nearing the end of our questions. I will bring in Paul McLennan.
I have a couple of questions about planning issues. First, when does the Scottish Government anticipate that it will consider widening permitted development rights to incorporate allotments and other land for growing?
I do not have a timeline that I can give you just now, except to say that the review is on-going and that we are committed to including allotments as part of that. I wonder whether Simon Bonsall has a timeline that he could add to that. I do not think that we do, but I would like to share it if we are able.
Good morning, everyone. You are absolutely right, minister: there is no fixed timeline for when allotments will form part of the review. The review is on-going, and the phasing of the review remains itself under review as we progress the work.
Prioritisation was given to local energy production in the light of the cost of living crisis and things like that.
Secondly, we have just gone through the national planning framework 4 process, and many local authorities are looking at their local development planning processes. Does the Government agree with the committee that food growing needs to be a category of land use that is included in frameworks such as local place planning? That is really pertinent, given that a lot of LDPs are being progressed.
Again, owing to my not being the planning minister, I will hand over to Simon initially for a view on that. If there is anything that I can add, I will do so.
On local place plans in particular, food growing is included in the guidance that we published in 2022 on how to prepare an LPP. The content of local development plans is informed by national planning framework 4, as it will be, and local food growing and allotments are well covered in the policies in NPF4. We anticipate that they will feed down into LDPs.
In addition, the guidance that we consulted on about the preparation of local development plans included food growing as an issue that may be relevant for planning authorities to consider in the evidence report that is prepared at the early stage of the LDP process.
I will come back to the amount of land that is needed for allotments. Has the Scottish Government calculated, or will you consider calculating, how much land is needed to meet demand? As we know, we have big waiting lists, particularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Has any work been done on that?
My initial reaction is to say that that is certainly something to be done at local authority level. Local authorities are best placed to respond to their own lists.
Interestingly, I note that, in your report, you say that lists might not be accurate because some people on them might have got allotments, moved or whatever, so there would be a bit of work for local authorities to do to ensure the accuracy of the waiting lists. A mapping exercise on the amount of land that is needed, if it were to be done, should certainly be done at the local level.
Perhaps that is something that the committee and the Scottish Government are both doing in our work on signalling and guidelines, with the Scottish Government taking leadership in that direction.
Thank you so much—the opportunity to hear from you today has been very helpful, and we really appreciate your taking on board the committee’s work.
It has been a good collaboration, in a sense, in helping to move forward the allotment situation and people’s desire to grow food locally.
I suspend the meeting briefly while our witnesses leave the room.10:07 Meeting suspended.
10:20 On resuming—