Scotland's derelict sites: transforming unused land

No more waste land

21 August 2019

The Scottish Land Commission and partners aim to transform the way the nation manages vacant and derelict land

To ensure more productive use of land for economic, social and environmental benefit across the nation, the Scottish Land Commission (SLC) has formed a partnership with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Futures Trust. The partnership’s first step was to set up a task force to transform derelict land, underpinned by a programme of research, analysis and related activity.

The amount of vacant and derelict land in Scotland has remained surprisingly static since the first register of such sites was established 30 years ago, with around 12,000ha across the nation not being used for the best purpose or having fallen out of use. In disadvantaged areas, it is estimated that 3 in every 5 people live within 500m of a vacant or derelict site, and a walk or drive around any of Scotland’s towns and cities will reveal pockets of land and abandoned buildings that have long lain empty.

Yet there are also inspiring – and recent – examples of what can be achieved in our urban areas. For example, the Clyde Gateway in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest and most ambitious regeneration programme, has transformed several derelict waterfront sites. In the centre of Kilmarnock, a project by developer HALO is using an 11ha site, formerly home to the Johnnie Walker whisky distillery, to create jobs and investment opportunities.

Projects such as the Social Bite Village offering support for homeless people in Granton, Edinburgh, and the Shettleston community growing project in Glasgow are other innovative examples of land being brought back into use.

But beyond these headline developments, new thinking is needed on how to make unused land productive again, and the task force is aiming to halve the amount of such sites in Scotland by 2025. Chaired by Steve Dunlop, chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, it brings together leaders from the public, private and social enterprise sectors to reshape the system, from the way we use data about such sites to how we engage communities and join up financing options. It is working to identify potential uses and transform a culture of constraint into one of opportunity. An initial analysis has provided a much clearer strategic understanding of the types of site, their common characteristics and challenges. This will now inform work on a number of demonstrator sites, to develop and test the systemic changes needed.

The partnership aims to transform the way that Scotland deals with unused land, which could accommodate anything from housing and business development to green space and community facilities

The partnership aims to transform the way that Scotland deals with unused land, which could accommodate anything from housing and business development to green space and community facilities. The organisations will look at how the regulatory and planning environments, community empowerment, finance and development potential must all be aligned to bring sites back into use. The SLC will also continue to explore possible reinforcements of the legal powers available to tackle vacancy and dereliction.

Compulsory sales orders (CSOs) represent one easy way to enable planning authorities to bring small parcels of unused land back into productive use. Under recent SLC proposals, local authorities could exercise a CSO, or a community council or other appropriate body could request that a local authority investigate a site for an order. If a CSO were granted then the land or an abandoned building would be sold by public auction to the highest bidder, which would be required to redevelop or re-use it within a specified period of time. In 2018, a right for communities to buy abandoned, neglected and detrimental land also came into force.

The partnership hopes that rejuvenating such sites will unlock growth, revive and empower communities, reduce inequalities and inspire local pride and activity.

Hamish Trench is CEO of the SLC

RICS' view on CSOs


RICS welcomes any discussion that assesses and evaluates the benefit of alternative approaches to ensuring Scotland’s land and property assets are used effectively and efficiently. It is no secret that vacant and derelict land and property make a minimal contribution to communities, the environment or wider economy.


The SLC’s case for CSOs, however, is detailed and compelling. If implemented effectively, these orders should result in vacant or derelict assets being brought into effective use quicker than they are at present. Looking specifically at housing, there are a reported 34,000 homes in Scotland that have been empty for longer than 6 months. By invoking CSOs, councils, communities and other bodies could transform such properties to provide another avenue to tackle the national shortage of housing supply, and regenerate areas where population is declining.


However, delving into the detail of the proposal, it becomes clear why the introduction of CSOs does not sit well with those in the planning, development, valuation and rural sectors, among others. On the one hand, they could benefit communities, small and medium-sized enterprises and regeneration as a whole; on the other, their introduction would have significant resource implications for planning departments that are already stretched. It is therefore important to recognise that, while there are many instances where the introduction and use of CSO powers would work, there are many where they would not. The exact mechanics of the CSOs should not be rushed and a full assessment of application and possible impact should be carried out.


Indeed, in responding to the 2014 land reform consultation, which first tabled the prospect of CSOs, RICS was clear that while ‘there may be a public benefit’ to the orders, they would ‘present practical challenges and certainly require significant detailed examination’. Our position has not changed.


Hew Edgar is interim head of policy, RICS

Further information