The Scottish Land Commission has published its review and recommendations to the Scottish Government on reforming the housing land market. Two years in the making, the report is aimed at addressing Scotland's acknowledged failure to deliver enough homes in the right places.

The SLC is a public body, wholly funded by the Scottish Government, with a stated aim of creating "a Scotland where everybody can benefit from the ownership and use of the nation's land and buildings", so it is perhaps not surprising that the review advocates a move away from a housing land market driven by private profit to one that is driven by the public interest. It looks for the public sector take a more proactive role in identifying, bringing forward and making land ready for development.

The review considers that socialising the approach to the delivery of housing is a necessary pre-condition for achieving the Scottish Government's post-COVID plans for 20-minute neighbourhoods; regenerating town centres; repopulating rural communities; and moving to net zero carbon emissions. To move towards a public interest led approach to housing, the review makes 5 recommendations in the following order of priority:

  • Establish a new recyclable fund to support the creation of a network of ‘place pioneers’ – utilising repurposed publicly owned property assets in town centres and privately owned housing stock in remote rural communities.
  • Empower local authorities to designate Regeneration Partnership Zones to speed up the redevelopment of land in fragmented or multiple ownership so that landowners and public authorities can share the long-term uplift in land values.
  • Introduce new approach(es) to land value capture to ensure that uplifts in land value arising from public investment in infrastructure and land remediation are captured effectively and invested in place-making.
  • Create a new public land agency, empowered and resourced to ensure that a steady supply of development-ready sites is brought forward at the right time and in the right places to meet Scotland’s housing needs.
  • Introduce a new transparency obligation that would require option agreements and conditional contracts over land to be disclosed on a public register and for summary information on this to be published on a regular basis alongside a regular statistical bulletin covering land sales prices.

While some of the recommendations are relatively uncontroversial, such as re-using publicly owned buildings in town centres for affordable housing, the review acknowledges that requiring private land deals to be publicised could in fact reduce housebuilding activity and suggests that this should therefore be the final part of the series of recommended measures.

If the recommendations are unpacked, it can be seen that public bodies and local authorities in particular could already be implementing many of the suggested actions. Indeed, many already are. The 6 qualities of successful place-making are already embedded in Scottish Planning Policy and local development plan policies. Simplified Planning Zones and Masterplan Consent Areas can be designated to speed up the planning process and encourage certain types of development in designated locations. Compulsory purchase powers can be used to assist with land assembly. More land can be allocated for housing in development plans and then action programmes implemented for its delivery.

With all these powers already in place, is market failure actually the root of the housing problem? Or is it a failure by the public sector to make best use of the powers which it already has? And if the latter, will shifting to a public interest-led approach to delivery not simply exacerbate those existing failures rather than delivering more homes more quickly?

The Scottish Government is due to publish its draft National Planning Framework 4 in September. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the SLC's recommendations make their way into the draft.