The “land question” has long held a grip on Scotland’s political imagination. That’s unsurprising in a nation where 80% of the land is privately owned and half of that private land is estimated to be in the hands of fewer than 500 owners.

Equally unsurprisingly, Scotland’s landed elite don’t see that as a problem, saying it’s land use rather than ownership that matters. However, that ignores an inconvenient truth – that land ownership is crucial in determining how land is used. The “land question” is therefore ultimately one of power. Who has it, how it is exercised, and in whose interests.

Addressing inherent power imbalances in concentrated land ownership as a matter of social justice helps explain why community ownership is so high on Scotland’s land reform agenda. Despite great progress, community ownership still accounts for under 3% of our land.

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That’s not nearly enough – especially in light of a recent Scottish Land Commission report on issues associated with large-scale and concentrated land ownership. It’s a sobering read, documenting fear of repercussions for “going against the landowner” in evidence provided by research respondents.

Fear, the commission’s report states, “rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as evictions or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents”. This, let me remind you, is taking place in Scotland now, not in some long-ago feudal past.

The Highlands and Islands have long been seen as bastions of the community land movement. It’s no coincidence that 70% of all community-owned land is in the Western Isles. These community buyouts have been used as an antidote to decades of what might at best be described as benign neglect under private – and in some cases, state – ownership.

In places like west Harris, community ownership is helping reverse population decline and providing affordable housing, economic development, local facilities and environmental improvement.

The challenge now is to ensure that community ownership is increasingly seen as normal, not only in the Highlands and Islands but in our lowland and urban places too. Most immediately there’s a need to ensure that the community right to buy land to further sustainable development (which does not require a willing seller) currently being consulted on by the Scottish Government offers a genuine prospect of delivering more land into community ownership where it is in the public interest to do so.

Community land ownership: is it fit for purpose?

It’s vital also to secure a political commitment that the Scottish Land Fund, which allocates £10m annually in support of community land purchases, will continue to operate after the 2021 Scottish Parliament election with at least the same level of funding in place.

In the longer term it’s incumbent on policymakers to ensure the community ownership agenda is hard-wired into general public policy. That requires political imagination to deploy legislative, fiscal and informational policy levers in ways that enable community ownership to deliver sustainable outcomes for people throughout Scotland.

Dr Calum MacLeod is policy director of Community Land Scotland