The issue of land reform has been simmering on a low political heat amid the white noise of competing claims over Scotland’s constitutional future. Its source is the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG), appointed by the Scottish Government in July 2012 to develop “innovative and radical” proposals for greater diversity of ownership and ownership types in Scotland and support for communities in land acquisition and management.
The LRRG is not due to produce its final report until April 2014, which might look to some like an attempt by the Scottish Government to punt ‘the Land Question’ into the long grass ahead of the Scottish Independence Referendum in September 2014.
Viewed in that light, Johann Lamont’s speech at the Scottish Labour Party Conference on Saturday makes for interesting reading. It contains a policy commitment to extend the currently rural focus of the “community right to buy” contained in Part 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 to also include urban communities.
So far, so progressive.
But it is Lamont’s announcement that Scottish Labour is committed to extending the ‘community right to buy’ to cover circumstances where the landowner is not a willing seller, “if it is in the public interest”, which carries a potentially more radical edge. It’s probably safe to assume this isn’t what Scottish Land and Estates had in mind when arguing for a technical review of the Land Reform Act in its written submission of evidence to the LRRG.
Lamont claimed in her conference speech that the Land Reform Act has “allowed remarkable progress to be made in the number of communities that now own their land”. That’s debatable.
As the 2010 review of the Land Reform Act which I led on behalf of the Scottish Parliament shows, the community ownership aspects of this ‘flagship’ legislation have been a bit of a damp squib in practice (my West Highland Free Press article, Assessing the Land Reform Process, summarises our research findings and further details are available on the ‘land reform’ page of my website calummacleod.info).
The existing ‘community right to buy’ contained in Part Two of the Act is excessively complex and has been used by only a handful of communities to secure land and other eligible assets. The ‘crofting community right to buy’ contained in Part 3 of the Act does allow for a purchase when there is no willing seller. However, this ‘right’ is even more complex to exercise and currently lies marooned in the pack ice of landowner instigated legal argument over the technicalities of the one application – that of the Pairc Trust in Lewis – which seeks to use it.
There remains a lack of detail as to how Scottish Labour’s re-tooled ‘community right to buy’ might work. Much, I suspect, would depend on the extent to which “the public interest” constituted a moveable feast in practice and on the complexity of the application process.
The more interesting short-term issue to consider is whether Scottish Labour’s upping of the land reform ante will bring ‘the Land Question’ into the cross-hairs of the independence referendum debate. Or, alternatively, whether it will remain hermetically sealed within the confines of the Land Reform Review Group’s ongoing deliberations.
Alex Salmond’s keynote speech to Community Land Scotland’s annual conference in June might just offer some clues in that regard.