The Scottish Government established the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) in July 2012 with a remit to identify how land reform will:
- “Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;
- Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;
- Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland”.
Publication on May 20th of the Group’s Interim Report should have marked an important staging post on the journey towards the “innovative and radical” proposals for land reform to which the Scottish Government is apparently committed, and to which the above remit is supposed to contribute.
The contents of the report suggest otherwise. Far from beating a path towards radical land reform, the Group appears to be stuck on the hard shoulder of a more narrowly focused community ownership review.
That doesn’t appear to sit terribly comfortably with the Group’s claim in its Interim Report that “our strategy from the outset has been deliberately to cast the net wide in the approach to evidence-gathering, in order not to constrain people’s definitions of “land reform””. Not least because there are indications that a plethora of issues of relevance to land reform are likely to either be shunted off the agenda during phase 2 of the review (happening between May and December) or be paid relatively scant attention by the LRRG in its deliberations.
Already, the Group has decided to disregard the issue of agricultural tenancies as a focus of investigation, much to the incredulity of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association. It also appears lukewarm at best about examining the position of the Crown Estates, common good land, taxation and succession within the broader canvas of land reform. For more on this see Andy Wightman’s coruscating blog on the Interim Report in which he pronounces land reform dead as a public policy issue in Scotland.
There’s no denying that the LRRG has had a testing time recently. In April Professor Jim Hunter – who has a long and distinguished track-record in terms of land reform issues – resigned as a Vice-Chair for personal reasons. The Interim Report, as acknowledged in its text, has suffered from Professor Hunter’s departure. Indeed close reading of that text suggests that whatever radical intent the Group may have originally harboured appears to have exited the review process with him.
The resignation of the other Vice-Chair, Dr Sarah Skerratt, due to pressures of other work leaves the Chairperson, Dr Alison Elliot, as the only one of the Scottish Government’s original appointees still in position. These departures are unlikely to do much for the cohesion of the Group, whatever the calibre of their replacements.
The LRRG also appears to have been surprised by the volume of submissions – 475 – during the first call for evidence. So much for the myth that nobody’s interested in land reform. But as the analysis of these submissions shows, all are not marching to the beat of the same drum.
‘Estates, farm owners, landowners and their representatives’ comprise 110 (46%) of the submissions from organisations and that category also accounts for 102 (43%) of the submissions from individuals. Predictably, in adopting an ‘it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it’ stance, this grouping doesn’t appear especially pre-disposed to giving much ground, literally or metaphorically, to the cause of land reform. And they can’t fail to be heartened by the fact that – for reasons that are unclear – one of the report’s three appendices is given over to a thematic analysis of ‘Private estates submissions’ and runs to a generous 13 pages. By comparison, the substantive part of the main report (Section 4 – Where have we reached at this interim reporting stage?) comes in at a more frugal 7 pages. Interestingly no other category of respondent is afforded the same treatment.
The only potential iceberg on the horizon for private landowners seems to be Community Land Scotland’s proposal for a Land Agency to facilitate negotiated transfers of land, with an absolute right to buy for communities as a backstop. Worryingly (for them), the LRRG believes that the idea should be given further consideration.
But that’s pretty much it.
If the Scottish Government is serious about grasping the bare wire of radical land reform for a more sustainable Scotland, then it will take a lot more than tweaking the community right to buy legislation to deliver on that. And if the LRRG is to play a meaningful part in that process between now and next April, it needs to add substance to warm words and instil a breadth of vision currently lacking as it embarks on the next phase of its review.