Is Scotland’s land reform process, previously in danger of flatlining following publication of the Land Reform Review Group’s (LRRG) Interim Report, about to be jolted back to political life? Several developments over the summer suggest that it might be.
First, Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, used the genteel surroundings of the Royal Highland Show in June to announce a review of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003 which will include tenants’ absolute right to buy (ARtB) their farms as one of the issues on the agenda.
Lochhead’s announcement may simply be interpreted as a step towards fulfilling an SNP 2011 election manifesto pledge to amend the Act “to support tenant farmers…..and encourage new entrants”. But the timing is intriguing and suggests that, within a land reform context, the Scottish Government is intent on picking up the baton of agricultural land tenure which the LRRG treated like a hand-grenade with the pin out when hurling it as far from the Group’s remit as possible; much to the incredulity of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, whose members had been encouraged to provide evidence during phase one of the review.
Equally intriguing is the decision of the UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) to hold an open consultation on comprehensive land reform in Scotland. Written submissions are invited by 30th September 2013 with formal evidence sessions to follow. As a prelude to and focus for that consultation, SAC’s Chair, Ian Davidson MP, requested a briefing paper, ‘432:50 – Towards a comprehensive land reform agenda for Scotland’ from James Hunter, Peter Peacock, Andy Wightman and Michael Foxley. For Scotland’s landed elite, that’s probably the equivalent of summoning policy advice from the Four Horsemen of the Land Reform Apocalypse. For others of a more progressive disposition, it’s a signal that a wide range of interlinked land reform issues may yet receive a level of political scrutiny hitherto notable by its absence.
In that regard, ‘432:50’ doesn’t disappoint. It places the contemporary land reform debate in Scotland within the context of “ways in which fiscal and related arrangements contribute to and underpin inequality in Scottish land ownership” and then proceeds to set out a land reform agenda to address these inequalities.
The paper invites SAC to investigate subsidy maximisation strategies for landed estate owners; how to end the latter’s “uniquely generous” tax concessions and subsidy payments; how to grant tenant farmers an absolute right to buy their farms; the role of human rights as an enabler of land reform; how to more easily facilitate transfer of publically owned land and assets to communities and other bodies; and the introduction of a Land Value Tax as part of the overall taxation mix. The paper also invites the Committee to revisit its previous recommendation regarding transfer of responsibility for Scotland’s foreshore and seabed from the Crown Estates Commission to local authorities and then to other appropriate local bodies.
That, in effect, is the agenda that many people assumed would be addressed by the LRRG when given its remit by the Scottish Government to develop “innovative and radical” proposals for land reform in Scotland.
It might yet be.
The LRRG – with Dr Alison Elliot still its Chair – has regenerated since the resignations of its original Vice-Chairs, Professor James Hunter and Dr Sarah Skerratt. They have been replaced by John Watt, Ian Cooke and Pip Tabor. Notably too, Robin Callander has been appointed as a Special Advisor to the Group. These are respected and substantial figures in relation to aspects of land reform, tenure and management. And if left relatively unconstrained, they may yet manage to guide the Group’s Final Report towards at least an approximation of the radical proposals that the Scottish Government apparently wishes to see.
Certainly in phase two of its review the LRRG appears intent on unshackling itself from the exclusive community ownership orientation of its much maligned Interim Report. This was confirmed by Mr Callander when he and Dr Elliot gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on June 26th. During that meeting, he stated, “On the substance of the brief, the new group is clear that its remit involves looking at the broad sweep of what might be considered to constitute land reform issues in Scotland….. For various reasons, the interim report identified six work streams, but the new group has reviewed that. Those work streams are now off the table, not as topics, but in the sense that they suggested that that is all that will be covered”.
So now there are two – soon to be three – land reform reviews under way. There’s a slightly tedious sub-text as to whether Westminster’s Labour-dominated Scottish Affairs Committee is stealing a march on the SNP Government by initiating its own land reform review. But that obscures a much more important point. Namely that (as the authors of ‘432:50’ note) these reviews collectively have the potential to establish a platform from which to develop a comprehensive programme of land reform; one capable of recasting, and making more sustainable, key aspects of land ownership in Scotland, irrespective of the independence referendum result next year.
But such a programme is ultimately dependent on political will. In the coming months – after these reviews have finally come home to roost – we shall have a better idea as to whether that will exists. And if so, how Scotland’s Government intends to use it.