SL&E’s Evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s Land Reform Inquiry

Last week the UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee held the 5th oral evidence session of its on-going land reform inquiry.   First to give evidence were Sarah-Jane Laing, Director of Policy and Parliamentary Affairs at Scottish Land and Estates (SL&E) and Nick Way, Director General of the Historic Houses Association.  The second part of the session involved evidence from Stuart Adam of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Jim Gallagher of the University of Oxford.

Mrs Laing in particular may have taken her seat anticipating some robust questioning from Committee members less than enamoured by her organisation’s initial reaction to the announcement of their inquiry.  SL&E had previously stated that the inquiry was unnecessary and unwarranted and mistakenly assumed that an accompanying briefing paper (432:50), which they labelled unreasonable and unhelpful, was unsolicited.  The paper – written by James Hunter, Peter Peacock, Andy Wightman and Michael Foxley – was commissioned by the Committee.

SL&E’s Policy Director began by performing a neat reverse ferret regarding the organisation’s original, negative view of the inquiry.  She assured Committee members that SL&E felt that “there is a need to look at issues which are wider than are being investigated by the Land Reform Review Group in Scotland at the moment and welcome the opportunity of participating in this review”.

Having safely navigated that potential banana skin, Mrs Laing asserted that SL&E are not “defenders of the status quo”, and made a case for the benefits of private landownership to rural Scotland while reconfirming SL&E’s opposition to extending the community right to buy legislation to include circumstances where there is not a willing seller.  That’s all fairly standard stuff in terms of SL&E’s positions on these issues.

One thing that Mrs Laing probably hadn’t anticipated was the Committee’s Chairman, Ian Davidson MP, suggesting, perhaps only half-jokingly, that she sounded “radical” and  “a proper Bolshevik” as the evidence session drew to a close.

That felt like a slightly cheap shot because, doubtless to the relief of SL&E’s members, their Policy Director didn’t sound like either of these things.  She did, however, make several points that (to this observer at least) were of particular interest.

Refreshingly Mrs Laing claimed that “land ownership and land management are intertwined”.  She’s absolutely right of course; not least (as I’ve written previously) due to the close relationship between power, access to resources and development aspirations. But Mrs Laing’s assertion doesn’t necessarily sit especially comfortably with previous correspondence from SL&E’s Chairman to The Guardian and from its Chief Executive to The Herald, which argues that the real land reform debate needs to be about how land is used rather than who owns it.

It’s actually about both of these issues.

SL&E’s Policy Director sounded equally progressive when considering possible changes to the Community Right to Buy (CRtB) legislation, mentioning that there were hoops for communities to jump through to meet its requirements and calling for the CRtB process to be streamlined, the transparency of decision-making by Scottish Ministers to be improved significantly and for more awareness raising of the CRtB.

Mrs Laing also alluded to CRtB timescales but did not mention that SL&E favour shortening these at each stage of the process.  In contrast, as the 2010 report reviewing implementation of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which colleagues and I produced for the Scottish Parliament and the consultation paper on the forthcoming Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill both note, community groups have argued for extending timescales to help facilitate the purchase process.

There was confirmation too from Mrs Laing that, in the interests of supporting visibility and transparency of ownership, Scottish Land and Estates have no objections “at this time” to introducing a register of beneficial owners of land in Scotland; something that the Committee appears minded to recommend in its final report.

On the issue of tax exemptions, a comment from Mike Crockart MP to the effect that if an estate is being treated as a business, then it should be a business across all of the tax system and not just part of it, drew this response from Mrs Laing:

Yes, because you are going to be able to access small business relief.  The Scottish Government have a number of things.  If you are going to access those, there should be equity.  I will be honest – that might not be music to some of my members’ ears, but, if you are going to be looking at estates as land-based businesses, then there does seem to be equity in treating them the same as other businesses”.

Plenty there for the Committee to contemplate alongside other submitted written and oral evidence as it prepares to produce its Interim Report.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) is due to submit its final report to Ministers next month.  There is considerable interest from all sides of the land reform debate in seeing what that report contains. It will also be interesting to see whether, upon its publication, the LRRG’s report helps to propel land reform into the wider debate on Scotland’s future, both before and after the independence referendum result.

3 thoughts on “SL&E’s Evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s Land Reform Inquiry

  1. Thank you for reporting on this – very helpful. I am interested, and pleased, that SLaE now recognise that it is the ownership of land, and not just its management, that matters (after all, the one precedes and premises the other). Also, that they now have no objection to a register of beneficiary members – probably been listening to David Cameron who sees the writing on the wall for secretive companies.

    Your comment on this gives me occasion to report on a visit that I made to the SLaE offices in Musselburgh just before Christmas. I’d been meaning to pen something for Andy Wightman’s blog, but what I have to say hardly merits an entry on its own, so suffice to place it here and Andy can pick up on it if he wishes. The backdrop is that last year, in the course of a riveting discussion of ARTB with tenant farmers on Andy’s site, the question came up of access to SLaE’s register of members. The SLaE director, Andrew Howard, who was engaging said he would need to refer the matter to the company secretary. I argued that as as a company limited by guarantee we members of the public have a right to view the register, and announced that I would like to exercise that right.

    It turns out that company law does indeed give me that right provided it is for a proper purpose, and I may not disclose what I find. However, I determined that “statistical research” is deemed a proper purpose, so I filled in a form that SLaE gave me and sent them my cheque for £3.50 for one hour’s worth of viewing time.

    The company secretary, Andrew Malcolm, initially declined permission on grounds of data protection and that I had said that the info might be made more widely available. I reapplied, on the basis that the info was wanted for non-public disclosure and that it was for “statistical purposes” – something that I’d established was within my legal rights.

    Andrew Malcolm replied saying (18 Nov 13): “I have received your new form requesting access to the Register of Members and can advise that the Directors are considering it. I note that you have given ‘statistical research’ in the place of ‘research’ as your purpose, but it would be helpful if you could please expand on this and in particular address the questions set out in my email to you of 13 November. Can you also please explain what is the nature of the research that would require access to private addresses of members, and can you please advise if there some way in which we can assist with this on an anonymised basis? We note that you changed from “yes” to “no” your answer regarding disclosure to other persons. Can you please explain this and provide more details on the proposed output of your research? If you would kindly respond to these matters it will assist us, since, as previously explained, we are obliged to be satisfied that the request is for a proper purpose.”

    I restated my position, and permission was granted with the proviso form Malcom: “As I am sure you will understand, mindful of our obligations to our members in particular concerning data protection, I should like to remind you of your obligations under the Companies Act 2006 with respect to your inspection as set out on the submitted form, and to advise that the information will be made available on a basis of strict confidentiality and may not be shared with any third party.”

    I visited the SLaE office just before Christmas and had, it has to be said, an amicable exchange with Andrew Malcolm, Sarah-Jane and Douglas McAdam (director). I was shown a print-out of the members register, complete with names and address and titles (quite a lot of titled people, as you’d expect.) In the time available I undertook a very quick statistical survey. There were about 72 pages of data with 26 owners on each, so I estimated about 1800 members. I sampled the 3 addresses at the top of each sheet – about 200 in total – and from this determined that about 8% were addresses from outside of Scotland – though this does not imply that 92% live here, as many would have used their estate’s address for correspondence but may be absentee. Douglas said that figure was “about right”. I raised a smile telling them that it had left me “very disappointed” – my prejudices having been, prima facie, less than fully confirmed.

    I asked what they thought of bad landowners. They said such owners bring the rest into ill repute. I asked if they had a system for rejecting such owners from membership and they said they had. Could be interesting with future issues to put it to them in public whether they would disown a problematic member.

    In our discussion they argued that land owners are just like any other community member. i argued that that disregards the reality of power. We could have gone on all night. Suffice to report that it is possible to view this register, doing so is highly circumscribed, and they are open to discussion but, in my view, fail to recognise the realities of landed power on the ground.

    • Alastair – I’m pleased you got the information you wanted. There was some toing and froing before hand really as a consequence of it being a first inquiry of it’s type and, and I’m sure you’ll understand this, SL & E being conscious of it’s responsibilities to handle data that we hold on behalf of others within the law.

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