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.