You’d be forgiven for thinking that land reform in Scotland is like waiting for a bus. Nothing happens for ages and then three inquiries turn up at roughly the same time to examine different aspects of this most contentious, complex and political of issues.
Yesterday saw the first stop in the UK Parliament Scottish Affairs Committee’s (SAC) inquiry into land reform with publication of its Interim Report. Next month the Scottish Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) will reach its final destination following publication of its much-anticipated Final Report. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s Agricultural Holdings Legislation Review Group will issue an Interim Report in June and a Final Report in December.
Nobody yet knows where this flurry of reviews will take land reform as an issue of public policy in Scotland in the medium to long term. But in a measured and clear Interim Report, the Scottish Affairs Committee has begun to map out its views on how that reform process might best progress on two distinct fronts.
One of these fronts relates to what the Committee sees as a need for far greater transparency regarding key aspects of land ownership and use; the better to inform and help formulate a successful land reform policy. It therefore recommends creating a National Land Information System to comprehensively record who owns what land in Scotland. For similar reasons the Committee also recommends an open data policy to make all datasets on landownership, occupation, land values, land use and core reference geographies freely and publically available. Other recommendations regarding transparency include that the Scottish and UK Governments consider using the World Bank’s Land Governance Assessment Framework to assess whether Scotland’s land governance system is fit for purpose and that the Valuation Office Agency resume publishing land price indices.
It’s hard to argue against many of these recommendations without seeming hopelessly out of touch with the idea that transparency of data relating to land ownership and use should be hardwired into the DNA of 21st century Scotland. That doesn’t necessarily mean that other arguments relating to, amongst other things, cost and practicality won’t be marshalled against them.
A second set of still embryonic proposals relating to the tax regime will doubtless be far more controversial if, as seems likely, they evolve into fully-fledged recommendations in the Committee’s Final Report. In its Interim Report the Committee discusses a range of tax exemptions and reliefs for agricultural and sporting land and states that it has received evidence questioning the continued justification for these exemptions and reliefs. The Committee would apparently “welcome” further evidence on the case for their retention. However, that welcome is tempered by the Committee’s concerns, as expressed in the Interim Report, that “tax reliefs and exemptions distort the market as well as pushing up prices” and a statement from the Committee’s Chairman, Ian Davidson MP, that “we are minded to propose an end to all tax exemptions, subsidies and cosy tax deals unless they can be shown to be in the public interest”.
Unsurprisingly, NFU Scotland, for one, is less than enamoured by the prospect of radical changes to the tax regime and has wasted little time in lobbying against them. Similarly, Scottish Land and Estates has questioned the case for removing all tax exemptions and subsidies, arguing that they are paid for delivering specific public policy objectives in the public interest.
Elsewhere the Interim Report discusses the difficulties which EU State Aid rules present for community ownership of forests and other land and calls for the Scottish and UK Governments to devise and secure agreement for changing the rules and how they are interpreted as part of the on-going State Aid Modernisation process. The Committee is also keen to further explore what it appears to view as a misalignment between the support framework for the community forestry sector and funds through grants and tax reliefs provided to the private forestry sector.
In contrast to the LRRG’s much-maligned Interim Report, which seemed to shrink the scope of its initial remit, the SAC equivalent confirms the Committee’s intention to expand the areas of investigation in the next phase of its inquiry to produce “a more comprehensive report than we may have originally envisaged”. These areas include: the ownership of estates through charitable companies set up by private owners; reforming the fiscal framework of agricultural land to meet the concerns of tenant farmers; how the new CAP framework can best support farmers; and the extent to which land is owned in offshore jurisdictions as part of individual and corporate tax planning.
Not music to everyone’s ears, perhaps. Nevertheless, an expanded Final Report from the Scottish Affairs Committee offers the prospect of adding further political weight to a land reform process that until relatively recently seemed all but dead in the water.