Land Reform Policy’s Return Ticket

For an awfully long time the political answer to Scotland’s ‘Land Question’ seems to have been “pass”. The embryonic Scottish Parliament launched its ‘flagship’ Land Reform (Scotland) Act with a cargo of access rights, community and crofting community rights to buy in 2003 amid much hullabaloo about its symbolic significance as the lodestar for a new politics in Scotland; then watched on with apparent indifference as land reform drifted beyond the horizon as an issue of serious policy concern. A decade later several intertwined developments suggest it may have had a return ticket.

The most high profile of these developments is The Land of Scotland and the Common Good, the report of the independent Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) appointed by the Scottish Government in July 2012 to provide “innovative and radical” proposals for land reform. ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’, published in May, contains 62 recommendations, some of which might indeed seem radical within a Scottish land reform context but are the norm in other countries. It calls for a national land policy, new institutions, further legislation and adequate resources to support community acquisitions. The report also recommends completing coverage of Scotland’s land register to determine precisely who does own Scotland, devolving the Crown Estate Commissioners’ powers to the Scottish Parliament, investigating the scope for introducing a Land Value Tax, capping the total amount of land that can be held by a private landowner or single beneficial interest, modifying succession laws, and removing the universal exemption of agriculture, forestry and other land related businesses from non-domestic rates.

Those who want to see a much less concentrated pattern of private land ownership in Scotland in the interests of sustainable development will doubtless view many of these proposals as life-rafts with which to rescue a land reform process that until relatively recently appeared in danger of sinking without trace. Scotland’s landed elite on the other hand might be forgiven for viewing some of the report’s recommendations as torpedoes aimed squarely at eroding their vested interests.

Such unhelpful polarising of perspectives is a significant barrier when it comes to making genuine progress on land reform. It’s as nonsensical to suggest that private estates don’t contribute to sustainable rural development as it is to characterise the current phase of Scottish land reform as a prelude to ‘Robert Mugabe-style land grabs’. These tiresome caricatures sometimes make the land reform debate seem like a Western with each side striving for a monopoly on the white hats.

The key political issue – because land reform is ultimately a political issue – involves mapping a way forward for land reform which ensures that different interests are respected insofar as they resonate with principles of sustainable development encompassing economic development, environmental sustainability and social justice.

In that regard, arguably the LRRG’s greatest service is in helping to reposition land reform as a far-reaching mainstream public policy issue of relevance throughout Scotland precisely because its myriad aspects relate so closely to sustainable development at local, regional and national levels. Certainly the emphasis placed by ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ on the relationship between greater diversity in land ownership, the public interest and the common good provides a powerful set of organising principles for an integrated and expansive programme of land reform policy measures to replace the piecemeal and un-coordinated initiatives of the last decade.

Some of these policy measures are already in gestation. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill published last week contains significant amendments to the Community Right to Buy (CRtB) in Part 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (LR(S)A). These include extending that right to urban as well as rural areas of Scotland, addressing some of the debilitating ‘process’ barriers associated with exercising the CRtB and making provision for community bodies to buy neglected and abandoned land where the owner is not a willing seller. They seem like common sense proposals. Admittedly some private landowners may baulk at the element of compulsion contained in the amended community right to buy but its focus on neglected and abandoned land is a far less potent threat to private land rights than the theoretical intent of the Crofting Community Right to Buy.

The Scottish Government will also introduce a further Land Reform Bill during the current Parliamentary session (which will presumably amend the currently all but unworkable Crofting Community Right to Buy contained in Part 3 of the LR(S)A). It has also committed to maintaining the Scottish Land Fund to support community buyouts until at least 2020 (although funding levels after 2016 remain unconfirmed).

Meanwhile, the UK Government’s Scottish Affairs Committee is working towards the Final Report of its own inquiry into fiscal aspects of land reform and the Scottish Government’s Agricultural Holdings Legislation Review Group has issued an Interim Report to be followed by a Final Report in December.

One intriguing aspect of the evolving land reform process in Scotland is the extent to which it reflects a more general contemporary trend towards the state indirectly ‘governing through community’ in response to an erosion of the web of mutual obligations and responsibilities connecting individuals and political authorities within national spaces; what the academic Nikolas Rose has described as “the death of the social”. The political appetite for this form of government is evident in the range of provisions contained in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill although whether these provisions will actually lead to more empowered communities is highly debatable. It’s evident too in the emphasis on ‘communities’ that infused the remit given to the LRRG by the Scottish Government back in 2012. Indeed, there’s some irony to be gleaned from the knowledge that the community ownership dimension of land reform – sometimes negatively portrayed as a left-wing, statist endeavour – has traces of neoliberalism underpinning it.

The glut of activity now focused on land reform suggests that it is making its way back up the Scottish political agenda to an extent not witnessed for over a decade. ‘Prizes for all’ might not be a realistic outcome of whatever policy measures are put in place by the current and successor Scottish Governments to propel land reform further along the path which ‘The Land of Scotland and The Common Good’ has mapped out. ‘Prizes for most’ – in the form of genuine community empowerment, more localised control over how land is owned and used, and new opportunities for rural and urban renewal – would be a more than acceptable alternative.

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