Yesterday the Scottish Government published ‘A Consultation on the Future of Land Reform in Scotland’, a week after First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced a Programme for Government in which land reform features prominently. That’s a remarkable turnaround because only eighteen months ago it didn’t look as if land reform had much of a future in Scotland at all.
Back in May 2013, the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG), appointed by the Scottish Government to develop “innovative and radical” proposals for land reform produced an interim report of such limited scope and content that Andy Wightman (someone who, if he didn’t exist would surely have to be invented) declared land reform to be “effectively dead in the water as a matter of public policy”. My own blog on the report was scarcely any more optimistic.
Fast-forward a year and the re-booted LRRG’s final report ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ published in May 2014 bore little resemblance to its earlier incarnation. Instead, the report’s 62 recommendations, framed within the concepts of the public interest and the common good, challenged Scotland’s political elite to finally get serious about land reform after a decade in which it had been misunderstood and virtually ignored as an issue of public policy.
The SNP Government certainly appears intent on hauling land reform back from the forgotten fringes of the political agenda. Its proposals for the forthcoming Land Reform Bill include establishing a Scottish Land Reform Commission to underpin land reform; improving transparency and accountability by making land ownership information more accessible and limiting legal entities that can take future ownership of land; providing Scottish Ministers with powers to intervene where the scale or pattern of landownership, or the conduct of the landowner is acting as a barrier to sustainable development; and ending the business (non-domestic) rates exemption for shooting and deerstalking businesses (see Andy Wightman’s blog for a fuller assessment of these and proposals contained in ‘Consultation on the Future of Land Reform in Scotland‘).
Many of these proposals will encourage anyone who sees land reform as an important contributor to a more socially progressive and sustainable Scotland. Perhaps none more so than the proposal, contained in ‘Consultation on the Future of Land Reform in Scotland’ to develop a ‘Land Rights and Responsibilities’ Policy. Get that right and land reform might achieve the coherence and cohesion needed to become a genuinely crosscutting area of Government activity.
There’s probably a decent PhD to be written on what’s resuscitated land reform as an issue of public and political concern after such a lengthy period in the wilderness. It’s certainly true that the LRRG’s report lit a slow-burning fuse long before the independence referendum campaign drew to a close. But you would have been hard pressed to find much mention of land reform on either side of the independence debate in the run-up to the referendum on September 18th.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere the referendum result has arguably created a policy space for land reform that might not otherwise have existed, or at least not been occupied as extensively or quickly as now appears to be the case. Reluctantly free of the time-consuming matter of negotiating Scotland’s way out of the UK, the SNP can now focus on developing policies that help cement the narrative of Scotland as a nation with distinctive left-of-centre, communitarian values. Land reform plays well with key aspects of that narrative regarding social justice and fairness. If that helps bring more wavering Labour supporters into the pro-independence camp, then so much the better from the SNP’s perspective.
Assuming it survives its current existential crisis, Scottish Labour will also be keen to claim that same communitarian narrative as its own with the party struggling to regain the left of centre political ground ceded to a resurgent SNP. Reacquainting itself with land reform is one way to demonstrate the progressive credentials of a party that did much to facilitate community land ownership, both prior to and in the immediate aftermath of devolution. In truth, Scottish Labour doesn’t really have much option but to go along for the ride if the SNP keeps its foot hard on the land reform pedal. Anything less would risk the party being portrayed by the SNP as out of touch with what Scottish Labour views as its natural constituency of supporters.
Whatever its drivers, the prospect of a cross-party consensus (with the obvious exception of the Tories) on land reform will bring little comfort to Scotland’s landed elite. For others of a more progressive disposition it offers the possibility that land reform might finally be here to stay as a public policy issue.