The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee published its Stage 1 Report on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill yesterday. At 245 pages it’s a hefty tome. Most of the interest from a land reform perspective centres on Annex 1 containing the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee’s report on Part 4 of the Bill, focusing on changes to the current Community Right to Buy (CRtB) in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Although important, the existing Community Right to Buy is viewed as complex and cumbersome for communities to use in practice. Part 4 of the Community Empowerment Bill is therefore supposed to simplify and streamline the CRtB’s implementation, whilst simultaneously extending its geographical coverage to include urban as well as rural areas and enabling communities to buy land in certain circumstances when there is not a willing seller.
The RACCE Committee’s report endorses the broad thrust of the provisions in Part 4 of the Bill. Extending the CRtB to include urban communities is welcomed as is a Government commitment to consider Stage 2 amendments to extend the types of community bodies eligible to use that right. The report also endorses the idea that ‘place’ rather than ‘interest’ should take precedence in rooting definitions of community in relation to the legislation. Unsurprisingly, the Committee agrees that mapping requirements when using the CRtB should be simplified and is supportive of the requirement that communities register their interest if they wish to use that right to purchase land (albeit while advocating a less administratively onerous ‘right-lite’ approach in the first instance). It also favours communities’ re-registering their interest in land every five years after initial registration. Helpfully, the Committee also advocates removing the requirement for communities to either show good reason or demonstrate relevant work if they make a late registration (i.e. register their interest in land after it has been put on the market); requirements that don’t apply to communities making timeous registrations of interest.
The above recommendations are not especially eye-catching. However, if adopted, they are likely make implementation of the CRtB more effective in practice.
Not that the report is all milk and honey as far as the Government’s refitting of the Community Right to Buy is concerned. The Committee appears unimpressed by the paucity of detail contained in the Policy and Financial Memoranda accompanying the Bill. The Policy Memorandum in particular is criticised for not providing further consideration of sustainable development and for not bringing the issue of human rights into the wider context of the Bill. These criticisms seem particularly trenchant given the Committee’s views on the Bill’s provisions to extend the CRtB to include wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected land in the absence of a willing seller.
In an earlier blog I noted that, in its evidence sessions on the CRtB, the Committee seemed sceptical about the purpose of including these provisions regarding abandoned or neglected land and the prospects of their being enforceable in practice. That scepticism has hardened in the report, which states:
“14. ….[T]he Committee has concerns that this new right, as the provisions are currently drafted, may be almost impossible to exercise, with too many obstacles and opportunities for avoidance on the part of landowners. Notwithstanding this, the Committee believes that the existence of this power is likely to play an important role in incentivising negotiation.
15. The Committee questions the need to restrict the definition of eligible land to that which is considered to be wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected. The Committee is concerned that these provisions, as drafted, may fail to further sustainable development.
16. The Committee also questions why the Scottish Government considers that a definition is needed at all, as the parallel tests for crofting land purchases do not require this.
17. The Committee considers that there are convincing arguments that the tests of ̳furthering sustainable development‘ and of being ̳in the public interest‘ are capable of testing all requirements. On that basis, the Committee recommends that the Scottish Government reconsider the requirement that eligible land be restricted to land which is wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected and recommends that the Scottish Government consider a definition that relates to the wider circumstances which can be a barrier to sustainable development, such as the lack of achievement of the use and/or development of land that could deliver greater public benefit.”
It’ll be fascinating to see how that recommendation to essentially ditch the ‘abandoned and neglected land’ provisions in favour of a wider ‘public interest’ test fares during stage 2 of the Bill’s legislative progress. Not least because the latter basically replicates a policy commitment to reform the Community Right to Buy made by former Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont during the party’s annual conference in April 2013 while land reform was still smouldering quietly on the back burner of Scottish politics. Will Scottish Labour and an SNP seemingly determined to put its stamp on progressive land reform ensure that the Bill is amended accordingly?
Aside from that, the Committee also seems unimpressed with the Scottish Government’s intention to shoehorn amendments to the Crofting Community Right to Buy into stage 2 of the Bill. The report states:
“The Committee considers that the introduction of significant new provisions by way of amendments at stage 2 is undesirable in terms of effective parliamentary scrutiny, as the time available at stage 2 to consider new evidence is limited.”
That’s a point well made. However, it’s vitally important that the opportunity to make the currently unworkable Crofting Community Right to Buy fit for purpose is not squandered during stage 2 deliberations that are likely to be dominated by further amendments to the Community Right to Buy. All will become clearer in the coming weeks as the Bill receives further scrutiny.