Time to move beyond caricatures as land reform enters crucial phase

Scotland’s land reform process is about to enter a crucial phase. The Scottish Government will introduce a Land Reform Bill by the end of June with the intention of passing the new legislation before the current parliamentary session ends in 2016. The Bill’s contents are as yet unconfirmed but, amongst other things, it is likely to include provisions for establishing a Scottish Land Reform Commission; limiting legal entities that can own land; increasing transparency regarding land value and ownership; facilitating Ministerial intervention to remove barriers to local sustainable development linked to the scale or pattern of land ownership or landowners’ decisions; imposing a duty of community engagement on charitable trustees when taking land management decisions; and removing business rates exemptions from shooting and deerstalking enterprises.

According to recently published analysis, the vast majority of the 1269 respondents to the Scottish Government’s consultation on land reform are supportive of these proposals; the notable exception being ‘private landowner’ respondents, who overwhelmingly disagree with virtually all of them. That opposition is scarcely surprising from a grouping of organised interests who see nothing amiss with half of Scotland’s private land being in the hands of 432 owners, and who argue that, in any case, it’s how land is used rather than who owns it that counts.

That doubtless seems like a perfectly reasonable argument from a private landowning perspective. But it’s not greatly helped by the increasingly shrill and caricatured commentary emerging in the more floridly right-wing elements of the press. A good example of which was last week’s widely reported and apparently serious intervention by Viscount William Astor in an article for The Spectator titled Should we fear a Mugabe-style land grab in Rural Scotland? (The Spectator is nothing if not consistent in its choice of ‘land grab’ style).  Such polarising rhetoric does little to advance the ‘mature’ debate on land reform that landed interests claim to want.   Then again, failing to acknowledge that private landownership also has an important and legitimate role to play in Scotland’s future doesn’t take that debate much further either.

If the Government’s land reform proposals appear radical at first glance that’s only because Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of private land ownership is so markedly different from the norm elsewhere. Far from being the stuff of Viscount Astor’s nightmares, these proposals are progressive but relatively modest and pragmatic attempts to usher the relationship between Scotland’s people and land into the 21st century.

That much was confirmed in two carefully nuanced speeches given by Dr Aileen McLeod, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform at the annual conferences of Scottish Land & Estates and Community Land Scotland last week. Dr McLeod told SL&E delegates that community ownership will have “a central role to play” in taking forward the Government’s policy on land reform and asserted that:

“Land use and land ownership are intimately linked. This is because land owners make choices and decisions over how land is used, within the framework of policies, funding and the market”.

That probably wasn’t music to the ears of everyone in the room but she also sought to reassure delegates about the breadth and focus of the Government’s land reform agenda, stating:

“Land reform is about much more than land ownership. Land reform is about modernising the legal framework of rights and responsibilities around land – and how these impact on land governance – on land use, access, development, and yes, land ownership – to ensure that land delivers benefits across society…………The way we think about land reform needs to correspond to the values we hold – those of sustainability, social justice and equality – and reflect human rights and public interest”.

Dr McLeod revisited the themes of land rights and responsibilities, community collaboration with landowners, human rights and the public interest in her CLS conference speech last Friday. She confirmed that land reform “is not necessarily about ending large land ownerships” while also promising that the Land Reform Bill will build on the Community Empowerment Bill by providing “further tools that communities need to be able to address the balance of power that land ownership affords”.

Neither of Dr McLeod’s speeches sounded like the prelude to an ideologically-driven trolley dash to grab Scotland’s private estates en route to a socialist nirvana despite what land reform’s more excitable detractors may claim. Instead, they indicated that the Government’s proposals offer the opportunity to recalibrate land reform into a central and cross-cutting public policy area to help address issues of sustainability, social justice and inequality.

Whether that recalibration happens in practice will depend on a variety of inter-linked factors. Most obviously, sufficient political will must be maintained to enact land reform legislation that matches the scale of Government’s apparent policy ambition. There’s also work to be done inside the Scottish Government to ensure that various Departments clamber far enough out of their policy-silos to recognise the cross-cutting nature of land reform as a sphere of public policy and make connections accordingly. Now that the UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee is to be chaired by the SNP, there will also be keen interest in whether its predecessor Committee’s report on the fiscal aspects of land reform is taken forward and, if so, where that might lead in terms of generating wider policy connections.

Finally, it’s vital to transform the prevailing narrative of land reform from that of a narrowly framed rural (predominantly Highland) preoccupation to being a multi-faceted subject equally relevant to Lowland and urban Scotland. That message is slowly gathering momentum but needs to be hard-wired into communities the length and breadth of the country if a re-tooled and re-orientated land reform process is to deliver real, progressive change in Scotland.

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