Scotland’s land reform process is giving a pretty good impression of being in legislative overdrive. Last week the Scottish Parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act containing, amongst other things, long overdue provisions to simplify the ‘Crofting Community’ and ‘Community’ Rights to Buy land and extend the latter’s coverage to urban as well as rural areas. Yesterday the Scottish Government published its long-awaited Land Reform Bill, embryonic legislation that the SNP claims will help permanently redraw the relationship between Scotland’s people and land in the interests of fairness, equality and social justice.
Few of the Bill’s provisions will surprise anyone who’s kept half an eye on the way land reform’s been evolving as a policy issue over the last few months. They were heavily trailed in a Government consultation paper issued last December in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that ‘radical land reform’ would be at the centre of the SNP’s Programme for Government during the remainder of this Parliamentary session. Many of the proposals contained in that paper have found their way onto the pages of the draft Bill. So there are provisions for a Scottish Land Commission and a Land Rights and Responsibilities Policy Statement to make sure that – this time – land reform sticks around on the political agenda rather than exiting stage left as happened after the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was passed. There are provisions too for enhancing access to information on exactly who does own Scotland and for placing a duty on charitable trusts to engage with communities when making land management decisions, whether they want to or not. Alongside these sit interim proposals for deer management ahead of a future statutory scheme, some minor modifications to statutory provisions on common good and marginal changes to the core paths planning process.
Now, while some folk might huff and puff that these provisions will add yet more layers of stifling bureaucracy where none are needed, there’s nothing much in the above to get terribly exercised about.
The same can scarcely be said for the remainder of the Bill. Its proposal to remove business rates exemptions from deer forests and shootings (enterprises that are essentially the preserve of large private estates) has prompted landed interests to warn of potentially dire consequences for the rural economy in terms of lost jobs and dwindling inward investment. That argument hasn’t cut much ice with the Government. The Policy Memorandum accompanying the Bill flatly states that there is no clear policy basis for these exemptions to continue and that the Government is unconvinced as to the allegedly negative effects that their removal will cause. Indeed there’s a counter argument to be made that levelling the business rates playing field may actually result in economic benefits, given that the additional revenues will help top up the Scottish Land Fund to the tune of £10 million per year to finance more community land buyouts. That ‘glass half full’ perspective is admittedly unlikely to be shared by all.
Aside from the prospect of tax exemptions disappearing, provisions to enable Ministers to force the sale of land if the scale of landownership or landowners’ decisions act as a barrier to communities’ sustainable development have also sounded alarm bells amongst private landowners. It hasn’t taken long for the polarising rhetoric of “land grabs” to be dusted down and given an airing in much of the ensuing media coverage of the Bill. However, anyone seriously anticipating that land will be wrenched from private hands in a redistributive frenzy to the masses probably needs to take a deep breath before gently exhaling.
I genuinely doubt that progressive private landowners (and apparently most of them are) have anything much to fear from what are likely to be last-resort, backstop powers of intervention. But that’ll probably be of cold comfort to them unless some definitional backbone is added to the somewhat opaque conceptual properties of sustainable development within the legislation. Parliament will also have to untangle the relationship between the Land Reform Bill’s proposed Right to Buy and the newly minted ‘unwilling seller’ variant contained in the Community Empowerment Act. It’s unclear (to me at least) why the proposed right focuses on advancing ‘sustainable development’ when that was rejected as a basis for the existing Right to Buy in favour of emphasising ‘environmental wellbeing’. Neither is it obvious whether communities will be able to use the proposed right as an alternative to the Community Empowerment Act’s Right to Buy so as to force a buyout in the absence of a willing seller. Expect this aspect of the Bill to be subjected to particularly intense scrutiny when making its way through the legislative process.
The third area of contention concerns the sizable portion of the Bill relating to Agricultural Holdings. At first reading provisions on future tenancy arrangements; tenant’s right to buy; sale when landlords are in breach of tenancy obligations; rent reviews; assignation and succession to tenancies; compensation for tenant’s improvements; and a right to object to certain improvements by landlords all seem focused on enhancing the lot of tenant farmers. Others may argue that bolting these provisions onto the Bill risks ‘cut and shut’ legislation that creates as many problems as it seeks to solve.
Time will tell how these and other aspects of the Bill fare as it progresses through Parliament in the autumn. It’s likely to secure cross-party support (Scottish Tories aside) so will probably emerge relatively unscathed if that shared political will continues to stack up. In any case, the key point to emphasise is that the legislation needs to form part of a much wider, on-going programme of progressive land reform rather than representing Government’s last word on that process.