Yesterday’s comprehensive rejection of the SNP’s land reform plans by its own membership in favour of something a lot more radical introduces a new dimension to Scotland’s land reform process. These plans, contained in the Land Reform Bill currently before Parliament include creating a land commission, removing sporting estates’ business rates exemptions, providing guidance for landowners on community engagement, establishing a new community right to buy, and giving Ministers backstop powers of intervention if the scale of landownership or landowners’ decisions act as a barrier to communities’ sustainable development.
The SNP’s leadership is keen to portray this cocktail of institutional, administrative, fiscal and regulatory reform as radical. It really isn’t.
That’s not to say that the SNP Government hasn’t already been instrumental in delivering progressive land reform measures. Reintroducing the Scottish Land Fund and topping up its pot to the tune of £10 million annually, streamlining and simplifying the Community and Crofting Community Rights to Buy to make them easier to use and dragging land reform into focus as an issue as relevant to urban Lowland Scotland as the rural Highlands represent important achievements. All the more so given that land reform was missing in action as a serious political issue as little as five years ago. But still, there remains a nagging feeling that so far all the SNP has really done is reboot initiatives first devised by Labour and Labour-Lib Dem administrations either side of the devolution settlement in 1999.
As things stand, land reform under the SNP looks more like a process of evolution than revolution within which the longstanding concentration of private land ownership in Scotland is unlikely to be much dented, far less fractured.
As yesterday’s vote illustrates, that’s clearly unwelcome news as far as the SNP’s newly expanded rank and file is concerned. A flavour of that disenchantment was captured in a Channel 4 News report broadcast earlier this week. It pointed to the absence of measures to limit both the scale of land-holdings in Scotland and the ability of non-EU registered entities to own Scottish land in the Bill (both recommended by the Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group in its report published last year) as evidence of a mismatch between party rhetoric and political reality, or “bottling” it as reporter Alex Thompson less subtly put it.
By cranking up the rhetoric on land reform the SNP Government has turned the issue into a touchstone for the type of progressive left of centre politics with which many of its supporters identify. But having done so the party’s High Command shouldn’t be surprised that its membership has sent it away to think again now that the reform on offer doesn’t appear to pass muster in that regard.
The intriguing issue now is whether its membership’s rebellion persuades the SNP to belatedly inject some radicalism into the Land Reform Bill’s provisions before it becomes law. If not, legitimate questions might justifiably be asked by the party’s membership as to why the first acid test for the brave new politics of the post-indyref era seems dispiritingly to have resulted in business as usual.
The leadership claims to be listening to its members’ concerns. By coincidence, Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, and Aileen McLeod, Minister for Land Reform, will both give evidence on the Land Reform Bill to the Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee at its meeting on November 2nd. It’ll be interesting to hear what they have to say.