Over the last few months the SNP Government has been in cruise control on land reform, confidently talking up the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament as a means for radically reordering the relationship between Scotland’s people and land. Recently, however, some spanners have been thrown into the well-oiled works of that particular narrative.
The first of these was hurled by the SNP’s own members. At the Party’s October conference they voted to reject the pragmatic contents of the Land Reform Bill as insufficiently radical to make much difference to Scotland’s highly concentrated pattern of land ownership. A second relates to the imminent eviction of Andrew Stoddart and his family from Coulston Mains farm in East Lothian, a case that widespread media coverage and focused public activism have transformed into a cause célèbre regarding the perceived unfairness of Scotland’s current Agricultural Holdings legislation (see Malcolm Combe’s recent blog for further comment on that case and its broader legislative context).
The Government’s claims for radical land reform may soon be further undermined by the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) which has spent the last couple of months taking oral evidence from witnesses as part of the scrutiny process of the Land Reform Bill as it progresses through Holyrood’s legislative stages. The Committee will publish its Stage 1 Report on the Bill by December 4th. Although no-one’s idea of a page-turner, that Report matters because it will help set the scene for amendments to the Bill at Stages 2 and 3 of the legislative process.
All of which leaves the SNP Government in a slightly tricky position.
Such was the paucity of political interest – never mind action – regarding land reform as recently as 2010, that most campaigners would probably have accepted the current Bill’s provisions in the blink of an eye back then. Especially if they’d known that the Scottish Land Fund would be restored and the Community Right to Buy land would be simplified; both of which have happened in the last five years.
But this is 2015.
Now land reform stands as a totem for the sort of progressive politics that many people thought they were signing up for when they joined the SNP in the aftermath of the independence referendum result. That’s an impression that the SNP Government has done little to dispel in ramping up its land reform rhetoric ever since that result.
Faced with rumblings of discontent from its own party members, a wider grass-roots movement for change, unfavourable media coverage and a potentially critical RACCE report, the Government must soon decide whether to stick or twist in terms of bolstering the radical credentials of the Bill during Stages 2 and 3.
An emboldened Government could, for example, introduce provisions to cap the size of land-holdings in Scotland and limit the ability of non-EU registered entities to own Scottish land; two proposals contained in the 2014 Report of the Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group that were rejected by the Government (see Andy Wightman’s blog for arguments in favour of non-EU ownership limitations).
It could also make sure that the Bill’s right to buy land to further sustainable development is not fashioned in such a way as to make it disproportionately difficult to implement, as was the case with the Crofting Community Right to Buy in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.
If the Government feels especially bold, it might even consider introducing an absolute right to buy for agricultural tenants within the sizable part of the Bill dealing with Agricultural Holdings.
The alternative is to continue to plot a steadily pragmatic course on what the Government insists is an on-going journey of land reform. That’s unlikely to please land reform’s detractors who already view that journey as taking Scotland in the wrong direction. Ironically, it won’t please a great swathe of the SNP’S own membership who thought they were hitching a ride to a different, more egalitarian Scotland either.
Plenty, therefore, for Minsters to ponder in the coming weeks.