Land Reform Bill Approaches Endgame

The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill is fast approaching its legislative endgame. Last week it emerged from Stage 2 of that process in Parliament looking marginally more radical than before. Although ‘radical’ is a relative term in a country with one of the most concentrated patterns of private land ownership in the world.  The new version of the Bill has further detail on the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and Scottish Land Commission, both of which are intended to ensure that land reform becomes entrenched as a permanent feature of Scottish public policy. Some headway has also been made on gleaning information about the control of land, although not as much as some land reformers would like.

The proposed guidance for landowners on community engagement will now incorporate a pick and mix of “relevant human rights”, potentially opening up enforcement possibilities regarding those who fail to adhere to it. Meanwhile the community right to buy to further sustainable development contained in Part 5 of the Bill can now be “the most practicable” way (rather than the “only practicable way”) to “prevent significant harm” to a community wishing to use it. Many will welcome that while simultaneously questioning why the new right cannot be made less onerous still for communities to use; akin to a simplified ‘crofting community right to buy’ that actually works.

Scottish Ministers haven’t blinked on the issue of reacquainting shootings and deer forests with non-domestic rates paid by countless other businesses. It remains to be seen whether reintroducing these rates will plunge Scotland’s rural economy into the type of existential crisis that some have suggested. However, it is the large part of the Bill given over to Agricultural Holdings that remains its most divisive element; a feature that proposed new rules concerning secure 1991 Act tenancies seem to have further exacerbated.

Broadly, these rules will enable a retiring tenant to sell their tenancy back to the landlord or assign it to “an individual who is a new entrant to, or who is progressing in, farming” if the landlord does not wish to buy out the tenancy. In the apparently binary world of agricultural holdings these proposals will either be the ruin or the making of the tenanted sector, depending on whether you’re more inclined towards Scottish Land & Estates or the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association’s views on the issue (see Malcolm Combe’s informative blog for detailed discussion of this and other aspects of the Bill).

The increasingly sulphurous debate around Agricultural Holdings will doubtless continue when the Bill reaches its third and final stage next month.   However, it’s hard to see how the SNP Government can now row back from the positions it has adopted on that and other contentious aspects of the Bill. It’s harder still to see why it would want to do so, given that the promise of radical reform is what led Ministers to this point in the first place.

Expect Stage 3 therefore to involve consolidating what’s already in the Bill rather than engineering a last-gasp Great Leap Forward for land reform. That’s perhaps dispiriting mood music for anyone who hoped that the Bill would transform the concentrated pattern of private landownership in Scotland. Others who view land reform as a gradual process shaped by the ‘art of the possible’ will see the Bill as an important staging post towards a more progressive and sustainable relationship between Scotland’s people and land. That particular journey still has a long way to go.