The SNP’s victory in the Scottish Parliamentary election earlier this month was entirely predictable. However, the party’s failure to win an overall Parliamentary majority makes the course it will chart on land reform as a minority Government less so.
A good deal of the SNP’s manifesto offer on land reform reiterated commitments linked to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, passed at the very end of the previous Parliamentary session. In practical terms that means establishing a Scottish Land Commission, publishing a Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities statement, creating a mandatory public register of controlling interests in landowners or tenants and implementing a new community right to buy to further sustainable development. It also means implementing the deeply contentious Agricultural Holdings provisions in Part 10 of the 2016 Act.
Aside from that, the SNP has committed to taking forward recommendations relating to the ‘One Million Acres by 2020’, strategy report of the 1 Million Acre Short Life Working Group.
The SNP manifesto further states that the Government will “bring forward proposals to modernise and improve powers for compulsory sale orders. These powers need to be effective to tackle the blight of abandoned buildings and small plots of land in town centres and communities but also adequately protect the rights of owners”. There’s also a commitment to review small landholding legislation and establish Land Scotland, a new land agency “to maximise the benefits of publicly owned land to the nation”.
The intriguing issue is how, if at all, the political currents of minority government might recalibrate the land reform agenda over the next five years. In particular it will be interesting to see whether the Scottish Greens – now with prominent land reform campaigner Andy Wightman in the fold as one of their 6 MSPs – can gain any policy traction with the SNP regarding their own manifesto proposals for “bolder” land reform.
The Greens’ proposals focus on increasing the transparency of land ownership via an open, free-to-use national land information system and an end to land ownership in offshore tax havens; providing a right for secure agricultural tenants to buy their farms “in certain circumstances”; giving children equal rights to inherit land; allowing local authorities to obtain land for higher quality housing at existing use value; ensuring all vacant and derelict land is subject to non-domestic rates; and replacing the current system of non-domestic rates with a land value tax. Given the party’s decentralising instincts, there’s also a strong emphasis on community control of public land and on community agriculture by modernising the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act 1919.
On first inspection, there looks like enough in that prospectus to find common cause with the hefty swathe of the SNP’s membership who were unimpressed by the radical land reform claims emanating from the leadership during last year’s autumn party conference.
Of course, it may be that the SNP’s High Command takes a pragmatic stance and seeks support from elsewhere in the chamber to drive aspects of its legislative agenda through Parliament. As the informal arrangement between the SNP and Scottish Conservatives in the 2007-11 Parliamentary session showed, minority government can make for unlikely bedfellows when political necessity demands.
We’ll have to wait and see on that front.
Still, it does seem clear that land reform is becoming ever more deeply embedded in the decision-making structures of Government following Nicola Sturgeon’s reshuffling of Cabinet portfolios and Ministers after the SNP’s election victory.
In that context it’s noteworthy that Roseanna Cunningham has been appointed Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. She has a track-record on land reform, having been Environment Minister when the Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee undertook post-legislative scrutiny of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 back in 2010 (the land reform page on my website has more details on that review). Indeed, her subsequent commitment to reviewing the 2003 Act following that scrutiny process was arguably instrumental in leading to the Land Reform Review Group’s influential report in 2014, together with legislative and other developments that continue to flow from that report’s recommendations.
And, as Malcolm Combe notes in his recent blog, the new Cabinet Secretary has not been averse to “radical” land reform in the past. At stage 3 of the 2003 Land Reform Act’s legislative passage she tabled an amendment (subsequently rejected) for forced sales of land to communities in particular circumstances.
Time will tell whether Cabinet Secretary Cunningham retains any such radical instincts. In any event, a combination of minority government, continuing grass-roots pressure for more action from within the SNP’s membership and beyond and the omnipresent constitutional issue of independence suggests interesting times ahead for land reform in Scotland.