The Scottish Land Commission and ‘robust land reform’

The new Scottish Land Commission came into operation on April 1st. That might not seem like a particularly big deal. Especially given that recent Scottish land reform has been dominated by the passing of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016; both highly controversial pieces of legislation designed to help diversify Scotland’s extraordinarily concentrated pattern of private land ownership. But Scotland’s Parliamentarians have ‘previous’ when it comes to resting on their laurels while fondly imagining that the ‘land question’ has been legislatively fixed. As the almost decade-long policy hiatus following the passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 shows, it’s all too easy to let the political impetus for land reform dissipate in the absence of drivers to keep it on the policy agenda.  So the creation of the Scottish Land Commission to provide “direction, leadership, and strategic thought to land reform in Scotland” matters because it represents a potentially significant institutional driver for retaining and rejuvenating that impetus.

The early signs are encouraging.  The five Land Commissioners (Andrew Thin, Sally Reynolds, Megan MacInnes, Lorne MacLeod and David Adams) and one Tenant Farming Commissioner (Bob McIntosh) collectively bring a wealth of relevant experience to their statutory functions.  For the Land Commissioners these functions for any land-related matter broadly include legislative and policy review; research and analysis; and the provision of information and guidance. The Tenant Farming Commissioner’s functions include preparing and promoting codes of practice; inquiring into alleged breaches of the codes; reporting on the operations of agents of landlords and tenants; making recommendations for a “modern list” of improvements to agricultural holdings; referring questions of law regarding agricultural holdings to the Land Court; and working with the Land Commissioners in undertaking their functions when the latter relate to agriculture and agricultural holdings.

Clearly there is not going to be a shortage of things for the Commission to do in leading what its Interim Corporate Plan anticipates will be “a robust land reform process”. One underpinned by a vision based on “establishing a fair, inclusive and productive system of land rights and responsibilities that delivers greater public benefits and promotes respect for and observance of relevant human rights. It anticipates an increasingly diverse pattern of land ownership and tenure which properly reflects national and local aspirations”.

Of course it’s far too early to say how these rousing words will play out in practice once the embryonic Commission hits its stride. Much will depend on the level of resources available to a deliberately lean organisation, in terms of core staff, as it evolves; although £1.4million of Grant-in-Aid for 2017-18 seems like a reasonable start.   A great deal will also depend on how the Commission deploys what it claims will be a “thoroughly evidence-based” approach to its decisions and recommendations and what tangible differences that approach will make in practice.  Speaking truth to the power of vested interests in the highly charged arena of Scottish land reform may well prove an unpalatable business but it’s a necessary one.  So it will be interesting to hear what Andrew Thin, Chair of the Commission, has to say when he gives the keynote speech at Community Land Scotland’s Annual Conference in Skye next week.

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