RACCE Committee’s Stage 1 Report on the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill

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The Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee published its Stage 1 Report on the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill last week.  The Report has been much anticipated because of its potential influence in shaping amendments to the Bill during Stages 2 and 3 of the legislative process.   All the more so given recent rumblings of discontent (not least from within the SNP’s own membership) that the Government’s land reform proposals are nowhere near radical enough to match its rhetoric on the issue. Others, less favourably disposed towards land reform, will doubtless have been hoping for a report that helps further dilute whatever radical intent may be detectable within the current Bill.

To its credit, the Committee’s Report does not play to either of these galleries.

Instead, it deploys measured language and robust analysis to carefully map out the Committee’s views and recommendations regarding the Bill as it stands. Continue reading

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The Scottish Government’s Land Reform Dilemma

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. Continue reading

Land Reform Rebellion in the SNP’s Ranks

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. Continue reading

Land reform goes into legislative overdrive

Scotland’s land reform process is giving a pretty good impression of being in legislative overdrive. Last week the Scottish Parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act containing, amongst other things, long overdue provisions to simplify the ‘Crofting Community’ and ‘Community’ Rights to Buy land and extend the latter’s coverage to urban as well as rural areas. Yesterday the Scottish Government published its long-awaited Land Reform Bill, embryonic legislation that the SNP claims will help permanently redraw the relationship between Scotland’s people and land in the interests of fairness, equality and social justice. Continue reading

Time to move beyond caricatures as land reform enters crucial phase

Scotland’s land reform process is about to enter a crucial phase. The Scottish Government will introduce a Land Reform Bill by the end of June with the intention of passing the new legislation before the current parliamentary session ends in 2016. The Bill’s contents are as yet unconfirmed but, amongst other things, it is likely to include provisions for establishing a Scottish Land Reform Commission; limiting legal entities that can own land; increasing transparency regarding land value and ownership; facilitating Ministerial intervention to remove barriers to local sustainable development linked to the scale or pattern of land ownership or landowners’ decisions; imposing a duty of community engagement on charitable trustees when taking land management decisions; and removing business rates exemptions from shooting and deerstalking enterprises.

According to recently published analysis, the vast majority of the 1269 respondents to the Scottish Government’s consultation on land reform are supportive of these proposals; the notable exception being ‘private landowner’ respondents, who overwhelmingly disagree with virtually all of them. That opposition is scarcely surprising from a grouping of organised interests who see nothing amiss with half of Scotland’s private land being in the hands of 432 owners, and who argue that, in any case, it’s how land is used rather than who owns it that counts.

That doubtless seems like a perfectly reasonable argument from a private landowning perspective. But it’s not greatly helped by the increasingly shrill and caricatured commentary emerging in the more floridly right-wing elements of the press. A good example of which was last week’s widely reported and apparently serious intervention by Viscount William Astor in an article for The Spectator titled Should we fear a Mugabe-style land grab in Rural Scotland? (The Spectator is nothing if not consistent in its choice of ‘land grab’ style).  Such polarising rhetoric does little to advance the ‘mature’ debate on land reform that landed interests claim to want.   Then again, failing to acknowledge that private landownership also has an important and legitimate role to play in Scotland’s future doesn’t take that debate much further either.

If the Government’s land reform proposals appear radical at first glance that’s only because Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of private land ownership is so markedly different from the norm elsewhere. Far from being the stuff of Viscount Astor’s nightmares, these proposals are progressive but relatively modest and pragmatic attempts to usher the relationship between Scotland’s people and land into the 21st century.

That much was confirmed in two carefully nuanced speeches given by Dr Aileen McLeod, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform at the annual conferences of Scottish Land & Estates and Community Land Scotland last week. Dr McLeod told SL&E delegates that community ownership will have “a central role to play” in taking forward the Government’s policy on land reform and asserted that:

“Land use and land ownership are intimately linked. This is because land owners make choices and decisions over how land is used, within the framework of policies, funding and the market”.

That probably wasn’t music to the ears of everyone in the room but she also sought to reassure delegates about the breadth and focus of the Government’s land reform agenda, stating:

“Land reform is about much more than land ownership. Land reform is about modernising the legal framework of rights and responsibilities around land – and how these impact on land governance – on land use, access, development, and yes, land ownership – to ensure that land delivers benefits across society…………The way we think about land reform needs to correspond to the values we hold – those of sustainability, social justice and equality – and reflect human rights and public interest”.

Dr McLeod revisited the themes of land rights and responsibilities, community collaboration with landowners, human rights and the public interest in her CLS conference speech last Friday. She confirmed that land reform “is not necessarily about ending large land ownerships” while also promising that the Land Reform Bill will build on the Community Empowerment Bill by providing “further tools that communities need to be able to address the balance of power that land ownership affords”.

Neither of Dr McLeod’s speeches sounded like the prelude to an ideologically-driven trolley dash to grab Scotland’s private estates en route to a socialist nirvana despite what land reform’s more excitable detractors may claim. Instead, they indicated that the Government’s proposals offer the opportunity to recalibrate land reform into a central and cross-cutting public policy area to help address issues of sustainability, social justice and inequality.

Whether that recalibration happens in practice will depend on a variety of inter-linked factors. Most obviously, sufficient political will must be maintained to enact land reform legislation that matches the scale of Government’s apparent policy ambition. There’s also work to be done inside the Scottish Government to ensure that various Departments clamber far enough out of their policy-silos to recognise the cross-cutting nature of land reform as a sphere of public policy and make connections accordingly. Now that the UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee is to be chaired by the SNP, there will also be keen interest in whether its predecessor Committee’s report on the fiscal aspects of land reform is taken forward and, if so, where that might lead in terms of generating wider policy connections.

Finally, it’s vital to transform the prevailing narrative of land reform from that of a narrowly framed rural (predominantly Highland) preoccupation to being a multi-faceted subject equally relevant to Lowland and urban Scotland. That message is slowly gathering momentum but needs to be hard-wired into communities the length and breadth of the country if a re-tooled and re-orientated land reform process is to deliver real, progressive change in Scotland.

Blurred Vision: Government’s Disconnected Support for Croft Housing

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THIS PHOTOGRAPH of my late father, Norman John Macleod, was taken in the 1950s. It shows him in Ardvie, the village in the Bays of Harris where he was born in 1926.  His parents were unmarried, a complicating factor in a Free Presbyterian childhood that led to him being brought up by his Aunt Kate on the croft of which she was the tenant and where he is pictured. Insofar as he belonged to anyone, my father belonged to her; a proxy filial bond cemented to the extent that everyone in the village knew him as ‘Tormod Ceit’ (Kate’s Norman). Behind him stands a tangible symbol of their shared existence; the croft house he built with help from a neighbouring tradesman and stone hauled from the seemingly endless supply in the quarry under Roineabhal’s shadow less than a mile away.

Harold Macmillan’s claim in 1957 that most of Britain had never had it so good was probably true in my father and great aunt’s case.   With two bedrooms, scullery, bathroom, living room and a spare room downstairs, their new home was positively palatial compared to the cramped and crumbling surroundings of their previous abode. Kate and Norman would have been living there still but for the Secretary of State for Scotland stumping up a loan of £1,150 under the terms of the Small Landholders (Scotland) Acts 1886 to 1931 to finance construction of their new house. Good times indeed. Continue reading

RACCE Committee’s Stage 1 Report on the Community Right to Buy Land

The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee published its Stage 1 Report on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill yesterday. At 245 pages it’s a hefty tome. Most of the interest from a land reform perspective centres on Annex 1 containing the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee’s report on Part 4 of the Bill, focusing on changes to the current Community Right to Buy (CRtB) in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Although important, the existing Community Right to Buy is viewed as complex and cumbersome for communities to use in practice. Part 4 of the Community Empowerment Bill is therefore supposed to simplify and streamline the CRtB’s implementation, whilst simultaneously extending its geographical coverage to include urban as well as rural areas and enabling communities to buy land in certain circumstances when there is not a willing seller.

The RACCE Committee’s report endorses the broad thrust of the provisions in Part 4 of the Bill. Extending the CRtB to include urban communities is welcomed as is a Government commitment to consider Stage 2 amendments to extend the types of community bodies eligible to use that right. The report also endorses the idea that ‘place’ rather than ‘interest’ should take precedence in rooting definitions of community in relation to the legislation. Unsurprisingly, the Committee agrees that mapping requirements when using the CRtB should be simplified and is supportive of the requirement that communities register their interest if they wish to use that right to purchase land (albeit while advocating a less administratively onerous ‘right-lite’ approach in the first instance). It also favours communities’ re-registering their interest in land every five years after initial registration. Helpfully, the Committee also advocates removing the requirement for communities to either show good reason or demonstrate relevant work if they make a late registration (i.e. register their interest in land after it has been put on the market); requirements that don’t apply to communities making timeous registrations of interest.

The above recommendations are not especially eye-catching. However, if adopted, they are likely make implementation of the CRtB more effective in practice. Continue reading