Amending the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill

January 13th is shaping up to be an important day for the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill. That’s when the Scottish Government is due to submit its amendments to the draft legislation currently making its way through Parliament. These amendments will be produced against the backdrop of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s (RACCE) detailed and analytically robust Stage 1 Report on the Bill, published in December. That Report concludes that considerable work is required to ensure that the Bill’s provisions match the radical promise of its principles.

I’ve already blogged on the Stage 1 Report here. In summary, the Committee wants more detail on proposed guidance for landowners’ engagement with communities and on potential sanctions for not doing so. It also recommends ways to increase transparency of land ownership in Scotland and calls for thresholds triggering the Bill’s new Community Right to Buy to further sustainable development to be set at a level that makes that right a viable option for communities to use. The Committee has also demanded that the Scottish Government better demonstrates the case for re-introducing non-domestic rates for shootings and deer forests. The majority of the Committee advocates introduction of a right to buy in certain circumstances for agricultural tenants but its entire membership is sceptical about the Bill’s capacity to maintain or increase the amount of land available to let, strengthen tenants’ rights and make it easier for them to invest in their tenancies, protect landlords’ rights and ensure continued confidence in the agricultural sector for land to be let. Continue reading

‘One Million Acres by 2020’: Strategy Report of the 1 Million Acre Short Life Working Group

Another week, another land reform-themed report. Hard on the heels of the RACCE Committee’s Stage 1 report on the Land Reform Bill comes ‘One Million Acres by 2020’, the strategy report of the Scottish Government-appointed 1 Million Acre Short Life Working Group. Its appearance is further indication of the extraordinary head of steam that land reform has picked up since publication of the Land Reform Review Group’s (LRRG) final report, ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ last year.

The genesis of ‘One Million Acres by 2020’ predates the LRRG’s report. Back in June 2013 the then First Minister, Alex Salmond, used his keynote speech at Community Land Scotland’s annual conference to announce a target of achieving 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020. That was unexpected news to most of the people in the audience at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye that day. Rumour has it that it was unexpected news to at least some of Mr Salmond’s Civil Servants too. Continue reading

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

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. Continue reading

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

Land Reform in 2015

2015 is shaping up to be a significant year for land reform in Scotland. The Scottish Government is consulting on the contents of a new Land Reform Act to be introduced in the current Parliamentary session. That legislation is envisaged as forming part of a Land Rights and Responsibilities Policy to fill the land reform policy vacuum that has existed in Government for a decade.

Judging by proposals in the consultation paper the policy will encompass institutional change (a new Scottish Land Reform Commission to oversee policy progress); greater transparency and accountability of land ownership (more information on who owns what land and limits to legal entities that can take future ownership of land); scope for Ministerial intervention in land ownership and management (where the scale or pattern of landownership in an area or the conduct of a landowner act as barriers to sustainable development); and specific measures to manage land and land rights for the common good (including a duty of community engagement on charitable trusts regarding land-based decision-making and an end to business rates exemptions for shooting and deerstalking businesses). Continue reading