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.

The Government published its response to the Committee’s report on January 5th, somewhat later than the Parliament’s would have liked  (see Malcolm Combe’s blog for more on that response).  It will be interesting to see the extent to which the Government’s distills its response into amendments that address the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations.

It’ll be instructive too. Not least because land reform is fast becoming a litmus test for the type of progressive, socially inclusive politics to which the SNP claims to be wedded. The party’s top brass have certainly talked a good game about its intentions to transform the relationship between Scotland’s people and land over the last 18 months.  They were at it again during last month’s Stage 1 Parliamentary debate on the Bill. Opening that debate, Environment and Land Reform Minister, Aileen McLeod asserted:

“Land reform is a vital part of the Government’s aspirations for a fairer, more equal and socially just Scotland. Underpinning the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill is an ambition to fundamentally change the framework of legal and social rights and responsibilities that determine how our land is used and governed, to address inequalities and to ensure that our land delivers the greatest benefits to our economy and all our communities.”

Richard Lochhead, the Rural Affairs, Food and Environment Cabinet Secretary, was not slow to pick up the rhetorical baton in his closing remarks during the same debate either, stating:

“We are in the midst of a momentous groundswell in support for action on land reform. Our proposals are about ensuring that one of our greatest assets benefits the many, not the few. The bill is not a one-off, and it is not a quick fix. It does not have all the answers, but it will implement effective and radical land reform. It will knock down some of the obstacles that communities and our citizens face in fulfilling their potential and controlling more of their own destiny.”

 That Parliamentary debate was also instructive in laying out most of the other parties’ perspectives on the Bill. Scottish Labour and the Greens are supportive and, if anything, seem keen to expand and reinforce the Bill’s reforming scope still further. The Conservatives see any threat to private property rights as anathema and are implacably opposed to the Bill’s agricultural holdings provisions, but they are at least consistent in both these regards. In contrast, it’s genuinely hard to know where the Liberal Democrats stand on land reform following their contribution to the debate. Not that it matters in the bigger scheme of things; the debate and its underlying Parliamentary arithmetic indicate that the Government will enjoy a clear run to pass genuinely progressive land reform legislation if it so desires.

To do so, Ministers must navigate some tricky interconnected terrain in a relatively short space of time. Some of that terrain is conceptual. It chiefly involves whether to succumb to calls for ‘clearer’ definitions of sustainable development that potentially close down communities’ scope for manoeuvre within the context of the new ‘Right to Buy’ in the Bill. In turn, that links to recommendations for lowering the sustainable development thresholds for triggering that Right to Buy that are contained in the RACCE Stage 1 Report.    Some of the terrain is legal in terms of ensuring that any disturbance of individual property rights is done in the public interest and in accordance with the full scope of human rights. Ultimately, all of that terrain is political because determining who gets (or keeps) land and on what basis, is the stuff of politics writ large.

It’s a stone-cold certainty that the Government’s amendments to the Land Reform Bill won’t please everybody, whatever form they take. But land reform is not, by its nature, a consensual process. In driving the Bill over the legislative finish line, Ministers must therefore decide who they want to help most and why. That shouldn’t take too long to figure out if they are indeed serious about using the legislation as a bridge towards a more progressive, empowering and socially inclusive politics for Scotland.  There is, in short, still time to be bold on land reform if the SNP can hold its legislative nerve.

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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

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.