Scotland’s ‘land question’ is ultimately a question of power

Last week was an important one for Scotland’s ongoing land reform journey. On Wednesday the Scottish Land Commission published the report of its Investigation into the Issues Associated with Large Scale and Concentrated Landownership in Scotland’.  That was followed on Thursday by a land reform debate in the Scottish Parliament, initiated by the Scottish Government on the topic of ‘Land Reform in Scotland – Delivering for Now and the Future’.   Both of these developments are significant because they give strong indications of where land reform might go next in policy and practical terms.

The Scottish Land Commission was created in April 2017 as a result of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 with a remit to ensure that land reform does not stage one of its periodic vanishing acts from Scotland’s public policy agenda as has happened in the past.  That’s a scenario unlikely to occur anytime soon given the substance of the Commission’s report and the political reaction to it.

The report is the most substantial investigation to date into issues associated with large-scale and concentrated land ownership in Scotland.  It follows a call for evidence by the Commission in 2018 for people to share their everyday experiences of living or working in parts of rural Scotland where most of the land is owned by a small number of people.  407 people responded to the call, including landowners and land managers, community representatives and individuals.

Back in 2014 the Scottish Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) broadly defined land reform in its report, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”.   That definition is instructive because it confirms the significance of land reform as a multi-faceted issue cutting across individual public policy areas in Scotland and places public interest considerations squarely at its centre.

The Commission’s new report is equally instructive because it contradicts the jaded mantra of land reform’s opponents that it is how land is used, rather than who owns it that matters. It also confirms that Scotland’s ‘land question’ is ultimately a question of power.

The report makes a distinction between the concentration and scale of land ownership, noting that “There is no automatic link between large scaleland holdings and poor rural development outcomes but there is convincing evidence that highly concentratedlandownership can have a detrimental effect on rural development outcomes.  These effects arise because landowners have the power to decide who can access land, when, for what purpose and at what price.  This power is created by the current system of private property rights and is therefore directly linked to landownership”.

The detrimental effects of concentrated landed power on rural outcomes are laid bare in   evidence presented in the Commission’s report. The most frequently identified theme in the evidence relates to the influence of concentrated land ownership on local economic development opportunities.   The report finds that economies of scale – another argument for large-scale landholdings routinely trotted out by advocates of the status quo – appear to be “more theoretical than real and more likely to benefit landowners than communities”.  It also finds that the irresponsible exercise of landed power enables landowners to block business development by determining whether and on what basis land is made available for such activity.

Worryingly, the report also notes that approximately a quarter of those who submitted evidence feel that Scotland’s pattern of concentrated landownership has a negative impact on the ability to meet local housing needs.  It states, “these experiences were all connected by a common narrative in which the power of a dominant landowner to control the supply of housing was a key driver of depopulation and economic decline”.

More troublingly still, the report highlights the corrosive effect of landed power on community and social cohesion.  The evidence indicates fear of repercussions for “going against the landowner” by some respondents.  As the Commission’s report notes “this fear was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.

Much of the evidence regarding other themes in the report also paints a dispiriting picture of the scope for concentrated landownership to skew power relationships between landowners and communities in favour of the former.  The report challenges the “weak” assertion that landscape scale environmental management requires large-scale land ownership.  It also documents the “perceived unilateral approach to decision-making adopted by some landowners (often NGOs) and perceptions of poor land management practices that can arise from this”.

Against that background, the Commission concludes that “there is an urgent need for formal mechanisms to be put in place that would enable harmful land monopolies to be identified and changes in either ownership and/or management practice to be implemented that would protect fragile rural communities from the irresponsible exercise of power”.

To that end, the Commission recommends specific statutory action including the introduction of a Public Interest Test for significant land transfers/acquisitions; requiring land holdings over a certain scale to engage on and publish a management plan; and legislating for a new Land Rights and Responsibilities review process, to take effect when there is evidence of adverse impact.  The Commission also calls for the effects of concentrated ownership to be accounted for in the implementation of the forthcoming Community Right to Buy to further sustainable development established in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.   Other recommendations include promoting more diverse patterns of private land ownership to help achieve land reform objectives and local engagement in land use change.

Unsurprisingly the Commission’s report dominated last Thursday’s Land Reform debate in the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Conservatives expressed disappointment at both the report’s focus and content, questioning the basis of the evidence and reiterating that the focus of policy should be on land use rather than land ownership.  The Liberal Democrats were happy to support the Report’s findings but considered it premature to call on the Government to accept all of the Commission’s recommendations.

The SNP, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens gave the Report a more enthusiastic reception.  Together they ensured that Parliament passed a wide-ranging motion which amongst other things “urges the Scottish Government to support the recommendations of the Scottish Land Commission on how to deliver interventions in the operation of Scotland’s land markets and ownerships that will provide disincentives to the future accrual of large privately owned land holdings and help deliver a more equitable distribution in the ownership of Scotland’s land assets in the public interest”.

The dust is still settling after publication of the Scottish Land Commission’s report.  Nevertheless, important points are already coming into sharp focus. The report and its carefully crafted, evidence-based analysis of the inextricable links between concentrated land ownership, land use and the exercise of power feels like a vital staging post in the next phase of Scotland’s land reform journey.  Viewing the issues of land ownership scale and, particularly, concentration through the twin lenses of monopolistic practices and their corrosive impacts on the public interest has significant policy and practical implications.  Such a perspective underscores the potential for the Commission’s recommendations to contribute to a policy route map away from the debilitating exercise of landed power highlighted in its report and towards a more progressive, socially just and sustainable relationship between Scotland’s people and land.  Parliament has endorsed these recommendations and the Scottish Government has stated its support for them in principle.  In the coming months both will have the opportunity to transform their warm words into tangible policy action.

 

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Community Ownership and South of Scotland Enterprise

Over the last five years land community land ownership has become an increasingly mainstream public policy issue in Scotland. The suite of Community Rights to Buy first introduced in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 has been simplified and extended to enable rural and urban communities to buy land and built assets as a result of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.  The Scottish Government has published a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement to shape thinking on land issues in Scotland.  A Scottish Land Commission is in place to review and recommend changes to law and policy relating to land and provide guidance and information on relevant issues.  The Scottish Land Fund will continue to allocate its annual £10 million budget to assist communities to buy land and built assets until 2021.  These are all positive developments designed to help create more diversity in Scotland’s absurdly concentrated pattern of land ownership wherein over 80% of Scotland’s land is privately owned and 50% of that private land is in the hands of fewer than 500 owners.

There’s still a long way to go, of course.  Scottish Government data estimates that as of June 2017 there were 562,230 acres in community ownership, accounting for 2.9% of Scotland’s land area. It’s an encouraging figure but nowhere near enough. Dig a little deeper into the data and you’ll see that the vast majority of that acreage is registered to community groups in The Highland Council Local Authority area (141,912 acres) and especially Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles) Local Authority area (385,340 acres). Head towards the South of Scotland and the comparable figures for the Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders Local Authority areas are 381 acres and 412 acres respectively.

That glaring discrepancy in both the amount and location of land in community ownership matters.  Not least because the ownership of land has a significant influence on how it is used and in who’s interests.  The Scottish Land Commission seems to agree. Last November it published recommendations to Scottish Ministers on the future development of community ownership and the community right to buy. The Commission’s overarching strategic recommendation is that “[f]or Scotland’s community land ownership sector to reach its potential […..] a clear vision is now needed for the way in which community ownership matures over the coming decades to be a mainstream route to delivering sustainable development for communities across rural and urban Scotland”.

One important way to help diversify Scotland’s concentrated pattern of land ownership involves hardwiring land reform into the decision-making machinery of a wide range of public policy areas and institutions to make community ownership the “mainstream route” to sustainable development envisaged by the Scottish Land Commission.  The Bill to create a new South of Scotland Enterprise agency currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament offers an early opportunity to gauge the political will to undertake precisely that sort of policy co-ordination.

The South of Scotland Enterprise Bill is a welcome and long overdue sign that the region will soon have the type of custom-built development support long embedded in the Highlands and Islands, initially through the Highlands and Islands Development Board and latterly via Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).  Opinion as to what exactly constitutes the ‘South’ of Scotland may vary but, for the purposes of the Bill, the new agency will mirror the geographical parameters of both Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders Councils.

There’s rather less debate about the need for the new organisation. The policy memorandum accompanying the Bill notes natural advantages that make the South of Scotland attractive for residents, businesses and visitors.  These include its strategic geographical location and significant land assets and energy resources, together with active further and higher education sectors and innovative businesses.  The memorandum also identifies a range of challenges that impact on the region’s economy including “an ageing population, challenging physical and digital connectivity, low GDP per head with low productivity, sectors with traditionally low wages and few higher skilled jobs, and a business base dominated by micro and small business”.

These are familiar development challenges for predominantly rural areas elsewhere in Scotland too.  It’s therefore encouraging that the Bill articulates the strategic aims of South of Scotland Enterprise as being to “further the economic and social development, and to improve the amenity and environment of the South of Scotland”.  Community land and asset ownership can play an important role in helping to achieve these aims.  We already know that it’s an approach that works elsewhere.  Take the West Harris Trust, for example. When it assumed ownership of the 7225 hectare West Harris Estate in 2010 the resident population stood at 119 with little prospect of its ongoing decline being reversed prior to the buyout.  That population has now risen to 147 and – crucially – its demography has been reshaped to include an increasing number of younger people resident in the area.    Affordable housing, new business developments and renewable energy generation – opportunities all unlocked by the Trust taking ownership of the land – have been vital to the upturn in the community’s prospects.

There’s no reason why communities in the South of Scotland can’t replicate that success by taking ownership of land and other assets to help shape their sustainable development and, by extension, that of the wider region.  The demand is certainly there, as illustrated by Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders having the third and fourth highest numbers of approvals respectively from the Scottish Land Fund by Local Authority area as of January 2019.

In another of its recommendations to Scottish Ministers regarding the future development of community ownership, the Scottish Land Commission has called on South of Scotland Enterprise to provide the type of support for community land and asset ownership that has long been given by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in its region. It’s easy to see why the Commission favours that approach.  Since its creation in 1997, HIE’s Community Land Unit (now Community Assets Team) has provided start-up and technical assistance for community groups at pre-acquisition stage; community engagement via networking, information exchange and visits and skills training; land and asset acquisition support via capital funding; post-acquisition project support; and capacity-building, training and development.  That range of support has been instrumental in making community ownership an increasingly mainstream activity in the Highlands and Islands, as the Scottish Government data discussed previously shows.

The creation of South of Scotland Enterprise is an opportunity to contribute towards a step-change in the prevalence of community land and asset ownership in the South of Scotland as a means to support the sustainable development of the region.  Scottish Ministers have apparently accepted the Scottish Land Commission’s recommendation to incorporate specific support for community ownership within the new agency’s remit.  Parliamentarians can reinforce the permanence of that commitment by adding an explicit provision for such support to the face of the Bill during Stage 2 of its legislative journey.  Doing so would send a strong positive signal regarding community ownership’s importance to the sustainable development of both the South of Scotland and the nation as a whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Future of Community Land Ownership in Scotland

This is an abridged version of a discussion paper on ‘The Future of Community Land Ownership in Scotland’ prepared for the national Strengthening Communities conference held in Aviemore on 21st and 22nd September. The full paper is available at: http://www.hie.co.uk/community-support/community-conference/presentations.html

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Community land ownership has captured Scotland’s political imagination to the extent of defining and dominating the debate on land reform over the last 20 years. That debate centres on whether Scotland’s extraordinarily concentrated pattern of private land ownership inhibits or encourages land use that reflects wider, shared societal objectives for the common good.

Proponents of land reform argue that concentrated ownership enables the dominant exercise of economic, political and social power by large-scale private landowners that can run contrary to the wider public interest. They consequently advocate democratising property rights through co-ordinated application of legislative and fiscal policy measures to redistribute these rights more widely within the context of an increasingly diverse and transparent pattern of land ownership in Scotland in support of sustainable development. Continue reading

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016

For most of the last decade the political answer to Scotland’s ‘land question’ seems to have been “pass”. Back in 2003 the Scottish Parliament launched its ‘flagship’ Land Reform (Scotland) Act with a cargo of access rights, community and crofting community rights to buy amid much overblown chatter about the legislation’s symbolic significance as the lodestar for a new politics in Scotland; then watched on with apparent indifference as land reform drifted beyond the horizon as an issue of serious policy concern. Parliament’s passing of a new Land Reform Act last week confirms that this most emotive of issues was carrying a return ticket.

Much of the rhetoric emanating from Government in the run-up to the new legislation’s arrival on the statute book sought to talk up the Act’s radical credentials. That’s hardly surprising given that the SNP has spent much of the last year promoting land reform as being in the vanguard of the progressive, left of centre policies to which it apparently aspires. Even less so in light of the rude awakening delivered to Ministers by the party’s membership at its conference last October when they voted to reject the legislation as too timid in its early draft form. That, together with demands for more detail on key proposals from the Parliament’s influential Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee responsible for scrutinising the Bill undoubtedly helped beef up some of its contents. 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

Land Reform Policy’s Return Ticket

For an awfully long time the political answer to Scotland’s ‘Land Question’ seems to have been “pass”. The embryonic Scottish Parliament launched its ‘flagship’ Land Reform (Scotland) Act with a cargo of access rights, community and crofting community rights to buy in 2003 amid much hullabaloo about its symbolic significance as the lodestar for a new politics in Scotland; then watched on with apparent indifference as land reform drifted beyond the horizon as an issue of serious policy concern. A decade later several intertwined developments suggest it may have had a return ticket. Continue reading

The Land of Scotland and the Common Good: LRRG’s Final Report

The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) published its much anticipated final report, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good, yesterday. The Scottish Government established the Group in July 2012 with a remit to develop “innovative and radical” land reform proposals addressing greater diversity of land ownership and ownership types, support for communities in land acquisition and management and new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland.

That’s a daunting set of tasks to say the least, particularly given the complex, contentious and expansive nature of the ‘Land Question’ in Scotland. It’s therefore to the LRRG’s great credit that ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ largely succeeds in fulfilling its remit; all the more so given the Group’s much maligned Interim Report published in May last year and the disruption caused by the resignations of its two original Vice-Chairs, Professor James Hunter and Dr Sarah Skerratt for personal and work-related reasons respectively. Continue reading