Scotland 2050: Thriving Rural Scotland

The following is the text of a short think-piece I was invited by the Scottish Government to write on the theme of ‘Thriving Rural Scotland’ to help inform discussion on priorities for Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) to address.

Much of rural Scotland faces a depopulation crisis.  Scottish Government funded research by the James Hutton Institute estimates that the Sparsely Populated Area (SPA), covering almost half of Scotland’s land area but containing less than 3% of the nation’s people, will lose more than a quarter of its population by 2046 in the absence of urgent policy intervention.  Zoom in to the regional level and the picture looks equally grim. The Highland Council predicts population growth between 2016 and 2041 in Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh and Ross and Cromarty. However, many of the region’s other places are set to experience continuing population decline over the same period: Sutherland (-11.9%); Caithness (-21.1%); East Ross (-13.8%); Badenoch and Strathspey (-5.3%); and Lochaber (-5.9%).  Head to the Western Isles or the Southern Uplands and you’ll be confronted by a similarly gloomy population prognosis.

Stemming the flow of people from our sparsely populated area must feature at the top of policymakers’ ‘to do’ list if we are serious about creating a thriving rural Scotland by 2050.  That means reframing our relationship as a society with land and landscapes so as to enable our most vulnerable rural communities to flourish as a matter of social justice whilst simultaneously safeguarding our natural heritage and combatting the existential threat of climate change.      Land reform – defined in the Land Reform Review Group’s 2014 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”  – has a vital role to play in reframing that relationship.   A crucial part of that task involves tackling negative monopolies of power inherent in concentrated rural land ownership that can stymie genuinely sustainable development.  That implies more imaginative deployment of  legislative, regulatory and fiscal policy levers to achieve rural outcomes that contribute to the common good of Scotland as a whole.

The land-use planning system also has an important future role to play in the reframing process.  Some of the groundwork for the system’s future contribution to rural repopulation has been laid in provisions within the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 for which Community Land Scotland strongly advocated.  Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the next National Planning Framework (NPF).  Scottish Ministers must have regard to the desirability of resettling rural areas that have become depopulated when preparing the content of the Framework.  Allocating land for resettlement may now be a consideration for developing both the NPF and Local Development Plans. There is also scope for producing maps and other material relating to rural areas where there has been a substantial decline in population when preparing the NPF.  The Framework must also have regard for any Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement or any strategy for land ownership or use prepared by Scottish Ministers.

These are all helpful provisions in terms of making the planning system fit for the purpose of helping repopulate areas of rural Scotland. However, their effective implementation depends on the commitment of Government and Planning Authorities to steer planning policy towards land use that is genuinely economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.   In short, planning policy that helps deliver the affordable housing, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure and high-quality jobs that are vital to attracting more people to live and work in our currently most imperilled rural communities.  That will require policy imagination and political will.   But be in no doubt that the extent to which these communities’ prospects are turned around will be the barometer of whether all of rural Scotland is thriving by 2050.

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 and Rural Repopulation

Last week the Scottish Parliament passed the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 after three days of intense and increasingly acrimonious debate in the Chamber.  The Bill was originally envisaged by the Scottish Government as a measure to streamline the land use planning system.  Instead, it became a legislative ‘free for all’ as MSPs from all parties weighed in with well over 300 amendments;  the highest total ever tabled for a Bill progressing through its legislative stages at Holyrood and a reflection of the political importance of the planning system as something that both directly and indirectly affects people’s everyday lives.  Not all of these amendments survived the Bill’s protracted and occasionally stormy passage, with  the Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats voting against it becoming law while the SNP and Conservatives voted in favour.

Amongst other things, the new Act sets in statute for the first time the purpose of planning as being to manage the development and use of land in the long term public interest. It sets out issues for consideration in developing both the next National Planning Framework (NPF) which is the long-term spatial plan for Scotland and future Local Development Plans  formulated by Planning Authorities.  The Act also introduces provisions for Local Place Plans, envisaged as enabling communities to have a stronger say in deciding how their local areas are developed and Masterplan Consent Areas to more readily facilitate development in specified areas.

Several amendments that did survive the cull relate to rural repopulation and resettlement, and reflect much of what Community Land Scotland – the membership organisation for Scotland’s community landowners – called for in its evidence submission on the draft Planning Bill back in January 2018.   Community Land Scotland’s proposals for rural repopulation and resettlement drew considerable media attention at the time.  Amongst the more excitable headlines was that of one national newspaper proclaiming “Lairds warn against plans to reverse Clearances”.   Pause for a moment to contemplate the rich seams of irony contained within these words.

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 makes several explicit links between rural repopulation, land reform and the continuing evolution of Scotland’s planning system.  Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the National Planning Framework. Scottish Ministers must have regard to the desirability of resettling rural areas that have become depopulated when preparing the content of the Framework and allocating land for resettlement may now be a consideration for developing both the NPF and Local Development Plans. Preparation of the next NPF will also include scope for producing maps and other material relating to rural areas where there has been a substantial decline in population.  The Framework must have regard for any Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement or any strategy for land ownership or use prepared by Scottish Ministers.  There are also provisions in the new Planning Act about reporting on and improving consultation with communities in relation to the designation of any new National Scenic Areas.

These amendments matter because of the depopulation crisis that great swathes of rural Scotland – and particularly the Highlands and Islands – face.  In 2018 the James Hutton Institute published research indicating that, “in the absence of intervention”, Scotland’s Sparsely Populated Area (SPA), covering almost half of Scotland’s land area but containing less than 3% of the nation’s population, faces losing more than a quarter of its population by 2046; a decline which “implies serious challenges for economic development, and consequences for its landscape and ecology which are poorly understood”.  Similarly grim projections are contained in The Highland Council’s Corporate Plan for 2017-2022 which was updated earlier this year.  Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh, and Ross and Cromarty are projected to see their populations increase between 2016 and 2041.  Yet many other places in the region are set to see their populations continue to spiral downwards during the same period: Sutherland (-11.9%); Caithness (-21.1%); East Ross (-13.8%); Badenoch and Strathspey (-5.3%); and Lochaber (-5.9%).

The rural repopulation and resettlement provisions contained in the new Planning Act can help reconfigure the planning system as an effective policy tool to help address the litany of depopulation facing much of the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere in rural Scotland.  However, the effects of these provisions will inevitably take time to come to fruition, given that the next iterations of both the National Planning Framework and of Planning Authorities’ Local Development Plans lie some way into the future.   They also depend on the commitment of Government and Planning Authorities to drive the planning system towards land use that is genuinely sustainable in helping deliver the affordable housing, physical and services infrastructure and high quality jobs that are vital in helping to retain and attract more people to live and work in our rural places.

The planning system is ultimately a single piece – albeit an influential one – of a policy jigsaw that urgently needs to be assembled for Scotland’s sparsely populated rural places to flourish.  Part of the challenge lies in reframing our relationship as a society with land and landscapes in ways that enable our rural communities to exist and thrive as a matter of social justice while simultaneously safeguarding our natural heritage.

Land reform, defined in the Land Reform Review Group’s 2014 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” has a vital role to play in reframing that relationship.   However, its relevance as a cross-cutting theme to advance sustainable rural development has yet to fully penetrate the siloed structures of Government if ‘A new blueprint for Scotland’s rural economy: recommendations to Scottish Ministers’, a report issued in September 2018 by the National Council of Rural Advisors is any guide.  That influential document in shaping Government thinking on the rural economy mentions land precisely once in calling for development of “ecosystems services and climate change mitigation actions that reflect best land use-practice”. There is not a single mention of the significance of land ownership as a driver for rural development or of land reform more generally.

Such omissions are perplexing, particularly in light of the Scottish Land Commission’s subsequent research report in March of this year highlighting abuses of power as a result of concentrated land ownership in Scotland.  The Commission’s report highlights “fear of repercussions from “going against the landowner” expressed by some people.  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”.   This is testimony given to the Land Commission in 21stcentury Scotland. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for evidence to the Napier Commission of the 1880s, so shockingly does it collide with our self-image as a socially progressive nation.

It’s clear that rural communities in Scotland’s sparsely populated areas face a crisis of depopulation that threatens their very existence in the longer term.  Provisions contained in the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 offer encouragement that the planning system has an important role to play in tackling that crisis if there is genuine will on the part of Government and Planning Authorities to implement them effectively.  But much more needs to be done.  If we are serious about addressing rural depopulation then land reform in its broadest sense, encompassing changes to both land ownership and land use in the public interest, needs to be front and centre in future rural policy development as a matter of social justice.

By coincidence, there’s an opportunity to start doing exactly that.  A couple of weeks ago the Scottish Government announced the creation of a Ministerial Task Group on Population, chaired by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Culture and External Affairs with a remit to “consider Scotland’s future population challenges and develop new solutions to address demographic and population change”.  The extent to which the Task Group takes up the policy cudgels on behalf of rural communities imperilled by depopulation will provide an early indication of where their needs sit in the policy pecking order.

Land Reform in 2019

Following a period in the political wilderness land reform has commanded an increasingly high profile on Scotland’s public policy agenda over the last four years.   Much of that heighted profile has been propelled by legislation in the form of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and, particularly, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.

The Community Empowerment Act simplified existing Community and Crofting Community Rights to Buy land first introduced in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and extended the Community Right to Buy to cover urban as well as rural areas.  It introduced a new Community Right to Buy land which is abandoned, neglected or detrimental to the environmental wellbeing of local communities without the necessity of a willing seller.  The Act also introduced a right for communities to make requests to Scottish Ministers, local authorities and a range of other public bodies to own, lease or otherwise use land or buildings they could make better use of.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 represents another important step forward in Scotland’s land reform journey. Amongst other things it made provision for the following: a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement to help inform policy and practice around land issues in Scotland;  a register of controlling interests in land; guidance on engaging communities in decisions relating to land which may affect them; a new Community Right to Buy land to further sustainable development, again without the need for a willing seller; and creation of a Scottish Land Commission to review the effectiveness and impact of any law or policy relating to land matters and to make recommendations accordingly, as well as commissioning research and providing information and guidance on relevant issues.

In the wake of both the Community Empowerment and Land Reform Acts it may be tempting for Scotland’s Parliamentarians to assume that much of the heavy lifting of land reform has been completed.  That, after all, is exactly what happened when Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, after which land reform went for a prolonged sabbatical as a policy issue for the remainder of the decade.

Tempting, but a mistaken assumption nonetheless.

In fact, there remains a great deal to do to maintain and deepen land reform’s purchase on the public policy agenda as a force for progressive change in Scotland.   Much of that work will begin to take shape over the course of 2019.   Some of it is legislative in nature and involves putting flesh on the bones of provisions contained in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.  Part of the work is already under way; last autumn the Scottish Government consulted on draft regulations to underpin its new Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land which will be introduced this year to improve land ownership transparency.

Other important legislative work will begin later this year when the Scottish Government introduces regulations to implement the Community Right to Buy to further sustainable development contained in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.   As with the Community Right to Buy abandoned, neglected or detrimental land, the ‘sustainable development’ Community Right to Buy does not require a willing seller.  Making sure that it is fit for purpose while respecting the human rights of individual property owners and members of the wider community will be a critical task for Parliament.  In particular the sustainable development right needs to be framed in a way that will enable communities to actually use it in practice in appropriate circumstances.  It’s not yet clear whether the recently introduced ‘abandoned etc’. Right to Buy will be effective in that regard, partly because no community has yet applied to use it and partly because of concerns that the legal definitions of “harm” and communities’ “environmental wellbeing” are too tightly drawn to make the right useable in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

There’s also work to be done in ensuring that land reform’s geographical reach continues to spread beyond its traditional rural heartland of the Highlands and Islands.  The growth in community land ownership has been the most obvious manifestation of land reform since the pioneering ‘first wave’ of community buyouts – in most notably in Assynt, Knoydart and Eigg – in the 1990s.  Data recently published by the Scottish Government indicate that, as of June 2017, there are 562,229 acres in community ownership.  527,252 acres of that total are located in the Highlands and Islands.  In contrast, the Scottish Government estimates that a mere 794 acres of land in the south of Scotland (Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish Borders) are in community ownership.

One of the most important factors in helping to nurture the growth of community ownership in the Highlands and Islands was the creation of the Community Land Unit in Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 1997.  In the intervening period it has provided invaluable technical, financial and capacity-building support to community groups in terms of purchasing and managing land and other assets.  A comparable service is vital for the south of Scotland to help kick-start an expansion in community ownership there similar to  the surge that has occurred in such ownership in the Highlands and Islands over the last 25 years.   The Scottish Government has a chance to ensure that happens by ensuring that the Bill currently before Parliament to create a South of Scotland Enterprise contains explicit provisions to establish a Community Land Unit within the new development agency.   Whether or not it chooses to do so will be a telling indicator of the Government’s commitment towards making community land ownership a matter of importance to the whole of Scotland.

Arguably some of the most promising possibilities for advancing progressive land reform in the coming year lie in connecting seemingly disparate policy threads to move away from the conventional ‘silo-mentality’ that characterises much of Government policy-making in Scotland (as elsewhere).

One area of opportunity concerns the rural repopulation and renewal agenda.  This policy area which has been given added urgency by gloomy forecasts, contained in Scottish Government-commissioned research by The James Hutton Institute, of plummeting populations in Scotland’s Sparsely Populated Areas by the mid 21stcentury.  The Planning Bill currently heading towards its final stage in the Scottish Parliament contains amendments – for which Community Land Scotland has advocated – which explicitly encourage consideration of rural repopulation in future planning policy and local development plans by Scottish Ministers and local planning authorities respectively.

Much remains to be done at both policy and practical levels to connect land with other elements of rural renewal such as affordable housing, high quality jobs, digital and other infrastructure that can help retain and grow rural populations in ways that are economically, socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable.  Nevertheless, viewing these interconnected issues through the policy lens of land reform offers a fresh perspective on how to achieve rural renewal objectives that are collectively in all of Scotland’s interests.

A further area where land reform and wider policy objectives may intersect more closely in future is that of human rights. An important feature of recent land reform legislation in Scotland has been the introduction of a perspective on the relationship between land rights and human rights that goes beyond focussing only on individuals’ property rights.  The Scottish Government made a commitment last month to legislate for an Act of Parliament to provide Human Rights leadership in Scotland. In turn, that raises intriguing and as yet unexplored possibilities for further alignment of Scotland’s evolving human rights and land reform agendas.  Of particular interest is the potential scope for aligning the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, as articulated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, with Scotland’s ongoing land reform process.

2019 is not the time to slow Scotland’s land reform process down.  Rather, the year ahead offers an opportunity to both accelerate its pace and direct the reform process towards hitherto unexplored policy avenues.   The extent to which that opportunity is grasped will largely depend on the appetite of Government and Parliament to make wider policy connections that enable Scotland’s land to fulfil its function as a precious and finite resource to be used in the public interest for the common good.  It promises to be an interesting year