Public attitudes to land reform in Scotland

Last week the Scottish Government published research on public attitudes to land reform in Scotland.  The research matters because land reform’s detractors – usually those with the most landed power, and therefore the most to lose – have long tried to put the brakes on the process by arguing that the public cares not a jot for who owns Scotland’s land and how it is used. 

The new research report shows that they could not be more wrong. Its findings, culled from a representative sample of 1,501 members of the Scottish public and a series of 9 workshops and 12 individual interviews, are illuminating.  They show that when considering  ‘land in Scotland’, participants tended to first think of rural land that had not been built on.  From an urban perspective that translates as land being ‘out there’, away from where most people live.  Survey respondents viewed climate change (24%), building on greenspace (18%), and inequality in landownership (17%) as the three biggest challenges for the future of Scotland’s land. Challenges identified by workshop participants and interviewees included concentrated land ownership, absentee landlords, housing developments encroaching on the greenbelt, derelict land, land banking and access rights disputes.    

The research shows that there is widespread public support for diversifying Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of land ownership, a longstanding cornerstone of land reform policy.  71% of survey respondents supported widening ownership of both rural and urban land to include more public, community and third sector ownership, while only 7% opposed that aim.  Other research participants also highlighted the importance of diversifying ownership for reasons of fairness, good stewardship and innovation so as to generate collective benefits.  As the report notes, “Participants felt concentration of ownership was at the expense of the majority of people benefiting from the land, and that it had implications for access to and use of the land, as well as ownership”.  However, not all participants made a link between land ownership and use.   

Other longstanding land reform issues of concern also resonated with the public. 73% of survey respondents did not think there is enough information on transparency of land ownership in Scotland.  44% of respondents were concerned about derelict or vacant land in their own areas, and there was support for tightening regulations to ensure that land does not remain derelict.   Respondents were also strongly supportive of current access rights but thought that there should be more education and clarity about the respective responsibilities of the public and landowners, and on how to settle disputes. 

Very few survey respondents (13%) stated that they had previously been involved in decision-making around land use.  People in the most deprived areas of Scotland were half as likely as others to have been involved, although they were just as interested in being involved in the future.  The findings show considerable public appetite for engaging more in land use decisions. Around two thirds of survey respondents indicated they would be interested in doing so.  The report states that main barrier to that is lack of public awareness of possible engagement routes.   

Crucially, lack of public awareness of what ‘land reform’ means in practice, and of what the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda involves, also featured as key findings from the research.  73% of survey respondents said they knew ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about the Government’s plans for land reform.  However, the report states that “when presented with an overview of the Scottish Government’s aims for land reform and the main elements of the 2003 and 2016 Land Reform (Scotland) Acts, participants were, overall, very supportive of the aims”.   Some research participants were surprised that the legislation had been so recently passed. There was also a lack of public awareness that the Community Right to Buy legislation had been extended to cover urban as well as rural areas.   As the research also makes clear, much of the support for the land reform agenda was grounded in “its potential to achieve wider social aims such as equality and fairness”.  

It’s evident from the research findings that the Scottish public are highly supportive of land reform’s underlying aims even if their awareness of the terminology is somewhat fuzzy.  The public understand that concentrated land ownership can prevent communities from improving and sustaining the places where they live.  They are clear on the need for more transparent information on who owns Scotland.  And they are motivated to engage more fully in land-use decisions if given opportunities to do so in genuinely meaningful ways.    

These findings therefore leave the next Scottish Government and Parliament with several  linked challenges to address if the Scottish public are to get the policy answers to the ‘land question’ they deserve. 

Most fundamentally, there is a need to ensure that the land reform process, defined as changes to the ownership and use of land in the public interest, increases both its momentum and policy reach in the next Parliament.  That means applying appropriate legislative and fiscal policy tools to diversify Scotland’s concentrated pattern of landownership to better serve the public interest.  It also means providing communities with the advice, financial investment and other support to enable them to make the places where they live more sustainable through community ownership and other forms of community-led development linked to land use. 

A second challenge is to demystify the idea of ‘land reform’, thereby making it more relatable to the public in ways that demonstrate the central importance of land in shaping the wellbeing of our rural and urban communities.   Closely related to that, relevant Scottish Government departments should also be encouraged by Scottish Ministers to embrace land reform as a cross-cutting theme of relevance to their portfolios.  

The third challenge is to provide communities with the tools and routes to engage in land use decision-making that ensures their voices are listened to and accommodated in determining particular land uses.  Properly resourcing and connecting community-led Local Place Plans to the wider Planning System is one obvious way to do that.  Having communities as equal partners in the Scottish Government’s recently announced pilot Regional Land Use Partnerships is another.     

No-one should be under any illusion that these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions. Moreover, they require considerable political will and imagination in order to be properly addressed.   Fortunately, we are fast approaching a juncture where such qualities can be held up to the light of democratic scrutiny and choice.   In just a few weeks’ time the Scottish public will go to the polls to elect their next Parliament. The extent to which land reform features in each of the political parties’ manifestos will provide a clear signal as to the coherence and credibility of their respective visions for a greener, more prosperous and ultimately fairer Scotland. 

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

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