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Scottish Parliament at 20: the unfinished business of land reform

Scottish Parliament at 20: the unfinished business of land reform

Ulva pier - Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

“It is crucial that we regard land reform not as a once-for-all issue but as an ongoing process,” said Lord Sewel in 1999, and that has proved to be true.

Exploration of land reform work was already under way before the Scottish Parliament began, with Lord Sewel, now better known for being the man behind the Sewel Convention on devolved powers, chairing the Land Reform Policy Group in 1997.

However, reform of Scotland’s highly concentrated pattern of land ownership was perhaps the defining issue of the early days of the new Scottish Parliament and remains unfinished business today.

While feudalism may suggest medieval knights or a lordship in Game of Thrones, the first piece of land reform legislation of the 21st century, and one of the first of the Scottish Parliament, was the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act 2000, which brought an end to feu duties for tenant farmers.

This was followed by other reform acts around land and property, such as the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003, the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003 and Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004.

However, the most significant was the Land Reform Act 2004, which enshrined public access to land in law and gives crofting communities and rural communities of under 10,000 people new rights to buy land.

Following the initial round of reforms, there was then a lull until 2012, when the SNP government established the Land Reform Review Group with a remit to look at how to create a more diverse ownership and enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have stake.

The LRRG’s recommendations proposed that a new body should be set up to advocate changes to land ownership and management, the introduction of land value taxation, non-domestic rates for land-based businesses, the introduction of an upper limit on the amount of land one person or body could own, progress on land registration and measures to increase community ownership.

This was followed by the Community Empowerment Act 2015, which gave larger and urban communities the right to buy, while the second Land Reform Act of 2016 allowed communities to purchase land for sustainable development, even when the seller was unwilling, and established the Scottish Land Commission, a non-governmental public body that produces research and recommendations for future policy.

There have been joys and tragedy over the years. Communities across Scotland have been able to buy their land, most recently Ulva, in May last year.

But changes have been opposed by landowners and in 2012, East Lothian tenant farmer Andrew Liddell took his own life after losing a legal dispute that saw him about to be evicted by landowner Alastair Salvesen after the UK Supreme Court overturned part of the Agricultural Holdings Act.

And there remains a long way to go. In 2013, then first minister Alex Salmond announced an aim of having one million acres of Scottish land in community control by 2020, but at the last count, just over 560,000 acres was in community ownership – disproportionately in the Highlands and islands, with only about 700 of those acres in the south of Scotland.

“What we’ve still got as major problems are security for tenant farmers and the reduction in their numbers,” former SNP MSP Rob Gibson, who worked on land reform as an MSP, tells Holyrood.

“And in the farming sense, we’re up against the power of the European Convention of Human Rights being used by very rich men, like Salvesen when he tried to get back the limited partnership tenancy and succeeded, and the judges felt that the landlord’s human rights had been breached.”

These issues are ongoing, he says, and there will need to be “strong views” on how to protect and encourage tenancies, as well as the chance to buy land, which removes a barrier to development. But the area Gibson thinks will make the most difference in the near future is land registration.

“I think the land reform bits that are more interesting are the fact that we can at last see, in the next four or five years, the register of who owns Scotland being completed and that should allow us then to apply taxes to land, that is the land value tax, because we’ve got to know who owns it before it can be levied.”

Gibson describes land value tax as the “first main step” of the next stage of land reform, but, echoing what Sewel said 20 years’ ago, he is clear that the results of all the work so far will not be seen for some time to come.

Gibson says: “There was an old joke, which is not true, but it was said that somebody asked Zhou Enlai, the Chinese foreign minister at the time of Mao, what he thought about the French Revolution and he said, ‘Well, it’s a bit too early to tell’.

“And I think the problem with land reform is it’s not something that’s going to be finished and we say, right, we’ve reached there.

“But we have the examples of other countries like Norway, or in France and so on, where there’s much, much more local control over land, but also strong support for a local population to live there and work there and to own, and to do so in a sustainable fashion.

“So, as we bring together the examples from around Europe and beyond, we’re able to see that other people have been able to do these things, and with the right kind of powers, so can we.”

Gibson suggests the right time to look at land reform again will be in the next parliament, when all of the secondary legislation from the 2016 act is fully implemented, the impact of Brexit on land use is known and there will be a body of research from the Scottish Land Commission to work from.

But if the journey is ongoing, he is clear about the direction of travel.

“I used to joke – they didn’t think it was a joke – with the Scottish Land and Estates and said my vision is not land nationalisation, as we were accused of, no, [but] instead of there being 1,000 members of Scottish Land and Estates, maybe in 10 years’ time there will be 15,000.

“And I believe that we’ve got to keep that kind of pressure up.

“And I suspect that in a parliament in Scotland, land reform is not going to go away, because it’s built into the SNP’s DNA and, to a great extent, also into Labour’s.”

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