Analysis: Fertile ground for land reform debate

Richard Lochhead's announcement 'no more than a promise'. Picture: Phil Downie
Richard Lochhead's announcement 'no more than a promise'. Picture: Phil Downie
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A MONTH has now passed since Richard Lochhead announced that the investigation into farm tenancy legislation would include allowing tenants the right to buy their properties.

Coming unexpectedly as it did, it produced a flurry of reaction from those who would be mightily affected by such a radical move. It is, as has been pointed out by the landowners, contradictory to the same Scottish Government announcing an end to council house tenants having a right to buy their homes.

Time will tell whether the announcement made by the cabinet secretary is little more than a sop to one or two of his more radical backbenchers and land reformists. It is, at present, no more than a promise to include it in a wider review of tenancy issues.

What may prove to be a more significant comment on land ownership in Scotland came earlier last month, when the First Minister announced his Government’s ambition to double the amount of land under community ownership by the end of the decade.

There is currently just over half a
million acres of land owned by communities, so simple arithmetic takes that to one million acres – or about 6 per cent – of the Scottish land mass in community ownership by 2020.

In that same speech, Alex Salmond said that land ownership was concentrated in too few hands and this had to be changed.

On a similar theme, the leader of the Scottish Labour party, Johann Lamont, when speaking to her conference
earlier this year said: “If it is in the
public interest, communities will have the right to purchase land, even if the landowner is not a willing seller.”

So there you have it. The leaders of the two biggest political parties in Scotland want radical land reform in that they want communities to have more land in their control.

At this point, spare a thought for the chairwoman of the Land Reform Review Group, who had only days before the First Minister made his pronouncement on community ownership produced a mid-term review of the group’s work. In that, she stated the second half of their work would be to look at community ownership of land and how to make achieving this easier.

The group’s work would appear to be done, with Salmond using the words: “the action we are taking to simplify the system of community buy outs”.

I have several concerns over this
latest political ambition.

The first relates to funding it. So far, the Scottish Government has put some £9 million in the Scottish Land Fund pot for the period from 2012 to 2016 and of this sum, just over £1m has been spent on buying 1,500 acres.

So, if another 500,000 acres are to come under community control, it would need about £400m to achieve that target.

It might be much, much more if, as I suspect, an increasing proportion of land that communities would want would be around their towns and villages and not as at present out in the remote parts of the country.

Most of the half million acres
currently owned by local people lies in the north west of Scotland and in the Western Isles, including the trailblazing Assynt, but there are now smaller parcels of land in community ownership in other parts of Scotland from Covesea to Crossgates and from Comrie to the Mull of Galloway.

So, financially, we would not be talking small change to bring about change.

There is the issue whether community ownership is better than private ownership.

I must declare an interest at this point and that is an involvement with a trust which now owns three acres of waterfront within the boundaries of a town; thus helping to protect the heritage of the community.

Note that priority. It was not to increase food production. It was not to prevent development. The purchase – with a grant from the Scottish Government – was non controversial.

But any major expansion of community ownership could impinge on productive agriculture. There is no set agenda for community-owned land. As the trustees of community owned land come and go, priorities change.

There is also the question of sustainability. If land ownership is not profitable, there is no guarantee that members of the community will continue to devote time in its ownership.

Community ownership may be a fine political slogan but is it best for the country? Can we have a little more discussion before we have decisions?