Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), the voice of land-based businesses in rural Scotland, yesterday reacted angrily to claims made by the House of Commons Scottish affairs committee that “subsidies and cosy tax deals” were driving up land prices and thwarting community ownership plans.
The interim report into land reform in Scotland, newly published by the select committee, said that evidence received suggested that state policy on inheritance tax, business property relief, agricultural property relief and non-domestic rates contributed considerably to the preservation of inherited wealth in landed estates – and to driving up the price of land, which had become a “speculative commodity as much as a productive asset”.
“Some witnesses have proposed an end to exemptions, subsidies and cosy tax deals,” said the chairman of the committee, Glasgow south-west MP Ian Davidson, “and we are seeking further evidence to clarify whether these are demonstrably to the public benefit.”
He added: “We remain strongly supportive of community land ownership but note that other public policies serve to make this less affordable by driving up land prices.”
Davidson also contended that Scotland was behind the curve in drawing up a land register, stating that who owned and controlled land was a matter of legitimate political interest.
“The first step in any meaningful strategy of land reform must be the creation of data on ownership and land values which is comprehensive and accessible,” he said, adding that Scotland lagged behind countries like Turkey and Latvia on this front and called for priority to be given to this matter.
“No government which has any pretensions to land reform can avoid the need for full and clear information on its existing ownership patterns to be widely available,” he said. “This must include beneficial ownership. We call on both the UK and the Scottish governments to progress this as a matter of urgency.
However Douglas McAdam, chief executive of SLE, said that while his organisation agreed with openness and transparency, he did not accept suggestions that there was a culture of secrecy in terms of landownership in Scotland.
“The committee says land reform is a neglected area of policy but the subject is constantly on the Scottish policy agenda and is under an intensive review by the Scottish Government,” he added.
Stating that his organisation did not know what the committee meant by “cosy tax deals”, he said that many subsidies and tax exemptions had been put in place expressly for the public interest. These, the SLE claimed, were aimed at delivering public policy such as the production of food – and if such policies were removed UK agriculture would be devastated.
McAdam also said that business property relief was essential for the continued viability of family businesses across the country. “Expert evidence was given to the committee stating that there are numerous other factors which determine the price of land – most notably supply, location and potential future use. In our experience our members do not view their landholdings as a commodity and have a long-term commitment to them,” said McAdam.