Land chief's speech may be foretaste of battles to come

While Brexit and the upcoming election have been hogging the headlines, you might be forgiven for thinking that everything has gone a bit quiet on land reform.

Scottish Land Commission chairman Andrew Thin had a warning for land agents. Picture: Contributed
Scottish Land Commission chairman Andrew Thin had a warning for land agents. Picture: Contributed

However, all has not been put on hold and at the beginning of last month the brand new Scottish Land Commission began to glide into operation.

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Last week saw one of its first major forays into the public arena with the commission’s chairman – and former special adviser to the Scottish Government on farm tenancy issues – Andrew Thin giving the keynote address to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ mid-session conference.

Thin told the audience that he was keen that the Land Commission should ease itself gently into its role of overseeing the development and monitoring the effectiveness of land reform measures, adding that he wanted to avoid wading in and trampling over things with size-12 boots.

However, he also gave a hefty hint that the commission would not hesitate to apply one of the aforementioned size 12 boots to the seat of the mustard corduroys of any land agent who breached the codes of practice for the agricultural tenancy sector which are being finalised.

Warning the profession that there should be no underestimating the highly damaging effects which being found in breach of the guidance would have on the reputation of their business, he stressed the importance of keeping on top of the codes as they were released.

Revealing that the first of these documents would be appearing when purdah ended after the general election, Thin made it plain they would be concerned with the spirit of the reforms rather than the legal details and, in his words, outline “what reasonable looks like”.

Continuing his address – which for many in the audience might have evoked a stern headmaster’s assembly speech on the first day of term – Thin said that if the naming and shaming wasn’t sufficient to bring those who breached the spirit of codes to heel, further sanctions would be introduced.

Given that these comments had been given the qualification that they were directed to the one per cent who risked dragging down the rest, the audience seemed to take the warning on the chin.

But there was a distinct sound of feathers being ruffled when Thin criticised the quality of many of the land management decisions which had been made in recent times.

Outlining the commission’s desire to improve the productivity of land, he said that this went much further than “just growing more potatoes in a field” – and covered multiple uses of land rather than just one.

And, with Scotland still having the most concentrated land ownership profile in Europe, the commission’s desire for a broader involvement in the decision-making process showed signs of precipitating a bit of a shock to the traditionally staid outlook of the country’s landowners and their agents.

Arguing that current procedures favoured almost solely whoever held the property rights, Thin said that landowners lagged far behind other businesses in building corporate social responsibilities into their decision-making process.

Stating that it was normal for most sizeable companies to have non-executive directors and professionals to make sure there was a wider base for the decision-making process, he said that many countries had a statutory requirement for such considerations firmly built into the legal framework of their landowning legislation.

And while the audience denied that decisions tended to be made for selfish reasons – highlighting the traditional approach of many estates who did their best to factor in the wishes of the local community – Thin said that “doing their best” didn’t always produce the best results and that having a wider input could have led to better outcomes in the long term.

He also knocked back the argument that to justify a broader input into the process there should also be a broader commitment on the financial side, pointing out that the public could justifiably ask if they were getting good value from the considerable capital tax concessions from which land ownership benefited.

While the whole event was conducted in the politest of terms there was an undeniable feeling that future battle lines were being drawn up, leaving me to suspect that once the general election and Brexit are knocked from the headlines there will be plenty of copy to come from land reform.