Lots to be done on land reform - Andrew Arbuckle

Although there was an note-0anniversary that could have been celebrated, there is no evidence such an event took place. It could be our civil servants are more responsible and sober than their colleagues note-1in Downing Street. Or it could just be that those working for the Scottish Land Commission (SLC) have heaps of work on their desks.

For those unfamiliar with this non departmental public body, it came into being on 1 April 2017 with an agenda based on modernising land ownership in this country.

Its arrival was welcomed by politicians who had seen land-related issues provide flashpoints in the early days of the Scottish Parliament. Think, for example, of the push from a few newly empowered political radicals that would have given agricultural tenants an absolute right to buy their properties. In the first decade and a half of the Scottish Parliament, the unsatisfactory state of farm tenancies had also gobbled up lots of Parliamentary time while providing little long-term relief.

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Politicians who could talk at length on agricultural tenancy reform without any great understanding of it could leave the perpetual tension between landlords and tenants to the SLC. More specifically, it could be left to Dr Bob McIntosh, the Tenant Farming Commissioner who is a board member of SLC and as a former civil servant knows a bit about conciliation.

Mercedes Villalba wants to introduce a Land Justice Bill at Holyrood (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Mercedes Villalba wants to introduce a Land Justice Bill at Holyrood (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Mercedes Villalba wants to introduce a Land Justice Bill at Holyrood (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Although there are still a lot to do in the tenanted area, at least progress is being made. The far bigger challenge for the SLC is to “reform the way land rights and ownership is controlled”.

That ambitious statement is there in black and white for all to see on their web page and that is one reason why last week it highlighted the competing interests now massively acquiring land in Scotland.

The report showed demand for land had soared well above inflation levels in Scotland and that a traditional sector such as farming was losing out big-time to more recent arrivals in the marketplace such as forestry, carbon capture and rewilding.

The report also revealed the high level of anonymity in the buying and selling of land in Scotland; to put it bluntly, there is a lot of investment in land in Scotland of which the average native of this country is unaware.

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More transparency is coming along but whether it can catch up and shine a light on all the off-shore companies being used by those who prefer a veil of secrecy over their Scottish land holdings remains to be seen.

Vast chunks of land have changed hands without it ever appearing on the market.

The use of the description, “vast chunks” of land, is deliberate as what is happening is the complete opposite to the SLC’s aim of increasing diversity in land ownership.

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And then there Is the move a week or so ago by North East Labour MSP, Mercedes Villalba to launch a public consultation this summer on a Land Justice Bill which she intends to introduce at Holyrood.

The Bill would see a cap established on land ownership in Scotland.

Under Ms. Villalba’s proposed legislation, publicly owned community trusts and co-operatives would have the option of taking over available land.

She has stated that her Bill, which has not yet been published, will not affect farmers, but whoever is drafting the proposed legislation will find it extremely difficult to draw a line between farming and sporting interests. For example, are sheep on a grouse moor operating as tick mops or are they producing the best of Scottish lamb?

Yet another paper produced recently by the SLC highlighted the opportunity for changing the fiscal regime that currently surrounds the ownership of land and by so doing increasing the tax take. A land value tax is one option that may be attractive to a Government wanting to raise cash for other priorities.

The Scottish Government has promised it will introduce “meaningful” land reform with a pledge to put forward legislation next year. The SLC will play an important role in formulating future changes. I suppose it all depends on what “meaningful” means but there is a great deal to do if we want to knock the bumps out of the current system

As the SLC proclaims, “Land Reform can reduce inequality, improve quality of life and support and benefit everyone in society”. Unless there is a move from background papers soon, the proverbial horse will have bolted before any meaningful land reform can take place.

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