'We need to rip it up and start again' - Land Reform Bill debated at Royal Highland Show

Scotland's Land Reform Bill is debated at the Royal Highland Show Scotland's Land Reform Bill is debated at the Royal Highland Show
Scotland's Land Reform Bill is debated at the Royal Highland Show | Andy O'Brien
The Land Reform Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament earlier this year.

The Scottish Government’s land reform bill came under fire during an event at the Royal Highland Show.

Criticism of the new legislation, which was introduced to the Scottish Parliament in March this year, came from all corners of the debate on landownership during a panel discussion at Scotland’s largest outdoor event.

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The Bill was introduced with an aim to tackle concentrated patterns of landownership and improve accountability of landowners.

It includes measures that will apply to large landholdings of over 1,000 hectares, prohibiting sales in certain cases until ministers can consider the impact on the local community.

The Bill also contains provisions to strengthen the position of tenant farmers on both traditional secure leases and the modern fixed-term leases.

Land campaigner and former MSP Andy Wightman, one of the panellists, went as far as saying ministers should “rip it up and start again” based on his concerns over right to buy and lotting provisions.

Former MSP and land campaigner Andy Wightman and Christopher Nicholson, chairman, Scottish Tenant Farmers AssociationFormer MSP and land campaigner Andy Wightman and Christopher Nicholson, chairman, Scottish Tenant Farmers Association
Former MSP and land campaigner Andy Wightman and Christopher Nicholson, chairman, Scottish Tenant Farmers Association | Andy O'Brien

Meanwhile Sarah-Jane Laing, chief executive of landowner membership organisation Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), said the paper has “gone from talking about land reform in terms of delivering benefits for Scotland, in terms of Net Zero, to a Bill that is focused on community ownership and fragmentation of ownership” which “is disappointing.”

Tory MSP and committee convener for the Net Zero, Energy & Transport Committee Edward Mountain hosted the discussion, which also included Professor Andrew Barnes of Scotland’s Rural College, Christopher Nicholson, chairman of Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, and Hamish Lean, of law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn.

In response to a question from audience member on how little detail there is in the legislation on how to support small-scale new entrants into land ownership, Mr Wightman said: “The Land Reform Bill has been dominated by community land ownership which is problematic; the lack of focus on individuals, businesses and local social enterprises has been completely ignored.”

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He said the government paper’s threshold of any land below three hectares not being entitled to agriculture support is “ridiculous” given its scope for growing food.

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“We really need to get away from this idea that bigger is better. 

“We need to rip it up and start again.”

Pushing back against his comments, Ms Laing said she disagreed with recent assertions that there is “plethora of evidence” that large-scale landholdings are detrimental to positive outcomes, adding: “We can show that the current pattern of landownership is already delivering a multitude of Scotland’s wellbeing economy, and that scale is important in terms of housing.”

SLE released a report last year by BiGGAR Economics which found large scale management is key to delivering the Scottish Government’s aims of a Just Transition -  a fairer, greener future for all.

Ms Laing said the Scottish Government, the largest landowner in Scotland, should look at how the public land it owns could be used to support new entrants.

Audience member Josh Doble, of Community Land Scotland, asked the panel if there should be an assessment on those who purchase large landholdings in Scotland, rather than just on the sales of land.

Mr Wightman said he has advocated for there to be a public interest test on those acquiring land but the idea “has been dropped” and “more work needs to be done on the detail.”

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Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon said she believes the Scottish Government has introduced “an ambitious” Bill to broaden ownership of Scotland’s land.

“It will empower communities with more opportunities to own land and require those who own large amounts of land to show how they use their land, how that contributes to key public policy priorities and engage with local communities about how they use the land,” she said.

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“The Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill was unanimously supported in Parliament this week. The Bill explicitly covers support for small producers and we are working with them and their representatives on how best to implement the powers for their benefit.”

The minister said the Scottish Government will continue to consider further views and evidence on the Land Reform Bill as it proceeds through Parliament.

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