Michael Russell: Appointment of former SNP president to Scottish Land Commission 'threatens impartiality' as rural groups cite unrest

The former SNP president Michael Russell is known to have shared his views on land reform

It is an appointment involving one of the SNP's best-known politicians that has fuelled fears of an “erosion” in trust in Scotland’s main land policy advisory organisation.

Michael Russell, who stepped down from his role as the president of the SNP last month, was, days later, confirmed to be the new chairman of the Scottish Land Commission (SLC).

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Humza Yousaf pays tribute as Michael Russell steps down as SNP president

Former SNP president Michael Russell has been appointed to head up the Scottish Land Commission. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesFormer SNP president Michael Russell has been appointed to head up the Scottish Land Commission. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Former SNP president Michael Russell has been appointed to head up the Scottish Land Commission. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The role of the SLC, whose outgoing chairman is Andrew Thin, is to advise the Scottish Government on an ongoing programme of land reform.

The role is said to be one of the most important for the organisation since the SLC was formed in 2017, with the coming Land Reform Bill – due to be published imminently – having drawn an extensive and varied response. A government consultation on the provisions of the Bill drew some 500 replies, with ministers delaying the publication due to a “sheer number and variety of responses”.

And Mr Russell’s appointment to such a role has caused controversy in Parliament and left some members of the rural community tongue-tied.

One of those who did speak out against the move was Mark Ewart, of Scotland’s Regional Moorland Groups, who said Mr Russell’s appointment was “far from sensible and may end up eroding trust in the SLC”.

He said having a former SNP president at the helm would result in “a politician advising politicians” at a time when rural Scotland was set to face substantial changes through grouse moor licensing, a new Land Reform Bill, new natural environment legislation, and changes to farming and land management subsidies.

Mr Ewart remarked on Mr Russell’s recent column in The Herald, where the former SNP president spoke about the need to “turbo charge” land reform, but has said “very little” of the contribution organisations such as the moorland groups make to local communities, the economy and nature.

Scottish Land & Estates chief executive Sarah-Jane Laing said questions were raised about the process behind Mr Russell’s appointment, and that some of his “strident views about supercharging land reform” were “likely to raise concern with those who manage and invest in various forms of land-based businesses”.

The general feeling of concern was echoed by other members of the rural sector who the The Scotsman spoke with, but who all wished to remain anonymous for fear of potential repercussions.

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Most said while they, at times, might disagree with decisions taken by the SLC, they had always viewed it as an impartial operation. But now the commission’s reputation hangs in the balance, with a former MSP in Mr Russell with ardent views on land reform now at the helm.

Tory MSP Douglas Lumsden said Mr Russell “is in no way an impartial person” and “completely wrong for the job.” "The whole thing reeks of nepotism,” he said.

The MSP for the North East said the move would be “bad for our rural sector”, adding: “A lot of people are scared to talk out now because the SLC is now seen as a wing of the Scottish Government.”

Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton pointed to Mr Russell’s recent error blaming the Scottish Conservatives for the Michael Matheson iPad scandal, saying the former SNP president “is beyond repair and his judgement is skewed”. She said his “uncompromised and entrenched views” would “undermine” the work of the Land Reform Bill.

Former Scottish Greens MSP Andy Wightman said the appointment was “very odd” for a non-departmental public body. He said the appointment of a new chairman comes at “a very sensitive time”, with this being the first change in membership since the SLC was set up.

The staunch land campaigner said it was “vital” the SLC “is trusted as an impartial adviser to ministers”. Meanwhile, during a recent chamber session, Tory MSP Stephen Kerr shouted “corrupt” during a discussion about Mr Russell’s new role.

Rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon defended her former party colleague saying she was “disgusted” by some of the MSP’s comments.

She said the Parliament should be “assured” the process was conducted “in full adherence with the requirements of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 and the preferred handling by the lead committee and that the process was fully regulated by the ethical standards commissioner”.

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The process that led to the announcement of Mr Russell’s appointment, however, was also questioned by a few MSPs.

The SLC is one of a small number of public bodies for which ministerial appointments to the board are subject to parliamentary approval. But The Scotsman understands Mr Russell’s success in being taken on as the new chairman was leaked to the media before the approval stage, let alone an official announcement.

It meant the other, unsuccessful candidates found out they did not get the job via the press. Some MSPs called the move “disrespectful”, with others saying they were “shocked” at how the Parliament was overlooked.

Mr Wightman, at the time of the announcement, posted on X that there was “a clear breach of confidence.”

A motion to block the appointment was defeated 64 votes to 52, with former SNP leadership hopeful and now Alba MSP Ash Regan abstaining.

A SNP spokesperson said: “The SLC recruitment process is robust, fair and transparent and Mr Russell’s appointment was approved following a vote in the Scottish Parliament. Mr Russell is no longer in the SNP, having resigned his membership before his appointment.” The SLC was approached for comment.

Craig MacKenzie and Deborah Roberts were elected as land commissioners alongside Mr Russell.

In response to the change in members, Ms Gougeon said: “I would like to congratulate the new chairman and new land commissioners and look forward to working with them. They have the opportunity to build on these achievements and I know that they will continue to work hard to create a Scotland where everyone can benefit from the ownership and use of the nation’s land and buildings.”



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