Let's be bold unlocking Scotland's land - and build forward better - Rob Gibson

The ambition of Scots was pinpointed by Mike Russell, retiring MSP for Argyll and Bute and long serving Cabinet Secretary, in his final speech to the Scottish Parliament.

The isle of Ulva off Mull was bought by the small community who lived there in 2018 with housing renovations and plans to increase the population now in motion.

Mr Russell, reflecting on the report of the Citizens’ Assembly, said: “Increasingly, democracy is not just about what powers but about who gets to exercise them. We need to recognise that democracy is changing fast. The horrid experience of Covid and the resulting lockdown has accelerated a desire in communities across the country for change. They are telling us that nothing should be done to them or agreed for them that has not been decided with them.”

I agree fully, the right to exercise local responsibilities is crucial to plan and build our collective future. The Social Justice and Fairness Commission (SJFC) delved into ways to build forward better. Its year’s work has now been published.

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Secure, warm homes in communities which decide their own place-making strategies require ideas of wellbeing, human rights, tax and land reform to agree their land-use plans. But, housing all Scots under devolution falls well short of needs. Despite increased affordable house building in recent years, more certainty to meet our needs can come with the powers of independence.

City dwellers, rural villagers or islanders are adamant they need land at affordable prices before enough houses can be built. Visionary land reform manifestos may pile up, but few, if any, explain a legal route to buy land for community uses at existing use value.

The SJFC suggests we apply the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Culture Rights (ICESCR). It was cited in the 2016 Land Reform Act. It is set to be made justiciable in Scots Law by the SNP Government along with a basket of UN human rights.

Although United Nations bodies propose ways to monitor the ownership and land use patterns these are subject to the policies and priorities of member countries. South of the Border, land reformers have only recently begun to compare England’s landed wealth and secret ownership with progress towards diversity, transparency and plans for land taxes in Scotland

Fearing breaches to the UK Single Market Act, Boris Johnson swiftly referred the UN Rights of the Child and European Charter of Local Government, passed in Holyrood last March, to the Supreme Court. Muscular Unionism will surely pander to landowning, Tory party donors who view ICESCR as a distinct threat to their privileged domains.

Currently the Scotland Act 1998 binds us to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This balances the enjoyment of private property with a public interest test. Surely the ability of communities to obtain land for social housing is in the public interest and, it follows, a human right?

Land Reform Bills have had overwhelming Scottish Parliament support. The Tories, alone, dissent. The public interest can be boosted by ICESCR. Test cases in the courts could unlock existing use value land purchases for affordable homes without breaking the public purse. In so doing a tiny, but key part, of the landed wealth in Scotland would be removed from the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in Europe, be it in private or public hands.

Secondly, the SJFC recommends creating a Housing Land Corporation. This could use ICESCR to buy and service land for housing, by compulsory purchase, before local authorities, housing associations and the growing numbers of community landowners build our future homes and amenities across Scotland.

Concurrently the Scottish Land Commission (SLC) is researching means to fund this ambition. It will report by late 2021. No one tax can deliver results but a locally-administered land value tax (LVT) could, in five years’ preparation time, replace the Council Tax and derive new income from big landowners to underwrite our social housing revolution.

Remember, other wealth taxes such as capital gains and inheritance will become available to an independent Scotland. These can also fund our community-led recovery from Covid-19.

Since 2017 the SLC has probed how to deliver more diverse land ownership and more socially acceptable land uses. In late 2020 it made three proposals for early land legislation: locally agreed management plans for large land holdings; exposing adverse impacts of big estates measured against the Parliament’s Land Rights and Responsibilities statement; and introducing a public interest test for future large land sales. The SNP manifesto mirrors these aims.

Thanks to the 2016 Land Reform Act other new powers are now law. These give communities legal tools to take over abandoned and neglected land, such as 11,000 acres identified in our towns; to demand a transfer of land to support economic development. From February this year, because of super affirmative parliamentary hurdles take two cycles of consultation, scrutiny and then parliamentary approval, a register to chart those with controlled (the legal term) interest in our land was passed.

Many of these commitments help to build a bridge between the SNP minority Government and the Scottish Greens whose manifesto shares overlapping land reform and tax proposals.

The SJFC has worked with the grain of rights-based land reform to help us build forward better, whatever type of community you live in. It details how to build affordable housing, alleviate poverty and capture land values which need full community backing to succeed.

Gaining powers to acquire affordable housing land at existing use value can be the catalyst.

As Mike Russell noted, ‘nothing should be done to them or agreed for them that has not been decided with them’, and he concluded, ‘the same imperative drives the issue of independence’.

Rob Gibson is a member of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission and author of his recently published book, Reclaiming Our Land.


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