New powers of “intervention” will be handed to ministers to meet demands from local communities for buy-outs in new land reform laws at Holyrood in the year ahead. Multi-million-pound tax breaks for sporting estates will also be ended.
Opponents branded the plans a “big brother-style” expansion of state power, while countryside groups warned they could backfire and lead to “new Highland clearances”.
The SNP administration also faced accusations of being caught up in a “left-wing bidding war” with Labour over land reform.
Ms Sturgeon yesterday revealed 12 bills which will be brought before Holyrood in the coming year, with action earmarked for schools attainment, NHS funding levels, domestic abuse and human trafficking.
The SNP will also make full use of whatever new powers are handed to Holyrood as a result of the Smith Commission, which releases its first report today. But she pledged that 16-year-olds would be handed the right to vote in the Holyrood election of 2016 if this power is devolved in time.
Land reform remains “unfinished businesses” after the milestone legislation on the issue in 2003, the First Minister said.
New laws will be introduced giving the Scottish Government new powers to “intervene” where the scale of land ownership or the conduct of a landlord is acting as “a barrier to sustainable development”.
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A Scottish Government spokesman last night said the intervention would depend on the nature of the barrier.
“In some instances this might be asking or directing the landowner to do something, in other instances it might require an owner to release or sell land to the local community to be used in the public interest,” he added.
A land reform commission will be established, with measures to improve the “transparency and accountability” of land ownership and make information on its value and ownership more readily available.
The First Minister also announced plans to scrap business rates exemptions for shooting and deer stalking estates.
“These exemptions were put in place by the Tories in 1994 to protect the interests of major landowners,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“Ending them will help the government to more than treble the Scottish Land Fund – from £3 million this year to £10m a year from 2016. That will help to ensure delivery of our target of having 1,000,000 acres of land in community ownership by 2020.”
Jamie Stewart, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, warned that it will lead to job losses in rural Scotland as costs go up. He added that the Isle of Gigha, one of the most prominent Scottish community buyouts, is £2.7m in debt.
“Scottish landowners – large owners in Scotland – have subsidised communities and the people who live in that land for a long, long time,” he said.
“If you remove them from the equation, we’re got a real potential for land abandonment in Scotland and to set in place the exact opposite of what they hope to do. They’re not going re-populate the Highlands, they’re going to see a reoccurrence of the Highland clearances.”
David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “Sporting estates are too readily singled out in a negative light, when in fact they are businesses that make a key contribution to rural tourism, local employment and the environment.
“The perception that sporting estates do not pay their dues is not accurate. Estate businesses, whose activities generally extend beyond sporting, pay business rates and other taxes where they are due.”
The land reform measures were branded a “massive expansion of state power” by the Conservatives.
Tory rural affairs spokesman Alex Fergusson said: “Big Brother is about to be legislated for by a government that said it would govern for all Scotland’s people. It would appear that that is not the case if you own land.”
Other measures set out yesterday include an independent commission to examine “fairer” alternatives to council tax to begin work in early 2015 and report by autumn next year.
A target to increase the number of students from poorer backgrounds in higher education was also unveiled with universities now charged with ensuring 20 per cent of their entrants should come from the most deprived 20 per cent of the population.
The First Minister said the Scottish Government would consult on creating a specific offence of domestic abuse, as well as the possibility of legislation to tackle “revenge porn”, the practice of posting intimate photos of people online without their consent.
Ms Sturgeon added: “I hope I have given an indication today of how the government I lead will carry itself.
“In a way that is open, listening, accessible and decentralising – and with the strongest focus on growing our economy, protecting public services, tackling inequality and empowering our communities.”
NHS watchdog the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate (HEI) will also be given new powers to shut down hospital wards after the Vale of Leven C. diff scandal. A new Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill will also be introduced amid concerns that dozens of people in Scotland have been victims used for forced labour, domestic servitude or prostitution.
Labour’s Jackie Baillie welcomed Ms Sturgeon’s commitments on expanding payment of the living wage, but she said the government could do more. She added: “We want to see the passion and energy the SNP showed for independence put into delivering better wages for workers across the country.
“It is a moral scandal that after seven years of an SNP government and four years of the Tories, some working families in Scotland rely on food banks and payday lenders to make ends meet.”
Ms Baillie called for greater action on housing, including the building of more social housing and tackling high rents in the private sector.
“Why is it that social housing in Scotland is at a level that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War?” she asked.
Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie said the lack of a commitment to cut mental health waiting times was an omission from yesterday’s programme.
Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone welcomed the move to scrutinise the council tax, and called for more work to improve environmentally friendly transport.
Mike Kirby, Scottish secretary of Unison, said: “There was much in Nicola Sturgeon’s statement to commend. We welcome her commitment to protect public services and to increase NHS funding.”
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