A radical shift in how we view landownership

Land reform is a subject guaranteed to set pulses racing and give rise to fierce debate, no matter on which side of the supposed fence people sit – landowner or land reformer.

The recent passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill by the Scottish Parliament brought this debate to the fore once again.

There is a lot in the legislation, and as a first reaction landowners may see these reforms as overwhelming and an infringement in their rights leading to their landholdings to be broken up.

We constantly hear the statistic that 432 people own half of the private land in Scotland and that this pattern of landownership needs to be broken up, although it should be stressed that this wasn’t a stated aim of Scottish Government policy. Is there a specific legislative provision to do that? The short answer is no, and that will disappoint some land reformers who will not see this legislation as radical at all.

For landowners, the truth is that despite the headlines, if you take each provision in isolation there isn’t one provision that on its own which will bring about changing ownership.

This is a package of measures though, a movement if you like, and what is really happening is that there is a clear direction of travel forcing landowners to rethink how to view landownership in Scotland.

Much of the Act requires secondary legislation in order to take effect. It is made up of 11 parts and among the key provisions are as follows: Scottish Ministers must prepare a statement of their objectives for land reform; the establishment of a Scottish Land Commission that will have an ongoing role to look at all matters relating to land reform; increased transparency about who owns and controls land; new guidance to be issued by Scottish Ministers on how landowners should engage with communities in decisions relating to land; intervention powers for Scottish Ministers to order the sale of land in the interests of ‘sustainable development’ following an application process by a community; the reintroduction of non-domestic rates for shootings and deer forests; alterations to agricultural holdings legislation, including the widening of succession and assignation to new entrants for existing 1991 Act secure tenancies.

For some landowners, the changes may be too much and will lead them to sell (possibly to their communities). There will be those who may simply need to adjust how they engage with their communities, and for other landowners it will simply be the case of continuing to sustainably engage in the way that they currently do.

Rather than any specific practical impact, it is the shift in how we should view landownership in Scotland that is what is radical here. The legislation has placed responsibilities to engage with communities and act in a sustainable way right at the heart of landownership.

Whilst none of the measures in themselves are likely to change patterns of landownership, what they do is frame the whole debate around how we think of landownership and to move landownership in Scotland to recognising “rights and responsibilities” – rights of communities and individuals within communities to be recognised as stakeholders in the land and responsibilities to engage placed on landowners.

There are still large elements of the detail to be worked out with much (arguably too much) being left to secondary legislation. There are also elements that may lead to legal wrangling (especially those relating to changes to agricultural holdings legislation. However the Act had created a clear movement and momentum, not only through the law but outwith the legislation itself. The Scottish Government has also increased the funding for the Scottish Land Fund giving communities greater backing to enable them to purchase land.

My overall predication is that it will be what happens outwith but as an indirect result of the legislation which will be of greatest significance here. For example, I expect the Act to indirectly create a backdrop to lead to the voluntary transfer of assets to communities. The significance of the Land Reform legislation in 2003 was not the legal rights created by the community right to buy, but the voluntary community buy-outs which came as an indirect result, and I would expect this to be the case here.

Whether it changes the overall pattern of landownership remains to be seen but there is a clear direction of travel here and ultimately it is those (landowners, communities and others) that embrace and engage with this that will continue to benefit from Scotland’s land.