Real progress on land reform in Scotland

By Simon Barrow
December 2, 2014

Back in January 2013, Ekklesia made a short submission to the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) set up by the Scottish government to consider one of the most important issues of social and economic justice in the country -- one where there has been persistent avoidance of core questions for many years.

The fear among many reformers was that the LRRG, heavily lobbied by wealthy landowners' groups, was going to produce yet another report that kicked these issues into (if you'll forgive the metaphor) the long grass. On the contrary, the group, ably chaired by the Rev Dr Alison Elliott, a former moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, surprised them with its boldness.

That has now been followed by the important announcement from the new Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, of a programme for her government which really begins to take land reform seriously.

Andy Wightman, a researcher and activist who probably knows more about these issues than almost anyone else in Scotland, commented last week: "After a decade of absence, it’s great to see the land question back on the political agenda. This is an important, substantial and meaningful set of proposals. Taken as a whole, they will hopefully shift the baseline of the debate – that is to say the set of assumptions and norms that have too often been taken for granted and in which politicians have too often been reluctant to tackle."

Of course, what the Scottish government is putting forward in its Programme for Government is not perfect, but it has been more than enough to produce a furious reaction from defenders of the status quo, including rich landowners themselves and Scottish Conservative politicians.

Ekklesia's own LRRG submission set out in summary the need to address historic and present inequity in the distribution and use of land; our understanding of what constitutes meaningful land reform; and specific reforms that we support in this area. We are pleased that, along with other submissions making similar points, these views have been taken seriously.

Topics to be included in the Land Reform Bill include: withdrawing the non-domestic rates exemptions for sporting estates; powers for Scottish Ministers to intervene where the scale of land ownership and land management decisions are a barrier to local sustainable development; a new duty on charity trustees to consult with local communities where decisions on the management and use of land may affect a local community; a new Land Reform Commission to develop the the evidence base for future reform, to support public debate and to hold this and future governments to account; a land information system to provide transparent, comprehensive and freely available data and information on the ownership, occupation, value and use of land; a review of the land and property tax that affects most people – the highly regressive council tax; the modernisation of succession law so that all children are treated equally when it comes to inheriting land; a Harbours Bill to provide a revised legislative framework from one of Scotland’s oldest forms of social enterprise, namelyTrust Ports; increasing the Scottish Land Fund to £10 million from 2016-20 to meet demand; and implementation of the recommendations of the Agricultural Holdings Review Group which is due to publish its final report in January 2015.

Comments Wightman: "[E]veryone who believes that the land of Scotland should be owned and used in the public interest and for the common good should take the time to understand the issues at stake, participate in the consultation and make Scotland a country where land is owned and used for the many and not the few."

Of course, the real political struggle starts here. For we can be sure that the minority who control much of Scotland's land will do all they can, politically and legally, to thwart change.

* Andy Wightman, 'Land Reform – the wait is over' (Land Matters, 24 November 2014): http://www.andywightman.com/?p=3975

* Ekklesia's submission to the LRRG: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/landreformscotland

* Scottish Government 'Programme for Government' (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0046/00464455.pdf

* More from Ekklesia on post-referendum Scotland: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/scottishindependence

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.