Land Reform - the Story so Far

At the beginning of this year, the Scottish Office's Land Reform Policy Group published its Recommendations for Action. The group was set up in 1997 to " identify and assess proposals for land reform in rural Scotland, taking account of their cost, legislative and administrative implications and their likely impact on the social and economic development of rural communities and on the natural heritage". Lord Sewel, Scottish Office Minister for Agriculture, the Environment and Fisheries, chaired the group.

Aiming to "involve as wide an audience as possible", the group issued two consultation papers in the course of last year which drew responses from a wide range of organisations and individuals throughout Scotland. The Recommendations for Action draw on that response and Lord Sewel in his foreword states that "they provide a statement of Government policy and intent for future land reform in rural Scotland." He also makes it clear that land reform should be an ongoing process which can build on the opportunities the new Scottish Parliament will provide for an integrated programme of legislation in this area. The stated objective of land reform is "to remove the land-based barriers to the sustainable development of rural communities" and underlying this is a perception that there needs to be increased diversity and increased community involvement in the ways in which land is owned and used.

In support of their vision, the Land Reform Policy Group put forward a considerable range of proposals in a number of areas. The specific areas covered are Law Reform, Land Reform, Countryside and Natural Heritage Issues, Agricultural Holdings and Crofting. The Group has also identified a number of areas where action could be taken without the need for legislation and a number of issues which they believe require further study. Amongst the specific recommendations are the following:

Amongst the many bodies which submitted comments on the two discussion papers which preceded the Land Reform Policy Group's Recommendations for Action were the John Muir Trust and, of course, NEMT. Both bodies were broadly supportive of many of the proposals but did raise some specific concerns.

Commenting on the first discussion paper, JMT expressed concern about the "narrow and unbalanced definition of sustainable development" suggesting that this "should give greater priority to maintaining and enhancing environmental qualities as part of an integrated policy package" and going on to argue that sustainable development "should promote the protection and improvement of the environment combined with social and economic advances, while recognising that land and wildlife also have value for their own sake." The JMT response also commented on the failure of the voluntary principle in the context of natural heritage designations and suggested that maintaining environmental quality should come to be recognised as an opportunity and not a restraint and should be the foundation for sustainable rural development.

Responding to the second consultation paper, NEMT expressed concern over the underlying assumption that land was of no value if it was not developed, pointing out that this ignored historical, scenic, wildlife and other "non-tradeable" values, as well as sidelining the Labour Party's manifesto commitments to the environment. The submission also highlighted the failure of the voluntary principle to adequately protect the countryside and pointed to a failure to address the problems of access and recreational use, particularly where those conflicted with other land uses. It argued that responsible access for recreational purposes must be included in any rural development strategy and that recreational bodies must be included in all consultations.

The forthcoming elections for the Scottish parliament will provide us all with an opportunity to see that the MSPs who will have to carry out these reforms are left in no doubt of our views.
Will Campbell, 29 March 1999

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