Ken Thomson

Pages 11-19 of Mountain Views Autumn/Winter 2014/15 (Issue 70) probably told you all you wanted to know about the state of land reform in Scotland at that stage: essentially, a Review Group appointed by the Scottish Government had reported in July 2014, making 62 Recommendations as to legislative and other governmental action. This article brings things up to date as of August 2015, focusing as before on issues of most NEMT interest.

In December 2014, Government issued a public consultation paper, and 1269 responses (951 from individuals and 214 from organisations, with about 104 more 'campaign templates') were received. Most respondents agreed with the idea of a general Land Rights and Responsibilities Policy statement, although many called for further 'clarification' - one way to disagree with the idea, of course! Similarly, most (though not many landowners) wanted to have the proposed Land Reform Commission, so as to keep land reform alive as an issue and to progress its delivery. And restricting landownership to EU-registered individuals and legal entities was generally supported, though not by most private landowners nor - perhaps interestingly - many private sector and professional bodies. Better - i.e. more transparent, and more coordinated - information on landownership was widely desired.

The idea of re-imposing business rates for shooting and deerstalking evoked the natural split between landowners and others. There was wider disagreement over further deer management legislation, to be applied if the review planned for 2016 showed an unsatisfactory situation, and over a requirement that charity trustees should have a specific duty to "engage with the local community" before taking land decisions.

Finally, the proposal that Scottish Ministers or a public body should be able to direct private landowners to act to overcome barriers to sustainable development was supported by 72% of the respondents, with the rest pointing out political and legal problems.

In June 2015, the Scottish Government published a Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, which will be considered by the Scottish Parliament over the next few months, as it progresses towards an Act. The Bill would require Ministers to publish a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement (LRRS) every 5 years, as part of a Land Reform "process", but it does not contain a draft LRRS. And a Scottish Land Commission of six members (one for tenant farming, which takes up half the Bill) would be appointed, with "sufficient independence" from Ministers and Parliament.

The main difference between the Bill and earlier proposals is that, rather than restricting landownership to EU-registered individuals or entities, or by size, anyone with "some justifiable reason" should be able to apply to obtain "information" about individuals involved in decision-making about land management, even if the latter are not themselves the landowners. Of course, the scope and cost (e.g. to applicants) of such arrangements will determine its effectiveness; for example, general environmental concern would probably not qualify, though denial of general access rights might do so. In parallel, the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland may be required to obtain, and possibly publish, information about those with a "controlling interest" (e.g. at least 25% of company shares?) in land proprietorships.

Rather than imposing a legal duty for landowners (and tenants) to engage with communities on land-based decisions, the Bill would require Ministers to issue "guidance". Failure to comply might affect decisions on community land purchases, on land management grants, and (for charities) "misconduct" proceedings.

The Bill proposes a right to buy land (including bridges, and fishing and mineral interests attached to land, but excluding owned homes) to further "sustainable development" (SD), not only for community bodies (which may be quite widely defined, at least potentially, for this purpose) but also for third parties nominated by communities with the same objective. "Sustainable development" is defined in Bill guidance as "development that is planned with appropriate regard for its longer term consequences, and is geared towards assisting social and economic advancement that can lead to further opportunities and a higher quality of life for people whilst protecting the environment. Sustainable development requires an integrated approach to social, economic and environmental outcomes."

The Bill also proposes to have the values of shootings and deer forests assessed (separately, which might allow differential treatment in future) for non-domestic rates to be levied after 2017; nevertheless, small-business relief is likely to apply to many enterprises. The Government has not been persuaded that this will have negative effects on jobs or the environment.

Fishing is to be covered by a separate Bill. On deer, the Bill seeks to involve communities more closely, and to empower SNH to require (rather than simply to encourage, as at present) a deer management plan (but not necessarily action) where considered necessary. These are seen as "essentially interim measures" to be implemented if, in 2016, there is a danger of missing the 2020 Biodiversity targets relating to the regeneration of designated sites. There are also minor provisions relating to core path revision, though none to deal with the contentious public access issues of railway crossings and electrified deer fencing.

Stage 1 of the Parliament's consideration of the Bill, now underway, involves the gathering of evidence by the relevant Committee (that for Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment), via responses to another public consultation, external meetings (Skye, Islay, Jura, and Falkland), and Committee hearings in the autumn of both interest groups and Ministers. After a debate on the general principles, the Committee considers specific amendments to the detail of the Bill in Stage 2, and the final Stage 3 involves the whole Parliament. It will be a rush to get through all this before the May 2016 Scottish elections bring an end to the procedure.

At time of writing, few of the written consultation responses are available, but Scottish Land & Estates have tried to be "supportive", e.g. "We support the proposals regarding access to information to improve transparency and accountability, ...[However] we strongly support the requests being limited to legitimate and reasonable grounds." And naturally "We strongly oppose the reintroduction of non-domestic rates for shootings and deer forests for a myriad of reasons, including the fact that the claim that this is to ensure parity with other businesses is misleading as many sporting rights are not exercised on a commercial basis [and] believe that the deer management section is largely unnecessary ...". Commentators such as Andy Wightman have welcomed the Bill as "an important and meaningful stage toward the realisation of comprehensive land reform", but have lamented its timidity as regards (e.g.) restrictions on landownership. Watch this space, and the relevant websites, over the winter!

NEMT Front Page | Previous Page | Volume Index Page | Next Page | Journal Index Page

Please let the webmaster know if there are problems with viewing these pages or with the links they contain.