Land reform: ‘new dawn’ or class warfare?

The Scottish Government on Wednesday hailed a “new dawn” for radical land reform as the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill passed the final stage of the parliamentary process and Holyrood unveiled a new Scottish Land Fund with £10 million available to help community buy-outs.

However, landowners’ organization Scottish Land & Estates appealed to the Scottish Parliament for an end to the “politics of confrontation” on land reform and to embrace the social, economic and environmental contribution land-based businesses make to rural life.

David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, said “an incessant clamour for radicalism from land reform activists” had led to landowners being cast as the “whipping boys” in an increasingly hostile debate.

Johnstone said the debate had become “feverish” with “raw anti-landowner sentiment” coming to the fore.

The Scottish Government said the Scottish Land Fund will continue until 2020 and support has trebled to £10 million a year to help communities buy their own land.

Land Reform Minister Aileen McLeod urged communities to consider whether owning the land they live and work on could mean it could offer greater benefit for local people.

The previous Land Fund awarded £9 million over three years to 52 communities.

Of the 500,000 acres of land already in community ownership, over 90,000 acres was purchased with help from the Land Fund.

The Scottish Government said the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill will:

– Allow Ministers to create a public register of those with a controlling interest in land and increase the transparency around land ownership

– Encourage and support responsible, diverse land ownership

– Address issues of fairness, equality and social justice connected to the ownership of, access to and use of land in Scotland

– Introduce a new process to sell or assign farm tenancies, creating a secure route out of farming for those without a successor

“The passing of the Land Reform Bill is a landmark moment in our land reform journey,” said Aileen McLeod, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform.

“It is a result of many years of work to ensure our land is owned and used in the public interest and for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

“This radical legislation will make important changes to specific rights and responsibilities over land, including provisions to increase the transparency of land ownership, which have never before been seen in this country.

“It will allow us to provide guidance to landowners and tenants and allow communities to be involved when decisions are taken about land.

“The Bill will also remove the existing exemption of business rates for shooting estates and deer forests.

“This is a significant next step, but is not the end of our land reform journey — I want to do even more to help future generations benefit from our land.

“Going forward we will establish the Scottish Land Commission, publish a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and continue our work towards our one million acre target to community ownership by 2020.”

Scottish Land & Estates’ chairman David Johnstone said landowners had tried to be constructive, putting forward suggestions that would benefit rural economies, communities and tenant farming.

“Unfortunately, the debate has become feverish and instead of the focus being solely on delivering what is best for rural Scotland, time and again we have seen raw anti-landowner sentiment come to the fore,” said Johnstone.

“This has led to increasing pressure on politicians to ramp up radicalism at a time when the Land Reform Bill was already going to produce legislation that would have far reaching and detrimental consequences for land-based businesses.

“We are now seeing the second Land Reform Bill being passed by the Scottish Parliament in little over a decade.

“Our members are not anti-land reform. We want land reform that brings about better use of land, rather than a tired, narrow debate that focuses only on who owns what.

“It is time to move on. Landowners are major employers in rural Scotland. We are the main providers of affordable rural housing.

“We are a key part of Scotland’s tourism and country sports industries.

“We are central to the Scottish Government’s aim to produce more renewable energy and we are in the vanguard of conservation management — including landscapes, habitats, wildlife and built heritage.

“We have a constructive and worthwhile role to play and all too often this is disregarded.

“We know that the majority of people who work with land businesses and visit estates enjoy it and are not calling for the heads of landowners so we hope that the passage of this Bill will end the politics of confrontation and we can be regarded as willing and enthusiastic partners in delivering prosperity in rural Scotland.”

Johnstone said the Land Reform Bill still leaves many questions unanswered.

“We still do not know how the power for Ministers to intervene and enforce the sale of property to a community will work in practice.

“We don’t know how the proposed re-introduction of non-domestic rates on sporting enterprises will impact on employment or conservation and the most contentious proposed changes to farm tenancy legislation are a recipe for disaster in the tenant farming industry.

“Our members will continue to make every effort locally and nationally to demonstrate that landowners and their businesses are part of the fabric of rural Scotland and hope that we can go forward into a new era of co-operation.”

About the Author

Mark McSherry
Dalriada Media LLC sites are edited by veteran news journalist Mark McSherry, a former staff editor and reporter with Reuters, Bloomberg and major newspapers including the South China Morning Post, London's Sunday Times and The Scotsman. McSherry's journalism has also appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, London's Evening Standard and Forbes. McSherry is also a professor of journalism and communication arts in universities and colleges in New York City. Scottish-born McSherry has an MBA from the University of Edinburgh and a Certificate in Global Affairs from New York University.