Scots land ownership system ‘hurts local economies’

A new report by the Scottish Land Commission argues that concentrated land ownership in some parts of Scotland “hampers economic development and causes serious and long-term harm to the communities affected.”

The report is published alongside a set recommendations to Scottish Government Ministers, who asked the Commission to examine these issues.

Recommendations include a public interest test for significant land transfer, promoting more diverse private ownership to help achieve land reform objectives, and local engagement in land use change.

“Representing the most substantial investigation conducted into the impacts of this issue, the report is based on robust evidence about rural land ownership that shows how the concentration of social, economic and decision-making power significantly impacts communities across rural Scotland,” said the Scottish Land Commission.

More than 407 people, from landowners and land managers to community representatives and individuals, submitted evidence.

The main findings are that:

  • Most of the disadvantages associated with Scotland’s current pattern of land ownership relate to a concentration of social, economic and decision-making power, not simply the size of landholdings
  • The advantages identified relate mainly to potential economies of scale
  • In some parts of Scotland, concentrated ownership hampers economic development and causes serious and long-term harm to the communities affected
  • The problems are not associated exclusively with any particular type of landowner – the Commission found a consistent pattern of evidence relating to land owned across the private, public, NGO and community sectors
  • There are issues to address beyond ownership, specifically a lack of effective participation in land use change decisions
  • The pattern of market and social power in concentrated land ownership, has parallels with monopoly power in other sectors of the economy
  • There is – currently – little or no method of redress for communities or individuals, where there are adverse economic or social impacts.

Scottish Land Commission CEO Hamish Trench said: “Concern about the impacts of concentrated land ownership in Scotland has long been central to the land reform debate.

“This evidence report allows us to move on from debating whether ownership is an issue, to understanding what the issues are and how they can be addressed.

“The evidence we have collected shows clearly that it is the concentration of power associated with land ownership, rather than necessarily the scale of landholding, that has a significant impact on the public interest, for example in relation to economic opportunities, housing and community development.

“Good management can of course reduce the risks associated with the concentration of power and decision making, but the evidence shows that adverse impacts are causing significant detriment to the communities affected. This points to the need for systemic change beyond simply a focus on good management.”

Sarah-Jane Laing, executive director of Scottish Land & Estates replied to the report in a statement: “There are a number of findings in this new report which private landowners already put into practice as part of their progressive approach to owning and managing land.  

“However, we are deeply concerned that the report still sees landownership rather than land use as the prime route to dealing with issues being faced by communities.

“Nor does the report adequately reflect the positive and substantial contribution made by rural businesses.
“Landowners and communities are at the start of a new era as a result of the last Land Reform Act passed in 2016.

“Many of its provisions are still to come into effect and will give communities unprecedented rights and opportunities to acquire land. These provisions should be allowed to take shape before further measures are considered.

“We welcome the fact that the report has found there is no direct link between large scale landownership and poor rural development – something the Scottish Government’s own research has confirmed.

“It is clear that work still needs to be done to help communities make better use of the many frameworks and opportunities to influence land use that already exist through planning, forestry strategies, local government plans to name just a few.

“We also note that criticism of landownership is applied to all types of ownership including public, private, NGO and charitable.

“Much of the report deals with issues around how land is used – something we believe is of paramount importance. Regrettably, its main conclusions still consider ownership as being the primary issue. 

“We would like to see more detailed and compelling examples to support the report’s claim that concentrated landownership is damaging fragile communities.

“Furthermore, there should be much greater clarity on what is meant by ‘concentration’ of landownership.

“The 2016 Land Reform Act and the Community Empowerment Act do have specific provisions to deal with landowners preventing sustainable development and the abandonment of land.”

Laing added: “The stereotypical view of landowners held by some simply do not reflect current day reality.

“Landowners generally operate as modern businesses involved in a range of sectors such as agriculture, forestry, energy, leisure and tourism and pursuing innovation, economic prosperity and employment opportunities.

“For example, more than 9,000 rural homes are let by private land-based businesses and Scotland’s three new towns are being developed by rural landowners.

“They are also subject to a vast range of regulation and legislation governing their operation within each of these sectors.

“We will study this research in significant detail to establish how conclusions and recommendations have been reached from these 400 anecdotal responses.

“Research by the Scottish Government in 2016 found that ‘while it may be tempting to conclude that local outcomes were related to land ownership factors, the research findings confirm that interactions of other factors have a strong bearing on local development – these included planning, local decision making, local authorities, community councils, infrastructure, connectivity and other issues.’

“It is disappointing that the SLC gives so little weight to this and other research in arriving at its conclusions and recommendations.

“We also want to learn more about any examples of poor landownership which goes against our stated commitment of being open, inclusive, enabling and responsible.

“Where ownership is concentrated and power is being wielded unfairly – whether by a private, community, public sector or charity owner – this is unacceptable and should be tackled using existing legislative provisions.

“SLE is supportive of many of the goals of land reform – including those which have yet to come into legislative effect.

“We have been at the forefront of increasing visibility and transparency of ownership and in helping deliver a step change in community engagement on decisions relating to land.

“We believe a mix of private, public, charity and community ownership can deliver tangible benefits to rural Scotland.

“It should be remembered, however, that not all communities have expressed an appetite to own land and that community ownership is simply one of the routes to deliver sustainable rural development, it is not and end in itself.

“There are many examples of great projects and initiatives across Scotland delivering public benefits from private land.

“It is vital that we give the new approach to land use and the suite of new powers a chance to bed in and take effect.”