Reflections on the Land Reform Bill, Magnus Davidson

A FEW weeks ago, I attended a consultation event in Helmsdale for the proposed Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation Bill from the Scottish Government. Land reform and its legislative process can be difficult for the public to engage with – yet the setting in Helmsdale, with its Emigrants Statue, indicates that this hasn’t always been the case.

That the consultation is being toured around the country suggests that the government is taking it seriously. Màiri McAllan, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Environment and Land Reform, was unrepentant on the ruralness of this bill and that urban communities will have their say through the review of the 2015 Community Empowerment Act.

This bill comes at a time when rural land use and ownership is under intense scrutiny from heated land markets, reflecting the value of land in achieving ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions. Afforestation, woodland creation, and peatland restoration have seen a raft of so-called ‘Green Lairds’ descend on Scotland, some taking advantage of our unregulated land market and concentrated land system.

Fundamental to the bill, and what is becoming a major point of contention, is the definition of ‘large-scale landholdings’. The consultation suggests a baseline of 3,000 hectares, or related definitions around landowner share of statistical units called ‘datazones’ or ‘inhabited islands’.

For greater impact, that figure should be 1,000 hectares, pulling more landowners into the proposed legislation’s scope. There’s understandable concern from the National Farmers Union on family farms facing more regulation if that limit were to be lower – an exemption here would an obvious choice.

The first main point of consultation sits around the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement which has been a voluntary measure to date, aimed at large-scale landowners recognising the responsibilities that come with landownership. The bill would aim to make the statement a legal duty but is less clear on how the five-year-old set of principles could be modernised to encompass new thinking around ‘Just Transition’ and ‘community wealth-building’.

The second takes aim at management rather than ownership of land, with the introduction of compulsory land management plans. Large-scale landowners will be required to prepare and publish a management plan on issues such as the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, net-zero, and nature restoration.

The penalty of failing to do so could result in losing public subsidy but it appears this rests on failure to provide a plan rather than the quality or implementation of the plan itself.

The third key area of the new bill sits on the much-awaited Public Interest Test. Aimed at tackling Scotland’s concentrated, and at times monopoly, land ownership, the test will try to mitigate excessive landowner power when it acts against the public interest. The key drawback is that this will only act if a piece of land is to be bought or sold, rather than faced by all landowners.

As part of the bill, the government is also consulting on transparency of ownership, largely as a reaction to what’s happening in the Ukraine. This could see ownership restricted to legal entities registered in Europe or the UK and tentative steps towards limits on foreign ownership.

As well as attaching reform of smallholdings to the consultation, there is an interesting but technical suggestion to the creation of a new Land Use Tenancy. Aimed at the creation of new tenancies for woodland management, nature restoration, or peatland restoration, it may offer an interesting perspective beyond tenant farms or crofting.

One can start to get a feel for how these measures could be implemented in the far north. Public Interest Tests could be considered a case study in legislation to prevent the buying of more land in north Sutherland. Another outcome could see wildlife organisations needing to provide land for community housing in Strath Halladale if they wanted to purchase more of the Flow Country.

Management plans may push traditional landowners towards culling more deer. New tenancies could provide the answer to the proliferation of self-seeded non-natives across the peatlands, getting people back to the land.

This bill is already facing criticism from some proponents of land reform as not going nearly far enough, and some have already given up on it. Those of us who are pragmatic can see a somewhat meaningful bill come out the other end, but that will require hard work.

Without considering tax or laws of succession, this bill will not see an end to Scotland’s concentrated land system, but it may well help curb the worst excesses of it.

Magnus Davidson is a research associate with the University of the Highlands and Island’s Environmental Research Institute, based in Thurso. This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared, on August 3, in the John O’Groat Journal and Caithness Courier, here, for which grateful thanks.

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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