Land reform finally tops the Holyrood agenda

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By Andy Wightman

Nicola Sturgeon today announced the Scottish Government’s legislative programme for the remainder of this Parliament. It contains a proposal for a new Land Reform Bill as well as a Succession Bill and a review of the Council Tax. Announcements of further proposals are expected in the consultation paper to be published next week.

 

After a decade of absence, it’s great to see the land question back on the political agenda. This is an important, substantial and meaningful set of proposals. Taken as a whole, they will hopefully shift the baseline of the debate – that is to say the set of assumptions and norms that have too often been taken for granted and in which politicians have too often been reluctant to tackle.

In the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, Scottish Ministers argue that,

The relationship between the people living in Scotland and the land of Scotland is of fundamental importance. Our aim is to move the debate on land reform from one focused on historic injustices to a modern debate about the current balance of land rights in Scotland and how this can be managed to best deliver for the people of Scotland.”

Amen to that.

Scotland comprises its territory and its people.

How land is owned, used and governed is vitally important to the wellbeing and prosperity of all who live in this country – in particular to those who, because of inflated land values, cannot afford the basic human right of a home. For far too long, the ownership and control of Scotland’s natural resources have been in the hands of a small elite. Their political influence has been such that reforms that would, in any other European country, be regarded as normal, have been dismissed as extreme or an unjustifiable attack on property rights.

As for the proposals themselves, they represent a suite of important reforms. Topics to be included in the Land Reform Bill include:-

Withdrawing the non-domestic rates exemptions for sporting estates

Sporting rates were abolished by the Conservative Government in 1994 and the non-domestic rates (NDR) on over 90% of Scotland were abolished back in the 1950s. It is clearly inequitable that, whilst the corner shop, the pub and the hairdresser all pay NDR, the multi-million pound assets outside the villages and towns of Scotland pay virtually none with all “agricultural” land (including sporting estates and woodland) removed from the valuation roll altogether.

One of the bizarre consequences of this is that there are Danish landowners who own large areas of land in Scotland who pay land taxes to their home municipalities in Denmark to pay for nice kindergartens for their children. They are asked to contribute no such levies to Scottish local authorities for equivalent services for their employee’s children here.

Powers for Scottish Ministers to intervene where the scale of land ownership and land management decisions are a barrier to local sustainable development

With such a concentrated pattern of private landownership (432 landowners own half of the privately-owned rural land in Scotland) and such an open and unregulated market, it is inevitable that there will be situations where the public interest should intervene. This can be because of local monopolies (where one owner owns most or all of the land in or around a settlement) or where there is a history of neglect and bad practice affecting tenants and others in the community.

A new duty on charity trustees to consult with local communities where decisions on the management and use of land may affect a local community

There are large estates in Scotland that are currently owned through charitable companies (such as Mount Stuart Trust on Bute and the Applecross Trust in Wester Ross) that were set up decades ago to avoid tax. Often they are run by the same family that once owned them and who appoint their friends as Trustees. The local community has no right to join as members and has no legal right to have any stake in the governance or management of the land despite receiving substantial tax benefits through charitable status and non-domestic rates exemptions.

A new Land Reform Commission to develop the the evidence base for future reform, to support public debate and to hold this and future Governments to account

Land reform is a topic that has been neglected for some time. It is also a topic that cuts across many areas of public policy such as housing, fiscal policy, regeneration, community development, agriculture, forestry etc. it is to be welcomed that the Scottish Government is willing to appoint a Commission to “hold this and future governments to account”!

A land information system to provide transparent, comprehensive and freely available data and information on the ownership, occupation, value and use of land

Scotland has a wealth of data on many aspects of land but they are disparate, costly to get hold of and difficult to interpret. Explore the Cadastral portal for the state of Montana to see what a modern land information system should look like.

Other reforms include:-

  • A review of the land and property tax that affects most people – the highly regressive council tax
  • The announcement of the long awaited reform of the council tax is welcome. To many people this might seem a totally separate topic but houses sit on land and how that land and property is taxed has a significant impact on perhaps the most important land market to most people – the housing market.
  • This regressive tax should be replaced by a far more progressive and equitable framework based on the findings of the Mirrlees Review Chapter 16 chaired by Sir James Mirrlees – one of the Scottish Government’s own economic advisers. Whilst no legislation is envisaged this session – a cross-party review will examine alternatives and report by Autumn by 2015.
  • The modernisation of succession law so that all children are treated equally when it comes to inheriting land

This reform has been resisted by the landed class throughout the whole of the 20th century. Read Chapter 28 in my book, The Poor Had No Lawyers and today’s blog by Lallands Peat Worrier In 1964, when Scotland finally got rid of primogeniture, Lord Haddington and other railed against reform arguing in the House of Lords that By assimilating heritable property, which from time immemorial has passed under the law of primogeniture, with moveable property and dividing it equally among the intestate’s next of kin, you are striking at the very roots of Scottish traditions and undermining the whole fabric of Scottish family life.”

Of course it only undermined the traditions of the lives of the aristocracy – particularly by discriminating against women. That Scotland should only now be catching up with the reforms that swept Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution over 200 years ago says much about why we need such reform!

A Harbours Bill to provide a revised legislative framework from one of Scotland’s oldest forms of social enterprise – Trust Ports

Increasing the Scottish Land Fund to £10 million from 2016-20 to meet demand

Implementation of the recommendations of the Agricultural Holdings Review Group which is due to publish its final report in January 2015

A full consultation will be published next week and it is expected to propose additional reforms that require further work before they can be framed as legislation.

This is a very substantial package of measures. A lot of work lies ahead to bring them all to fruition and they will be opposed every bit of the way by powerful vested interests

Much more information will be published next week when the Scottish Government publishes its full consultation together with an important statement on Land Rights Policy.

Meanwhile everyone who believes that the land of Scotland should be owned and used in the public interest and for the common good should take the time to understand the issues at stake, participate in the consultation and make Scotland a country where land is owned and used for the many and not the few.

Andy Wightman is a well-known writer and land reform campaigner. His blog is here.