The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a matter of key importance in Scotland: land reform. It is widely recognised that Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in Scotland and that this can lead to poor land management and monopoly control of land in some areas. The government has long pledged to do something about this but effective action has been slow in coming. The latest proposals contain important new ideas, but also some important gaps and big loopholes.
The more people that the Scottish Government hear from in favour of meaningful land reform, the better. With less than a week left to comment, we don’t suggest that you tackle the whole consultation, but we have put together a one-page guide to some key questions and short responses. If you have twenty minutes free any time this week, we suggest you get something to drink, follow the link, and put the following into your own words.
Part 4 Threshold for the measures to apply
Q1: We disagree with the proposed size threshold of 3,000 ha, which is far too large. If the aim is to reduce the number of land holdings of this size, the measures will not have this effect. If the aim is to improve land management, there is no reason to restrict it to only the very largest holdings. We suggest a threshold of 1,000 ha, falling later to 500 ha. This is larger than the vast majority of family farms and still includes only a small percentage of holdings. We agree with the principle of thresholds based on the percentage of a datazone or the proportion of an inhabited island covered by a holding.
It is very important that the threshold is for the total land holding by a beneficial owner (the person who ultimately controls or benefits from an asset rather than the owner on paper), given the obvious scope for avoiding all these measures by artificially dividing holdings otherwise.
Part 5 Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement
Q4: We agree that the statement needs to be statutory rather than voluntary. Besides applying to large landowners, it should apply to all those receiving public funds, including tax exemptions, on land in Scotland above a threshold of around £100,000 p.a. Compliance requirements need to be clear and proportionate.
Part 6 Land Management Plans
Q8: We agree with the proposals to introduce compulsory Land Management Plans, which would be a positive and effective mechanism for ensuring that the principles from the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement are put into practice. We suggest these plans should include obligations to meet nature restoration targets, Community Wealth Building Principles, the potential for local repopulation or affordable housing and the principles of a Just Transition to Net Zero.
Part 7i Public Interest Test
Q14: We agree with the introduction of a public interest test on large-scale land transactions, including (Q18) transfers of shares and transfers within or between trusts and on inheritance.
Part 7ii Prior Notification of Land Sales
Q25: We agree with the proposals to require prior notification of land sales. We suggest that communities should then have a period in which they can register an interest in buying the whole or a part of the land.
Part 11 Transparency
There is an urgent need to improve transparency in Scottish land ownership, but this will not in itself, as the paper argues, deal with absentee land ownership. If the Scottish Government wants to limit absentee land ownership, as is normal in most European countries, it will have to bring in specific legislation to do so. Residency requirements apply to crofters on a few acres, so it is odd that they should not apply to holdings of thousands of hectares.
Part 12 Other land related reforms
Q42: A land-based tax would be an essential mechanism for reducing the over-concentration of land ownership in Scotland, as recommended by the Mirrlees Review and the Land Reform Review Group.
Q44: One of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce the concentration of land ownership over time has been neglected here. It is to reform inheritance law so that estates are split equally amongst inheritors rather than passed whole to the eldest child.