It is probably quite appropriate that today, within 24 hours of publishing her Interim Report, the Chair of the Land Reform Review Group, Alison Elliot, is giving the keynote address to Scottish Land and Estates AGM at Perth racecourse. (1) No doubt she will receive a warm welcome and a rousing cheer from the landed class and its legal and financial advisers as the latest attempt at kick-starting land reform withers and dies on the vine of complacency and ignorance. See previous blogs on the topic and, in particular the immediately previous one for a foretaste of developments today.
The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) was announced by Alex Salmond at a meeting of the Scottish Cabinet on Skye in 24 July 2012. On 23 August it’s remit was published and on 8 October the Group’s advisers were announced. Given that nothing had happened on the land reform front for a decade, this development was widely welcomed at least among those who believe that Scotland needs land reform.
Yesterday, the Group published its Interim Report together with an analysis of the evidence submitted to the Group. Following the previous resignation of Professor James Hunter, it was also announced that the one other member with (limited) experience of land reform has also resigned – Dr Sarah Skerrat. She is the co-author of the report along with the one member left from the original Group – the Chair Alison Elliot.
The Interim Report fails to deliver anything meaningful and effectively kills off any prospects of radical land reform due to one significant (and for those unfamiliar with the topic not immediately obvious) and devastating revelation in the report.
I wrote at the time the group was established that whether any of the wicked issues like “inflated land values, affordability of housing, succession law, tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, theft of common land, land registration laws, common good etc. etc. etc.” got looked at depended on 1) a definition of land reform and 2) the remit of the group. Last August, I welcomed the remit as wide-ranging and I did so because on a straight reading of the words, it was just that. For the avoidance of doubt it is worth re-stating the preamble and three key tasks that the Group was set.
The Scottish Government is committed to generating innovative and radical proposals on land reform that will contribute to the success of Scotland for future generations.
The relationship between the land and the people of Scotland is fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country. The structure of land ownership is a defining factor in that relationship: it can facilitate and promote development, but it can also hinder it. In recent years, various approaches to land reform, not least the expansion of community ownership, have contributed positively to a more successful Scotland by assisting in the reduction of barriers to sustainable development, by strengthening communities and by giving them a greater stake in their future. The various strands of land reform that exist in Scotland provide a firm foundation for further developments.
The Government has therefore established a Land Reform Review Group.
The Group will identify how land reform will:
1) Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;
2) Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;
3) Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland
The emphasis is mine and I interpreted the three tasks as relating broadly to 1) individuals 2) communities and 3) governance. Others may read it differently of course but it appears to provide a wide framework of analysis. It follows on from a preamble that highlights structural problems, progress to date and community ownership as representing one strand of land reform.
Yesterday that remit was ripped up.
Section 4.4.2 contains the first clue in a passage that tenant farmers across Scotland have reacted to with a sense of anger and betrayal.
“This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention. For the LRRG to address these issues would be to interfere with the work of the TFF [Tenant Farming Forum] and to stray considerably away from our remit which focuses on communities rather than relationships between individuals. Having spent time on the issue during the first phase of the review we would be interested in sharing perspectives with the TFF through our advisers as appropriate but we do not intend to report further on this matter, except where it can be addressed within the context of community ownership” (my emphasis).
This a kick in the teeth for Scotland’s tenant farming sector. As the Group noted, some tenants were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” (2) Now they learn that, after patient and diligent engagement with the Group, their concerns are to be addressed by a talking shop in which the lairds have a veto.
But the revelation goes way beyond the immediate concerns of tenant farmers
It redefines the remit of the group as focussing on “communities rather than relationships between individuals“. This redefinition is confirmed by Sections 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 of the report which interpret each of the three aims in the remit as relating solely to community ownership. Section 4 opens with the claim that,
“The group was given a wide-ranging remit which entailed a review of the legislation of 2003 as well as the task of considering how the benefits of community ownership could be extended to more communities through the exploration of new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland” (my emphasis).
It concludes by announcing that “some more technical issues that are frequently raised in discussions of land reform – the position of the Crown Estates, common good land, taxation and succession” have not been considered but the Group “may do so if they are likely to throw light on the other topics on the Phase 2 agenda.”
So these important topics (not to mention tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, housing tenure, land information etc.) will only be considered if they have a bearing on advancing community ownership.
I was thus wrong when I welcomed this wide-ranging remit because I failed to understand what it meant.
Either that or, effectively, the Group has re-written its remit so as to exclude concerns relating to anything other than community ownership.
Has the Scottish government approved of this redefinition or was I alone in having interpreted the remit wrongly? From the Media Release issued, it appears that the Minister, Paul Wheelhouse agrees with the Group that the Review is, in fact, about community ownership.
“The LRRG has made good progress over the past few months as they have travelled across Scotland meeting a wide range of people with an interest in land reform and in an effort to understand how Scottish Government can utilise Scotland’s land and assets to empower Scotland’s communities – both rural and urban. The interest in the review has been great with the Group receiving over 475 responses to their initial consultation.
“I now very much look forward to the next stage as the LRRG move into the second phase of it’s work looking at radical options for community land ownership before the final report in 2014.” (my emphasis)
So it must be me then. I just misunderstood the remit. This is not a land reform review group – it is a community ownership review group.
Given the coverage in the media today (a few sentences in the Herald’s farming page and a brief interview with myself on BBC Radio Highland (itself quote a reflection on the marginal significance now attached to land reform), it is clear that land reform is effectively dead as a matter of public policy. That does not reflect my own experience of speaking to thousands of people across Scotland over the past couple of years (during which events less than a handful of people ever appeared to have heard of the LRRG) but it does sit comfortably with elite Scotland’s view of the world.
What makes the report hard to understand is that there are flashes of radicalism like this.
“Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to people who live their lives on it. While many of these will be good decisions, it is an expression of the material inequality in the country that this situation obtains.”
But then there is a complete and utter failure to say anything at about how this is to be dealt with.
Perhaps it is time that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament called the group in for another chat.
Finally, as I have made clear in the past, I remain concerned at the lack of transparency in the proceedings of the Group and in particular its refusal to publish the evidence being submitted to it until April 2014. I thus submitted a Freedom of Information request for this information – something that respondents were made aware was a possibility in the Call for Evidence. I was thus rather surprised to read in Section 2.5 Alterations to timescale the following claim.
“Immediately after the deadline for submissions in January, a Freedom of Information request was received that the full set of submissions should be made public. This request was dealt with by the Secretariat but it did have an impact on how the group approached analysis of the submissions. Uncertainty over whether confidential responses would be made public worried some respondents and did nothing to enhance the trust some people felt towards the group or the process.”
For the record I never asked for confidential responses to be released and there is a perfectly legitimate exemption under FoI legislation to cover this. To blame an FoI request for undermining trust in the group is frankly pathetic.
(1) Perth racecourse is on Scone Estate – land subject to a heritage tax exemption for allowing public access (map here).
(2) Interim Report page 14
UPDATE – further media reports.
BBC Highlands & Islands online 21 May
BBC Naidheachan online 21 May
Herald 21 May
Herald 22 May