Image: Chart from OBR Economic & Fiscal Outlook December 2014. Click for larger image.

Following the changes to stamp duty announced by George Osborne in the Autumn Statement, the Scottish Conservative Party has published proposals to change the proposed Scottish replacement – Land and Buildings Transaction Tax – due to be introduced in April 2015. The topic was raised at First Ministers Questions today (col. 14)

The Tory proposals include halving the rate between purchases of between £250,000 and £500,000 from 10% to 5%. The party claims that its proposals “would mean 97 per cent of transactions, including all those below £500,000, will leave house-buyers better off.”

This claim (and similar claims by the Scottish Government) that cuts in stamp duty rates represent a saving to housebuyers is misleading and wrong. It is a symptom of widespread illiteracy around the fiscal dimensions of land and property.

In broad terms, people have a fixed budget when they buy a house. They can, perhaps afford £150,000 made up of a loan and capital of their own. This sum has to cover the costs of acquisition (fees and stamp duty) and the sum paid to the seller for the house. If stamp duty rates are reduced it follows that more money is available for the other costs (fees and the price paid). Assuming that fees remain fixed (such as land registration fees) and others (survey fees and conveyancing costs) remain unchanged (either as a fixed sum or as a percentage of purchase price), the money saved in stamp duty will be available to bid up prices.(1)

This is a straightforward economic principle that was the subject of this useful analysis by Shelter and is noted by the Office of Budget responsibility in its Economic and Fiscal Outlook December 2014 on page 126 as follows.

The OBR analysis makes clear that the cuts proposed by George Osborne and the Scottish Conservatives will be more than offset by higher house prices. Those higher prices will, in many cases be financed by loans, the interest on which will be higher over many decades. A small saving in a one-off transaction tax will not simply be more than offset by higher house prices but by ongoing, compounded and volatile interest payments to financial corporations.

The best solution (and the one I advocated two years ago and is recommended by one of the Scottish Government’s own economic advisers – Sir James Mirrlees) is to abolish this transaction tax in its entirety and replace the volatile yield with a better-designed system of recurrent taxation of land and property. The Mirrlees Review (Chapter 16 pg 404) noted that,

If the Scottish Conservative (and indeed other parties) want to be truly radical, they would be well-advised to stop tinkering with rates (that will not have the claimed effects), abolish stamp duty and its associated bureaucracy, and agree to far more fundamental reform in fiscal policy relating to land and property.

(1) Of course, buyers are often sellers and will receive higher bids for the property that they are selling. But given that most buyers who are sellers are trading up, this merely exacerbates the inflation in prices.

Image: Steven Camley Cartoon, The Herald.

It’s been a remarkable few days.

Last Wednesday, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced a legislative programme that included a Land Reform Bill and other land policy measures on harbours, domestic property taxation and inheritance laws.

The following day the Smith Commission published its report on further devolution for Scotland. After decades of campaigning on the topic by many activists, the Crown Estate is to be devolved in its entirety together with other powers such as the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction.

Then, today, the Scottish Government published a consultation paper on land reform in Scotland which provides more detail on the measures that are to be incorporated in the Bill. This all amounts to the most significant political advance on the topic since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the series of reforms implemented in 1999-2003.

In the words of the Scottish Government,

The aim of this paper is … to ensure you and everyone in Scotland are given the chance to influence this debate, provide your thoughts and suggestions, and to shape both Scotland’s vision for the future of land rights and responsibilities policy and future land reform.”

The Paper begins by proposing a Land Rights and Responsibilities policy statement (page 7). This in itself is very significant. It provides a draft statement of principles that will inform the development of land policy for the years ahead. One would hope that the final version will be agreed and adopted by whatever political parties are in power in Holyrood. Such a statement puts Scottish land reform firmly in an international context where land rights are seen as an important means of strengthening communities and individuals. It opens the door to the Scottish Government adopting the UN Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure that have already been adopted by the UK government.

The paper then goes on to highlight some further detail on the eleven measures that are proposed to be included in the Land Reform Bill. Some of these were highlighted in the First Minister’s legislative programme last week – see previous blog  but some are new.

Here follows all eleven proposals.

1. A Scottish Land Reform Commission

Announced last week and implements a key recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group.

2. Limiting the Legal Entities that can own land in Scotland This is a new proposal and very welcome. Again it follows a recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group  and previous debates around the Land Registration Act (see my evidence here)  It also addresses the concerns of law enforcement and taxation authorities about money-laundering (1) There has been a long-standing problem of land owned by companies registered in offshore tax-havens. Some own large tracts of rural land and some own urban property – including quite a bit of Charlotte Square in Edinburgh near the First Minister’s official residence. It is quite ludicrous to permit this state of affairs to continue any longer.

3. Information on land, its value and ownership

Announced last week and implements a key recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group. We need to move towards a comprehensive and freely available system like the State of Montana.

4. Sustainable development test for land governance

Again, announced last week but this is the opportunity now to consider how this might be designed and implemented. As the Paper argues,

The vast majority of land in Scotland is owned by the private sector. Landowners are instrumental in promoting sustainable local development and supporting communities. However, in some instances the scale or pattern of land ownership, and the decisions of landowners, can be a barrier to sustainable development in an area. Providing mechanisms to address such situations could allow for potential barriers to sustainable local economic and social development to be overcome.”

5. A more proactive role for public sector land management

This is a new proposal and welcome. As the Paper notes,

It is clear public land should be managed for the greatest overall benefit, balancing a number of differing and sometimes conflicting public needs. … However, the legal framework for some public bodies can be a significant constraint on the range of operations that they can undertake to deliver these benefits.”

If the legal framework and governance of all public land can be modernised and made more flexible, it will help to deliver many of the objectives of land reform can be met.

6. Duty of community engagement on charitable trustees when taking decisions on land management.

This was highlighted last week. What the Government propose is a new duty on the trustees of charitable bodies to “engage with the local community and consider the potential impact on the local community before taking any decision” Such a power would be useful but it does not go far enough. Where charitable status is granted to private landowners who then restrict membership of the organisation to a tight group of family and friends, what is needed is not better engagement but better democracy.

7. Removal of the exemption from business rates for shooting and deerstalking

Announced last week, the Paper makes clear that the proposal relates to the so-called sporting rates abolished in 1995. It would be helpful if the term “business rates” was done away with. It has no legal meaning and is misleading. Such rates are not a tax on businesses (mainly concerned with income tax and corporation tax), they are a levy on the rental value of non-domestic property. The Scottish Parliament is assessed for non-domestic rates (NDR) as are bus stops. Neither is a business. Much though needs to be given to how such rates are to be assessed. I will be arguing strongly that it be done on the rental value of land – an approach that the Mirrlees Review (Chapter 16) recommended should be applied to all NDR.

8. Common Good

I particularly welcome the plans to reform the law around common good land. This is land owned by towns and cities across Scotland that is for the benefit of the residents and os often of great antiquity forming part of the original Royal Charter of the burgh. The legal framework around is complicated and out of date and leads to conflict between councils and communities. Common Good is the oldest form of community landownership and the vast majority of Scotland’s population who live in towns and cities deserve a better system of managing it.

9. Agricultural Holdings

Scottish Government confirms that the recommendations that will be made by the Agricultural Holdings Review Group (which is due to report later this month) will be incorporated into the Land Reform Bill.

10. Wild Deer

This is a new proposal to strengthen the powers of intervention of Scottish Natural Heritage over the management of wild deer. As the Paper notes, wild deer are a public resource but they are managed exclusively by landowning interests. I suspect many will be arguing that the proposals need to go further and introduce a modern system of wildlife management with proper democratic governance of this public resource.

11. Public Access

There are proposals here to make minor amendments to existing access legislation.

Conclusion

These proposals, together with the Community Empowerment Bill, reform of council tax, succession law reform, harbours reform and devolution of the Crown Estate and onshore oil and gas add up to a substantial package of powers that will reform land relations in Scotland. Reform is not going to happen quickly. This is the job of a decade or more but this is an important start

All of these proposals will be subject to extensive debate over the coming months and already there are powerful vested interests engaged in trying to derail them. Scottish Land and Estates issued a press release through Media House in which it expressed “disappointment that the Scottish Government continues to miss an opportunity to create modern and meaningful land reform.” I think modern and meaningful land reform is what is in fact beginning to take shape. There is a long way to go of course. But Scotland is changed now. Thousands of people were energised by the referendum campaign and now want to use the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament to secure a fairer and more prosperous country.

This blog is a brief overview of what is covered by the Consultation. I will be publishing further detailed blogs on individual topics as well as a series of briefing papers to assist people in responding to the consultation.

NOTES

(1) See Chapter 29 in The Poor Had No Lawyers

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 it’s 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.