One of the most welcome recent developments in Scottish democratic reform has been the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. which was established in autumn 2013. Chaired by the visionary Councillor David O’Neill, it has bravely gone where no administration at Holyrood has gone in all the years of Scottish devolution.

Today is has published its Final Report which concludes that 50 years of centralisation has not worked. It reached this conclusion after a great deal of work (all of which you can find here). In its Interim report in April 2014, the Commission showed how Scotland was the most centralised country in Europe with the weakest and least democratic form of governance. The graph above, taken from my own Renewing Democracy in Scotland report for the Scottish Green Party)  shows how this trend has developed since 1894.

Read the report (and my own one from February this year) and consider why this matters.

The Scottish Parliament will be considering a Community Empowerment Bill over the coming months. The Commission’s report highlights why this Bill will only treat the symptoms of disempowerment.

Here are some quotes from the Commission’s final report.

The case for much stronger local democracy is founded on the simple premise that it is fundamentally better for decisions about these aspirations to be made by those that are most affected by them…

….after decades of power ebbing away, for many people it has become increasingly inconceivable to think that local communities could be in charge of their own affairs.

In the end, all of our thinking has come down to seven fundamental principles that we believe must underpin Scotland’s democratic future.

We have also concluded that the evolution of Scotland’s democratic system across the past 50 years has more or less undermined or inverted all these principles, albeit often with good intentions.

and finally,

The principle of sovereignty has been so inverted that it is now routine in public policy to talk about governments and local governments “empowering” communities rather than the other way round. The principle of subsidiarity has been undermined by the progressive scaling up of local governance, and central control of local resources and functions. The transition from over 200 local councils in 1974 to only 32 “local” councils in 1996 is one of the most radical programmes of delocalisation that we can identify anywhere in the world. Moreover, Scotland’s local democratic structures can be changed at will by any national government with a majority. That the Scottish Parliament is in exactly the same position with respect to Westminster illustrates how “top down” the whole framework of democracy is.

Will the political parties at Holyrood grasp this agenda? The Scottish Green Party appears to be the only one that has unequivocally done so. In a report in June from the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, MPS concluded that,

[para 40] Our preliminary conclusion here is that beyond the narrow confines of academia and COSLA, people are less concerned about the ratios and numbers of councillors to wards and more interested in how functions are being exercised and the extent to which they are able to influence them.

[para 41] Equally we see no identifiable case for increasing the number of authorities, we are not convinced of the need for structural reform of this type. Later in this report we look at whether changes should be more concerned with appropriate powers in different areas matching local needs.

This level of arrogance and complacency is breathtaking.

There is now a clear divide between those who think democracy works just fine in Scotland and are content to pursue policies that undermine local democracy (such as the council tax freeze) which would be illegal in other jurisdictions (1) and those who want fundamental reform in our democratic structures.

Regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, this is a question that the Scottish Parliament has the power to resolve. if it is to do so, however, the people must be mobilised to support such reform. How is that going to happen?

 

NOTES

(1) See page 13 of Renewing Democracy in Scotland

“…during the 2011 Holyrood election, both the SNP and the Labour Party promised that, if elected, they would freeze the level of the council tax despite this being a local government competence. Evidence suggests that this was a popular policy but the council tax level is not set by the Scottish Parliament but by each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

The fact that politicians seeking election to a national parliament could so easily usurp the powers of local government in pursuit of their own electoral success is an illustration of the crisis that is local democracy in Scotland. Had Angela Merkel made such an appeal to German voters in the Federal election of 2012, she would have been advocating a clear violation of the German constitution, specifically Article 18(2).

“Municipalities must be guaranteed the right to regulate all local affairs on their own responsibility, within the limits prescribed by the laws. Within the limits of their functions designated by a law, associations of municipalities shall also have the right of self-government according to the laws. The guarantee of self-government shall extend to the bases of financial autonomy; these bases shall include the right of municipalities to a source of tax revenues based upon economic ability and the right to establish the rates at which these sources shall be taxed.” Article 28(2) Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

 

 

It has been a rocky road for the Land Reform Review Group which was established in July 2012 and whose final report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good was published this morning (Low Resolution version – 13Mb pdf – on Scottish Government website here and 52Mb high resolution version on Scottish Government website here or my website here). A Scottish government press release is here. Response from Community Land Scotland here. Lesley Riddoch comments here. Scottish Tenant Farmers Association reaction here. Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association reaction here. Scottish National Party reaction here. Scottish Land and Estates reaction here. Community Energy Scotland here. Scottish Labour Party reaction here. Scottish Green Party reaction here. Lord Shrewsbury reaction here. Calum Macleod blog here and West Highland Free Press analysis here. Knight Frank reaction here. CKD Galbraith reaction here. Pinsent Masons reaction here. Brian Wilson reaction here. John Muir Trust here. Bell Ingram reaction here. Savills reaction here. Gillespie Macandrew reaction here. Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party reaction here. Scottish Liberal Democrats reaction here. Evidence submitted to Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee here.

This blog provides a brief initial reaction to the report.

By the time the Group published its interim report in May 2013, two of its three members had resigned and the report itself was widely criticised (e.g. see here, here and here). The Group was then strengthened by an additional member and the appointment of a specialist adviser. This re-configured group has survived intact with the exception of one of the advisers, Andrew Bruce-Wootton, who resigned in April 2014.

Much of the turmoil reflects the fact that this is a controversial subject, it is complex and it has received scant academic or political attention for over a decade. The Final Report is thus something of a minor triumph. It is more comprehensive than anything that has gone before and it is detailed and thorough in its description and analysis of the topics covered. The 62 recommendations are wide-ranging. Some will be regarded as radical and perhaps even controversial in certain quarters but there is in fact not one which is anything other than plain common sense and certainly none that citizens of most other European countries would be surprised at.

The group’s remit was to make proposals for land reform measures that would,

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.

If these ambitions are to be realised then big changes are needed in Scotland’s archaic and regressive system of land tenure. As the opening paragraph of the preface states,

This Report is entitled “The Land of Scotland and the Common Good”. It reflects the importance of land as a finite resource, and explores how the arrangements governing the possession and use of land facilitate or inhibit progress towards achieving a Scotland which is economically successful, socially just and environmentally sustainable.

Plain common sense.

What is notable about the report is that it helpfully defines what it means by land reform. For that past 15 years, politicians and others have been guilty of framing land reform as something exclusively to do with rural Scotland, with the Highlands and Islands in particular and with the affairs of tenant farmers and communities in these places. These are important elements to be sure but, as the report’s title indicates, the land of Scotland is  the totality of the sovereign territory. This is emphasised by the image on the cover which shows the legal boundaries of Scotland. (1)

The group’s defines land reform as

measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest.”

This relates to urban land, rural land and the marine environment. The recommendations reflect this comprehensive agenda. They include longer and more secure tenancies for private housing tenants, new powers of compulsory purchase, the establishment of a Housing Land Corporation to acquire land, new arrangements for common good land, the devolution of the Crown Estate, removing exemptions from business rates enjoyed by owners of rural land, giving children the right to inherit land, prohibiting companies in tax havens from registering title, protecting common land from land grabbing, reviewing hunting rights, limiting the amount of land any one beneficial owner can own and introducing a wide range of new powers for communities to take more control of the land around them in towns, cities and the countryside.

Of the 62 recommendations, 58 are within the full devolved competence of the Scottish Parliament. The four that are reserved relate to inheritance and capital taxation, State Aid rules and the Crown Estate – all topics which the Scottish Affairs Committee are examining in a parallel inquiry.

It is notable that this report is the first ever report into the topic since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. It’s early work was informed by the Land Reform Policy Group, chaired by Lord Sewel which published its final report in January 1999. In the foreword, Lord Sewel wrote,

“It is crucial that we regard land reform not as a once-for-all issue but as an ongoing process. The parliament will be able to test how this early legislation works and how it effects change. They will then have the opportunity to revisit and refine their initial achievement…..These present recommendations are therefore by no means the final word on land reform; they are a platform upon which we can build for the future”.

However, as the Land Reform Review group note in their own Preface,

As a time limited Review Group, we are acutely aware that Government approaches to land reform, when there has been a political will to engage with the issue at all, have traditionally been characterised by periodic review and piecemeal intervention. Given the importance of land reform to delivering societal aspirations, we recommend that the Scottish Government regard land as a separate, well supported area of policy, to ensure that the common good of the people of Scotland is well served by its land resources.

As the report notes,

The first session of the Scottish Parliament had a land reform programme established by the Scottish Executive. In contrast, since 2003, there has been no land reform programme. The land reform measures after 2003 have therefore tended to be specific responses to particular issues, rather than part of any wider land reform strategy or programme.

Hopefully, this report will serve to shift the baseline – to move the agenda forward and to deliver a consensus that these recommendations provide the minimum necessary to re-frame and modernise Scotland’s stystem of land governance to one which is people-centred and in which the land of Scotland serves the common good of all of its citizens. The report does not cover a range of important topics but if all of its recommendations were to be implemented over the coming 5 years, we would be living in a country with a far more democratic and equitable distribution of land and power. The report concludes thus.

The Group recognises that this is a critical time for the future of Scotland. Along with the people of Scotland, land is the most important resource in the nation. How it is owned, managed and used is of fundamental importance to Scotland’s future prospects, whatever constitutional direction the country chooses. The Group believes that we have reached a critical point in relation to land issues. We offer the Scottish Government, a range of recommendations, summarised in Section 34, and we encourage it to be radical in its thinking and bold in its action. The prize to the nation will be significant.

UPDATE 1240 23 May

The Scottish Government’s press release contains this statement from Minister for Environment and Climate Change Paul Wheelhouse.

“I am pleased to read the recommendations on improving the availability of land, both rural and urban, and the need to increase access to rural housing, these are issues that will have a direct impact on many people’s lives. The Group have also highlighted the need to address transparency of land ownership in Scotland which I believe is crucial to taking forward this agenda.

“I also welcome that the benefits of community ownership have been highlighted within the report. We have always said that community ownership empowers communities, sparks regeneration and drives renewal which is why we have an ambitious target to get one million acres of land into community ownership by 2020.

“I am pleased to announce that I agree with the Review Group’s recommendation for a working group to develop the strategy for achieving the million acre target and I will shortly be forming a working group to achieve just that.

“Land Reform not just about land ownership but how that land is used and managed and the benefits it can bring to the people of Scotland. I look forward to considering how the recommendations in this report can further benefit the people in Scotland through the relationship with our land.”

But in the Notes to Editors, the release states that,

The Scottish Government recently completed a review on business rates. This Government is committed to maintaining the most competitive business tax environment anywhere in the UK through our business rates policies and we can confirm there are no plans to make changes to the position of agricultural business rates relief.

So a major Review is published and within 3 hours, the Government flatly rejects a key recommendation because of a previous review that was not concerned with land reform – a statement not even consistent with its statement at the time.

In November 2012, the Scottish Government launched a public consultation on how the non-domestic rating and valuation appeals systems can support businesses and sustainable economic growth and on how to improve transparency and streamline the operation of the rating system. As the analysis of consultation responses noted:

Agricultural land and sporting estates are exempt from business rates and the comments on this issue were mixed with some supporting the exemption because of the benefit to the rural economy, and others opposed because they felt all businesses should be treated in the same way.

In its response to the consultation, the Scottish Government said that it had “committed to use the period until the next revaluation in 2017 to conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of the whole business rates system.” In relation to existing reliefs and exemptions, the consultation response said: “All rates reliefs will be kept under regular review to ensure that benefit is directed where it is most needed. Although views were mixed, the Scottish Government has on balance decided that all current exemptions provided, including to agriculture, should be retained.”

So, despite saying today that there are no plans to make changes, in September 2013, Ministers said that the “period to 2017 would be used to conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of the whole business rates system“. Confused?

NOTES

(1) Note the controversial sea boundary off Berwick where the sea boundary as defined by the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order 1999 contrasts with the boundary of Scotland’s civil jurisdiction.

Some Minor Gripes

The footnotes are a mess. One simply states “SAC ref” Others note speeches by give no reference other than a date. Another is “Wightman (blog re commonty at Biggar)” – no link and it is Carluke not Biggar. Hopefully these can be sorted.

The recommendations are not numbered.

There is no executive summary.

The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (direct link here) were adopted on 11 May 2012 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Committee on World Food Security following a three-year process of development by 700 delegates from 133 countries.

The Guidelines have been endorsed by Governments around the world and were most recently supported by the 2013 G8 Summit in Lough Erne and featured in Sections 43-45 of the G8 Communique. The UK Government is actively following the Guidelines in relation to its overseas development programmes as highlighted in its 2013 G8 Presidency Report (pg14). The map below shows the countries where the UK is engaged in land governance projects. See the Land Governance Programme Map for further information.

As stated in the Preface,

The purpose of these Voluntary Guidelines is to serve as a reference and to provide guidance to improve the governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests with the overarching goal of achieving food security for all and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.

These Guidelines are intended to contribute to the global and national efforts towards the eradication of hunger and poverty, based on the principles of sustainable development and with the recognition of the centrality of land to development by promoting secure tenure rights and equitable access to land, fisheries and forests.

One of the most interesting thing about the Guidelines is that they are global in scope. For too long, many so-called developed countries have developed policies and guidelines which they enthusiastically promote in other countries but when asked whether such practices are adopted at home, they look sheepish. Twenty years ago I remember engaging the UK representative at a UN meeting about the millions of pounds being given to promote the transfer of control of state forests to local communities in the Highlands of Nepal when, at the same time, the Scottish Office was in open opposition to any such efforts in Scotland. So, it is welcome to read that,

Taking into consideration the national context, they may be used by all countries and regions at all stages of economic development and for the governance of all forms of tenure, including public, private, communal, collective, indigenous and customary. (2.4)

They can thus be applied to Scotland. Professor James Hunter highlighted their significance in his discussion paper for Community Land Scotland, Rights-based land reform in Scotland: Making the case in the light of International experience (see here for further info). The Guidelines form a very useful template for any tenure reform here. For example,

11.2 ……..States should take measures to prevent undesirable impacts on local communities, indigenous peoples and vulnerable groups that may arise from, inter alia, land speculation, land concentration and abuse of customary forms of tenure. States and other parties should recognize that values, such as social, cultural and environmental values, are not always well served by unregulated markets. States should protect the wider interests of societies through appropriate policies and laws on tenure.

14. Restitution

14.1 Where appropriate, considering their national context, States should consider providing restitution for the loss of legitimate tenure rights to land, fisheries and forests. States should ensure that all actions are consistent with their existing obligations under national and international law, and with due regard to voluntary commitments under applicable regional and international instruments. 14.2 Where possible, the original parcels or holdings should be returned to those who suffered the loss, or their heirs, by resolution of the competent national authorities. Where the original parcel or holding cannot be returned, States should provide prompt and just compensation in the form of money and/or alternative parcels or holdings, ensuring equitable treatment of all affected people.

15. Redistributive reforms

15.1 Redistributive reforms can facilitate broad and equitable access to land and inclusive rural development. In this regard, where appropriate under national contexts, States may consider allocation of public land, voluntary and market based mechanisms as well as expropriation of private land, fisheries or forests for a public purpose.

15.2 States may consider land ceilings as a policy option in the context of implementing redistributive reforms.

15.3 In the national context and in accordance with national law and legislation, redistributive reforms may be considered for social, economic and environmental reasons, among others, where a high degree of ownership concentration is combined with a significant level of rural poverty attributable to lack of access to land, fisheries and forests respecting, in line with the provisions of Section 15, the rights of all legitimate tenure holders. Redistributive reforms should guarantee equal access of men and women to land, fisheries and forests.

I look forward to seeing what the Land Reform Review Group (due to publish its findings next week) makes of this important international agreement and whether the Scottish Government intends to join the long list of administrations committed to putting the Guidelines into practice.