Guest Blog by Brian Wilson (pdf version)

Brian Wilson’s column is reproduced here with kind permission of the West Highland Free Press.

In the great span of history, the most significant of  the recommendations put forward by the Scottish Land Reform Review Group will – if acted upon – prove to be the 60th and last. It is worth quoting at length:

The Review Group recommends that the Scottish Government should have an integrated programme of land reform measures to take forward the changes required to modernise and reform Scotland’s system of land ownership.

“The Review Group considers that there is a need for a single body with responsibility for understanding and monitoring the system governing the ownership and management of Scotland’s land, and recommending changes in the public interest. The Group recommends that the Scottish Government should establish a Scottish Land and Property Commission”.

Setting up new quangos is not, of itself, a radical device. But in this case is it an absolutely essential one. What this recommendation will, if acted upon, establish is both the continuity of the land reform process and the principle of interventionism in how the land of Scotland is owned and managed. And recent history confirms that these are two underpinning essentials.

The critical importance of this report is that it destroys for ever the myth that land reform, whether within Scotland’s current constitutional status or beyond, is too difficult or impossible because the powers do not exist. That is the alibi which has brought the process of land reform to a grinding halt for the past decade and it has, as this report confirms, never been true.

As the report bluntly states: “At present, the Scottish Government has no integrated approach to land reform and Scotland has not had a land reform programme for ten years”.  What an indictment! In other words, since some of  the programme for which the ground was laid prior to devolution in 1997-98 was implemented, there has been a complete dearth of original thought or action to follow. I have been bemoaning that for years. Now it is confirmed.

As a result of initiatives in that earlier period, feudal tenure was abolished, rights of access established, the crofting community right to buy introduced and the Scottish Land Fund created. But, as this new report recalls, the Sewel Report which laid the ground for all that (and much more if it had been fully acted upon) was explicit in warning that land reform must be an ongoing process rather than a few piecemeal actions.

Once the devolved government of Scotland fell into the hands of people who were only too happy to park the whole question of land reform, whether through disinterest or hostility, the process ground to a halt. I have no idea whether the other 59 recommendations in this latest report will be acted upon, but if only the 60th survives then at least there will be an ongoing reminder that political inaction is the product of neglect rather than necessity.

There is much to be praised and welcomed in the new report but we don’t have a clue how much of it will be turned into reality.  The process by which this point has been reached has not been particularly encouraging. The Review Group was set up in 2012 to head off the mounting criticism of inaction on land-related issues and was generally seen as a kicking into touch device prior to the referendum.

The rather puzzling choice of Dr Alison Elliot, a former Kirk moderator with no hinterland in the subject, to chair the Review Group did not inspire confidence.  Last May, an interim report notable only for its monumental blandness  was greeted with universal derision. At that point, two of the three Review Group members resigned and the Scottish Government realised that it had a significant political own-goal in the making.  The personnel was revamped, notably through the introduction of John Watt as a Group member and Robin Callander as an adviser.

As a result, a final report has been achieved which bears absolutely no resemblance to the interim report, other than the presence of Dr Elliot who presumably agrees as much with the one as with the other.  Whether they wanted it or not, the current Scottish Government now has a programme of action on its hands and with it, a moral and political obligation to pick its low-hanging fruit without further delay.

Recommendations in the report which commend themselves to common sense and early action include the reform of Scotland’s compulsory purchase legislation with a public right of pre-emption; “a more integrated and ambitious”  programme of land acquisitions for forestry; a “strategic framework to promote the continued growth of local community land ownership”; a more “solution-focused and less risk-averse” approach to EU state aid rules; the establishment of a National Housing Corporation charged with acquiring sufficient land to meet house-building needs.

The important point to remember about all of these is that they could have been done years ago, if the political will had existed.  Instead, the ubiquitous mantra of “we don’t have the powers” was deployed to hide behind.  Equally, the proposed abolition of the District Salmon Fishery Boards, to be replaced by accountable bodies representing diverse interests, and the long-promised extension of right-to-buy to tenant farmers have never needed constitutional change in order to deliver them. That is the truth that has now been laid bare and inescapable for this and future Holyrood administrations.

The recent report by the Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons recommended the need for a proper Land Register as the essential building block of land reform and this new report emphasizes the need to  speed up the current snail-like progress towards that objective. The Scottish Affairs Committee also stressed the need for beneficial as well as nominal ownership to be revealed and, in all respects, the two reports are entirely complementary and should be treated as such.

The interventionist nature of the Review Group proposals is confirmed by the observation that implementation of a Land Use Strategy process “will lead to reductions in the current flexibility in rural land owners’ choices over how they use their land. The Group recommends that the Government ensures that the necessary mechanisms are in place for the successful implementation of the Land Use Strategy in the public interest”.

This proposal, if acted upon, strikes at the power of landlords to be the sole arbiters of how land is used, misused or under-used; whether or not there are people living on it; and therefore, to some extent, what its market value is.   There is not the slightest doubt that such interventions will be resisted by the landowning fraternity who will defend the sacred principle that ownership through inheritance or wealth give them the right to do what they like.

Let’s hope that the stomach exists for the fight, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  We need safeguards to ensure that the issue of land reform never again goes away. The proposed Scottish Land and Property Commission should become the guardian of Scotland’s conscience and ongoing guarantor against the backsliding and evasion which have characterised the past decade.

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?


(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.

Photo: Roxburghe Estate Photo reference Library

Scotland’s landed class made the front page of the Scotsman yesterday under a headline “Lairds in warning over new buy-out powers”. The story is based around submissions of evidence to the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) which will publish its final report in April 2014. These submissions can all be read here.

Since January 2013, when the LRRG call for evidence closed, I have submitted two Freedom of Information requests for these submissions to be made public. (1) The LRRG had originally stated that they would not be published until April 2014 which is patently ridiculous. I responded by inviting those who were willing to publish their responses on my website.

Both FoI requests were refused but I am pleased that the responses (or rather those from the two-thirds who were willing to have them published) have now, six months later, finally been published. As the Scotsman story illustrates they make for interesting reading not least in relation to the sense of entitlement expressed by the five white male members of the landed class  that the paper quoted (including the Duke of Roxburghe pictured above who, according to his website, is correctly referred to as “His Grace”). Much more insight into these discourses on land and power can be gleaned from reading all the responses. But more on that later.

What I should have done some weeks ago is to review where the land reform process is and what’s been happening. Calum McLeod recently provided a well-written overview on his blog. There have been two important developments.

Land Reform Review Group

When the LRRG published its Interim report on 20 May 2013, many interested parties were disappointed in its lack of ambition and vision and critical of its defeatist and limiting agenda on the topic. (2) Following the report, the Scottish Government moved quickly to strengthen the Review Group by appointing new members and a special adviser. On 26 June the Group gave evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee.

This was quite revealing. The new members, it was reported, were keen to see the submissions made public as soon as possible and their efforts have now borne fruit. The Group has also undertaken a mid-term review of its progress to date. One consequence if this is that the work programme identified in the Interim Report has been expanded (thus addressing one of the key criticisms of the Group that it had narrowed what had been a wide original remit). In summary, the Group appears to have found a new focus and direction which more faithfully reflects the wide remit given to it and the Scottish Government’s wish to see it develop bold and radical proposals. The Group has also published Declarations of Interests of its members.

The test of course will be in whether the final report delivers on this ambition but the new Group already has a different feel to it and has the services of a special adviser with a track record in the topic and wide expertise. I should add at this point that it has been suggested in some quarters that I declined to become a member of the LRRG. This is incorrect – I was never invited either at the outset or during the recent expansion of membership. I wish the LRRG well in its work over the coming months.

Scottish Affairs Committee

The Scottish Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament meanwhile has launched a consultation on the future of landownership in Scotland and, in particular, on the corporate and fiscal dimensions of how Scotland is owned. A briefing paper (432:50 – Towards a comprehensive land reform agenda for Scotland) was published. This is a very welcome move since a Select Committee of Parliament has, unlike an independent review, the power to call witnesses and the authority to probe official bodies. This consultation (which is expected to lead to an inquiry in the Autumn) compliments the work of the LRRG and indeed the Review Group has written to the Committee to welcome the inquiry

The SAC inquiry will complement the work of the LRRG as it takes forward its phase 2 analysis.  The LRRG shares the view that there should be a comprehensive approach to land reform in Scotland, and agrees that the relationship between public funds and patterns of land ownership is an essential aspect to investigate.  The LRRG recognises that the Scottish Affairs Committee is particularly well positioned to consider matters related to taxation.”

Scottish Land and Estates, however, issued an intemperate statement to the media.

The individuals submitting this report have been well-known land reform activists for many years and are using this approach as another tactical ploy” and argued that  “such an investigation is unnecessary and unwarranted”.

I understand that the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee has spoken to SLE to ask them to correct this statement.

The individuals who wrote the report (which includes myself) did not “submit it” to the Committee. It was commissioned from us by the Committee. The consultation and inquiry are not a “tactical ploy” by us or anyone else. It is the work of a Select Committee of the House of Commons!

For the record, a number of members of the Scottish Affairs Committee have been very interested in exploring further aspects of the land question since the publication of the Committee’s excellent and thorough report on the Management of the Crown Estate in Scotland in March 2012.

I know this because they have discussed it with me on occasions. As it happens I was initially quite sceptical about what might be achieved by such an inquiry but it became clear that there was much to be examined in relation to what might be described as the “reserved dimensions” of land reform.

The recent EU Council agreement (see previous blog) as highlighted by Ian Davidson in his question to the Prime Minister has merely added impetus to such a move.

All in all it seems that following over a decade of no political action on the land question, there is rather a lot happening. As David Ross eloquently put it in a recent column in the Herald

Land reform campaigners used to complain that legislators in London danced to the Scottish landed lobby’s tune, but it seems Westminster is expanding its taste in music.”

(1) Some responses were made on a confidential basis and these remain unpublished. I have never sought to have these released and respect and understand why some people feel that they cannot openly say what they think.

(2) See, for example, here, here and here.