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.

This is a brief blog to note the fact that Glasgow City Council has advertised for lease 2.7 hectares of former playing fields in Victoria Park, Glasgow (top left in picture above and Rydens brochure here). The closing date for offers is 12 noon on 26 September 2014.

From the evidence I have seen, this park, which was acquired by the Town Council of Partick in 1887, appears to be inalienable common good land. A lease for a period of around 10 years or more would constitute a “disposal” for the purposes of Section 75(2) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and thus require the approval of the Courts before it could be executed.

The Friends of Victoria Park group has raised this matter with Glasgow City Council on 8 September 2014 and awaits a response.

The law relating to common good is in serious need of modernisation. If this land in Victoria Park is indeed inalienable common good land then the City Council will be acting unlawfully if it attempts to lease it out on a lengthy lease.

On Tuesday this week, the Court of Session published its opinion by Lord Tyre on a petition brought by East Renfrewshire Council (4.2Mb pdf) seeking authority to build a school on common good land in Cowan Park, Barrhead. Given past blogs on the topic of common good and, in particular, the controversy over the Portobello Park proposals, I felt it would be useful to provide a brief response and commentary on this latest decision by the Courts.

East Renfrewshire Council plans to build a new high school in Cowan Park, Barrhead. The park consists of three distinct parcels of land (see map below). The first – areas 13/4 and the northernmost E157/3 form the original Cowan Park. James Cowan bequeathed £10,000 in 1910 to provide a park and directed his trustees to purchase the land and convey it to the Town Council to be held in “perpetuity as a public park … for the use and enjoyment of the inhabitants of the Burgh of Barrhead in all time coming.” In 1969 part of this original park (the northernmost area E157/3) was conveyed to the County Council and is the site of the current Barrhead High School.

An additional two parcels of land were added to the park in acquisitions by the County Council in 1969 (E157/3 to the south outlined in blue) and the Town Council in 1969 (area 13/8 outlined in yellow).

Of these parcels, only area 13/4 is common good land. Furthermore, given the terms of the bequest, it is inalienable common good land. This means that, unlike alienable common good land (which the council can dispose of as its sees fit), any disposal of such land requires the consent of the courts. (1) It was with this intention that East Renfrewshire Council petitioned the Court of Session in April 2014.

At this point it is worth revisiting the Portobello decision very briefly. In that case, the City of Edinburgh Councils wished to appropriate (that is, to use common good land for another purpose but to retain ownership) land in Portobello Park to build a new school. An action was taken against the Council by Portobello Park Action Group and the Court of Session found (on appeal to the Inner House) that the Council had no powers to appropriate inalienable common good land. This was because the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which governs such matters is silent on the question of appropriation in these circumstances and thus the common law prohibition on appropriation of inalienable common good land prevails. The City of Edinburgh Council resolved the matter by seeking specific authority under a private act of Parliament to appropriate the necessary land.

The Cowan Park case turned on the question of whether the proposals for building a school constituted a disposal or an alienation. If such an arrangement is regarded as a disposal, the Court has the power to decide whether to grant authority to proceed. However, if the arrangement is considered an appropriation, the Court has no locus since there is no provision in the 1973 Act for it to take a view.

The plan is to lease the land to a special purpose vehicle which, in turn will sub-lease the site back to the Council and construct the school. The Court in this case found that, since the Council would retain possession of the land as the sub-leaseholder, there was no disposal involved and that “the petitioner’s proposals are properly to be characterised as appropriation.” (2) Thus, “as there would be no disposal, the petition must be refused as unnecessary“.

So where does that leave East Renfrewshire Council?

Well, the Court cannot provide the consent that was requested and thus there are three options available.

The first would be to seek the same remedy as the City of Edinburgh Council in the Portobello case and petition the Scottish Parliament for a private Act of Parliament.

The second would be to build the school on the southern half of the park which is not common good land (though I understand other factors mean that this is not a suitable site).

The third would be to do what South Lanarkshire Council did and go ahead and build the school anyway. As outlined in a previous blog, the Council in this case, having petitioned the court and having been advised that the court had no locus (just as in the present case), nevertheless went ahead and built Holy Cross High School. No-one raised an action against the council. Had anyone done so, then, the court would most likely have found that the Council was acting beyond its powers. This is exactly what happened in the Portobello case because, whilst the courts have no locus to approve such an action at the outset, they do have the power to rule it unlawful should it be contemplated AND someone takes an action against the Council.

In conclusion, this latest case demonstrates why, in my view common good law is in need of modernisation. The Community Empowerment Bill proposes some modest reform on transparency but fails to address the underlying complexity and the need for the law to be updated to reflect modern needs.

NOTES

(1) – In my opinion Lord Tyre is wrong at [5] where he claims that “As a general rule, a local authority has no power to dispose of common good land or to appropriate it for other uses“. On the country, if the land is alienable it is free to dispose of it or appropriate it. See Ferguson, Common Good Law (Avizandum) at foot of page 88.

(2) Lord Tyre at [16]