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.

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)

LRRG_cover2_670 LRRG_cover_key_670

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. 24 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” and “reliefs would be kept under regular review“.

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.