The Land of Scotland and the Common Good

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)



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“.


(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.

Comments (18)

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  1. manandboy says:

    Well done, Andy!

    Unpick Union abuse and exploitation over 307 years.

    Gimme 5 minutes.

  2. Marian says:

    As Patrick Harvey of the Greens said yesterday the Scottish Government will be judged by its resolve to implement the report’s recommendations in full.

    Not a good start judging by its reaction to the rates issue.

  3. My response to the report in the Scotsman:
    Ownership of land is like ownership of the air. Land, like air, is a universal good. Privately owned land should be sequestrated. Much of it was stolen from the people who lived on it. It should be allocated to communities and cooperatives, from whom it could be rented for purposes of production etc.

    1. Wullie says:

      A shocking state of affairs when a Danish shopkeeper can nail one Scottish estate to another until he’s in the first division of Scottish private landowners and ludicrously is taxed on this land in Denmark, contributing nothing to Scotland.
      At least the duke of Buccleuch has his broad acres thanks to the nocturnal activities of Charles II & a court prostitute.

  4. yerkitbreeks says:

    Heard you on the BBC this morning, Andy. Pity they let the Luddite estates lady get the last word in, not unexpectedly, given the Beeb’s record on all things Inde.

    One of the most damning aspects of this Report is the appalling behaviour of the Crown Estates Commissioners. Some changes such as with these, needn’t take time.

    I’m an ardent YES supporter ( and a small time landowner ). If lots of this report is kicked into the long grass then I’ll wonder why I bothered, it’s so key to all that Scotland can become

  5. scot2go2 says:

    I have not read all of the full report… but what I have read makes me angry…. how could this exploitative situation be allowed to happen…. was no one watching… were those who were supposed to be working on behalf of Scotland’s interests ignoring this farce…. I feel that the westminster branch politicos should be arrested and tried for neglect or pandering ….. I hope that through Compulsory Purchase… at the original price… that all this land be taken back… and that the crown estates be made to repay the money that has been taken from Scotland to the benefit of people outwith of Scotland…

  6. gerry parker says:

    Aye, there’s a lot needing fixed, and we’re going to need a large group of well qualified and experienced people to fix it after independence. People with the interests of Scotland at heart rather than their own interests. Home grown talent, and talent from abroad who wish to live in an independent country with a vision.

  7. Tony Philpin says:

    There is a substantive argument here. It supplements the arguments for fairer custodianship of land by local people. Simply this – rural communities intending buyouts have little or no experience or the skillset for managing the land they then hold. There is little or no spirit or tradition of rural entrepreneurship – except usually from in-migrants, either returning locals or new folk. There are few business management skills in the community as these have been concentrated in the owners hands. This means that community ownership does not necessarilty mean that land is better managed or even in the wider public interest. There are strong personal and sectional interests within community groups. It is no Shangri-la. The learning curve is slow so there is a time lag for local people to gain the skills they need – if appropriate training is available at all.

    Community bought land has also frequently been badly managed in the past with private owners seeking to maximising profit – up to recently often from manipulating SRDP (a rural freeloaders charter) – and has a major investment shortfall.

    So community ownership means the new owners have to employ managers or upskill themselves, not an easy task given the lack of confidence such communities have suffered in the past. Community management has different objectives from private estate management and unfortunately the HIE model of not for profit companies is not a co-operative model. It aims to make a profit yes and recycle these benefits back into the community yes but the how is ignored. Importing business advisers separates power from responsibility.

    It only takes a couple of bad investment decisions, often pushed through by HIE business advisors on the boards of community companies, (and just look at the funicular if you believe they really have the skills inhouse) and the community is saddled with long term debt and a revenue acount deficit. Small businesses have a very difficult route to start up in this setting too.

    So, any community buyout must be supported in two other ways than simply funding the capital to buy out the land itself. There needs to be immediate investment programme in maintenance and infrastructure.
    I’d suggest a rule of thumb here of at least 25% of the buyout sum and up to 50%. So Land Reformers agencies and government need to have their eyes wide open.

    There also need to be serious training programmes of ‘capacity building’ for local people to ensure they can take on management decision making, develop resilience and also take on the management roles themselves, develop new businesses, innovate, generate local future employment for their children and so on. At present this simply does not happen.

    Simply providing the money for a buyout is not the answer. We need serious continued investment. Given that the entire sum my own island of Gigha has managed to secure as grants or loans is very significantly less per capita than the sum the Crossrail project alone has required for Londoners and those in the South east then parity for us on the Hebridean fringe would seem to have an irresistible economic rationale.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Tony, good comment. No doubt we do need retraining and capacity building in communities across Scotland who have been distanced and disempowered. But this isn’t rocket science and people seem to manage in most other European countries pretty well, and we can learn from recent examples on Gigha and Eigg and elsewhere. Let’s not create some mystique about it?

      1. flit2013 says:

        Exactly, the solutions are straightforward, though rural development in Norway, for one, is well ahead of our current position. Maybe the overcentralised urban dominated nature of politics is partly responsible. We have so much potential in Scotland for genuinely empowered and prosperous rural communities. Unfortunately we are still seeing the ‘everything in the garden’s rosy’ type of features in the press. For example, not one of the kids in the Gigha buyout picture in today’s Herald has found permanent or full time work on the island. They are all in their mid to late teens now or early 20s. This is primarily a resource issue but also a ‘vision thing’ in that the HIE model of rural development, in particular, has resulted in a number of poor financial management decisions. We really do need continued resourcing to thrive, despite some real successes to date.

  8. muttley79 says:

    ‘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.’

    I am afraid to say the SG are using standard neo-Liberal language and dogma here. Does the phrase “maintaining the most competitive business tax environment in the UK” not set off alarm bells? This kind of thing has been tried for the best part of 30 years in the UK, and is completely discredited. How are you going to create a more equal and healthier society if we follow these kinds of policies? As an SNP supporter I am very disappointed in this. If we get a Yes vote I wonder how many left wingers will remain in the SNP long term, if this is the kind of policy they support?

    1. flit2013 says:

      This is Salmond’s RBS corporate style rhetoric and we can only hope he brings his economics education up to date. He’s got Ireland more as the role model here. But would it really hurt if we had a slightly right of centre grouping in Scotland after Indy as well as a regrouping of the left as sure as hell Scottish Labour are going to have to have a major rethink ? You’d almost be tempted to see Lamont and Salmond in a neoliberal grouping from their various pronouncements. The Tories can then take their rightful place to the far right of Scottish politics.

      1. muttley79 says:

        The Republic of Ireland model is clearly the wrong model to follow in an independent Scotland. I don’t actually think Salmond will be around that long after a Yes vote anyway (certainly not decades anyway). This kind of rhetoric by the SNP leadership is the exact opposite of what Stieglitz and co say in terms of how to produce a more equal society. Patrick Harvie appears to have a better economic vision that the SNP leadership. A Yes vote gives us the chance to implement a more socially just economic model for Scotland. The SNP will have to rise to the challenge; if they carry on as they are with low corporation tax and low business tax rates policies, then they will lose support from the Left wing of the party, and the wider electorate. These kinds of a policies will not have a significant effect on reducing inequalities of wealth and health, which are at scandalous levels at present.

  9. LJR says:

    I hope they fix the cover illustration quickly……

  10. Jonathan Wills says:

    Eh, slight problem with the map: some eejit has shown Kirkwall as being in both Kirkwall, Orkney, and Lerwick, Shetland. With cartographers like these, whom can we take seriously?

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