Land Reform Or Another Power Grab?

The Scottish government has introduced a Land Reform Bill to encourage community ownership by granting ministers powers to intervene in the sale of estates of more than 1,000 hectares. Sarah-Jane Laing, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, said the new measures were a destructive “full-on attack” on the property rights of owners and would be counterproductive. Craig Dalzell from Common Weal takes a critical eye on the new legislation.

The Scottish government has introduced land reform legislation to encourage community ownership by granting ministers powers to intervene in the sale of estates of more than 1,000 hectares. The ruling Scottish National party said the bill, the biggest package of reforms in years, aimed to “revolutionise land ownership in Scotland” by empowering rural and island communities and increasing transparency in large land transactions.

In 2016 the last round of Land Reform made it easier for communities to buy out parcels of land, however the rampant rise in land prices – often now driven by so-called “Green Lairds” looking to cash in on carbon credits – have locked those same communities out of being able to afford to buy that land. With a few exceptions – such as in Langholm – the parcels of land being bought by communities have been getting smaller.  A report published in 2022 found that despite a steady rate of successful community buyout projects continuing much as it had since the start of devolution, the actual hectarage of land transferred had all but stalled with around 97% of all community owned land in Scotland being transferred before the passing of the 2016 Act. 

(The number of community owned assets in Scotland since 2000)


(The land area owned by communities in hectares)

In short, since then it has become easier to buy out your village hall, but harder to buy out your village. The high profile failure of the community in Tayvallich to buy out the land around them is an example of this as they were locked out by land price rises driven increasingly by the speculative carbon credit market – the land having doubled in value over the few years prior to the sale of the estate.

Last week, the Scottish Government published its Land Reform for a Net Zero Nation Bill, the latest attempt to catch Scotland up to the kind of land reform our European peers enacted in the 19th and 20th centuries. It promises much more progress than previous attempts with stronger rights granted to communities who wish to take control of the land under their feet as well as to break up larger estates and to force those large estates which remain to be managed better.

As a result of public consultation, there have been some changes to the draft Bill that was introduced in 2022 however they have been fairly minimal. The most headline grabbing change is around the definition of a “large landholding” – the kind of estate that would be subject to the most scrutiny and highest burden of regulation such as being forced to produce a Land Management Plan and demonstrating adherence to it. In the draft Bill, the minimum size of a “large landholding” was set at 3,000 hectares – about the size of Inverness – with Government officials stating at at least one public meeting that the motivation for this number was specifically to minimise the number of estates captured as this minimised the cost to the government of overseeing the regulations (not that the fines for breaching such regulations are anywhere near sufficient at a maximum of £5,000 per breach). Land reform campaigners, including Common Weal, called for that limit to be lowered to at least 500 hectares. The Government partially relented, reducing their limit to 1,000 hectares, though the language of the Bill is not entirely clear on how it relates to multiple landholdings. It will not be possible to split one estate into multiple legal parts to duck under the limit but I’m not sure that also applies if one person owns two or more 999ha estates and even less sure it applies if they own, for example, a 50% share in a hypothetical company that owns 2,000ha of land either as a single estate or scattered across Scotland.

Our biggest concern in the Bill as it stands though is the level of control it grants to Ministers. We have always said that land reform and local democratic reform go hand in hand. The Bill contains welcome provision on how a large estate that comes up for sale (or transfer via inheritance etc) can be paused for up to two years to give the community a chance to decide if it wants to enact a right to buy and to raise the funds to do so though, unlike Mercedes Villalba’s Land Ownership and Public Interest (Scotland) Bill there is little power for a community to proactively prompt the transfer of land. There is an equally welcome provision that allows for large estates to be broken into lots at the point of sale, again which may allow communities to buy a parcel or two of the estate – though Ministers will be in control of drawing the lines on the map and deciding which bit of land goes into each lot. However, both of these clauses are entirely at the behest of the Ministers and provisions exist that allow either or both to be overridden if, for example, the landowner pleads financial hardship as a result of delays in the sale. An extremely worrying clause also exists that provides for public compensation for landowners if they lose out financially as a result of the estate being lotted. In other words, if your £10 million estate is broken into lots and you’re only able to sell them for a total of £8 million, the Scottish Government may well pay you the difference.

Contrast that with the fact that there is no similar provision to fund communities who wish to enact their right to buy and this remains the largest barrier to actual land reform facing Scotland. If you have a right to buy the land you live on but there’s no possible way for you to raise the money to enact that right then that’s not a breach of your rights, that’s just you being an insufficiently good capitalist, isn’t it?

This Bill has the potential to be another powerful, though incomplete, step towards land reform in Scotland but unless it is coupled to local democracy so that communities – not Ministers – are in charge of the process and to a mechanism of reducing the price of land – such as via a land tax – so that communities can enact their rights then all this Bill looks like it will do is pull power ever more tightly into the grasp of Scottish Ministers and give the Lairds (“Green” or otherwise) even more power to lobby those Ministers to maintain the status quo. This is not good enough and with a successful campaign under our belts to prevent this exact same kind of power grab within the National Care Service Bill, we do hope we can convince the Government to let go of this one too.

We’ll continue to campaign for the kind of land reform that will bring Scotland in line with the norms of our European neighbours where communities not only own the land under their feet but have full and local democratic control over it too.


Comments (17)

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  1. MacGilleRuadh says:

    Why is everything attempted by this Scottish ‘government’ so half-arsed? I am aware of one community in the south of Scotland whose plans have been destroyed by a 500% increase in forest land valuations over a 3 year period. Surely this unearned windfall cries out for a land-tax? Why are the SNP government so damned timid about this matter?

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      It’s utterly tragic.

    2. Satan says:

      It’s because they are incompetent (but they are incompetent nationalists => votes), so they are easily led by private entities that aren’t incompetent. As far as I can make out, the government’s abilities haven’t extended beyond changing numbers in computer programs for years.

      1. Frank Mahann says:

        Oh for the competence of Westminster !

  2. Douglas D says:

    My understanding is that unfortunately, inheritance is not included in the regulated transfers.
    This limits the scope of splitting into lots into only those estates that come up for sale.

  3. Graeme McCormick says:

    The recent publication of a Land Reform Bill by an SNP government should be cause for celebration. Uniquely, Land Reform offers the most favourable opportunity to deliver Independence. History shows us that land reform has been the dynamo of many a new state. Land reform is the reason that Singapore is the economic powerhouse it is. The World Bank has long cited the relationship between land reform and ending poverty.

    You would think that a Scottish Government proudly campaigning to deliver Independence would use the legislative powers which it has towards that goal which is so enticingly close. But no! On Thursday last week the Scottish Government produced a mouse of a bill.

    For all the contrived hype about addressing the concentration of ownership of only the largest estates should they be for sale, the Bill will fail to make any significant movement to democratise land ownership or more importantly make transformative change to the lives of every Scot.

    As a result of this Bill no one alive today will live to see the day when fifty per cent of our land will be owned by fifty percent of our people.

    As a result of this Bill a man who inherits 50,000 acres in Deeside contributes virtually nothing in commercial rates on these acres but pays Council Tax of less than £4000 per annum on his very Big Hoose.

    As a result of this Bill a Middle East despot can apply for part of a Scottish Government grant of around £250,000,000 to restore his peatlands. in his estate of 60,000 acres.

    As a result of this Bill Scotland’s largest private landowner pays tax to his local authority in Denmark for his land holdings in Scotland when Highland Council gets pocket money.

    As a result of this Bill over sixty per cent of dilapidated and vacant land in Urban Scotland continues to be hoarded by the public sector denying generations of our citizens the land for decent homes, stimulating town centres and environments and properties to develop businesses and careers.

    But above all else, as a result of this Bill the Scottish Government prefers to give the impression that we are “too wee and too poor” by pleading poverty while blaming reductions in the Westminster Block Grant when our government has the devolved power to eschew the Block Grant. Instead, it is empowered to raise funds from all public and private sector land to meet all its financial aspirations and more and deliver a Universal Citizens Income of £200 a week to every adult and child.

    If our government were to make land and property a liability by taxing them those landowners who are unable or unwilling to pay the charge will soon divest themselves of it. That will open up cheap land for housing and other developments immediately. instead, this Bill is a tortuous bureaucratic feast for the vested interests. Its salient feature is to pay compensation for those landowners whose mega estates may require to be divided. Why would any government do that when it can tax them instead for owning it?

    If we are serious about Independence our Government must prosecute it by using the powers which it has to maximise the appeal of Independence and set us apart from the rest of the UK. Land reform provides that power . It charges those who fail to steward our most precious national asset but gives confidence to all our people to march with us to Independence safe in the knowledge that our land is the source of our prosperity.

    Surely the election should be fought on a positive commitment to Independence through land reform rather than the quixotic attempt to slay a political minority?

    1. MacGilleRuadh says:

      Gu cinnteach Graeme!

  4. Hector says:

    Whats the point of a new land reform bill when half of the last one is yet to be enacted?

  5. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Do those who have posted on here actually want land reform or independence?

    The tone is very much the self-loathing: “We jist cannae dae anythin right”.

    1. MacGilleRuadh says:

      For god’s sake Alasdair of course we aspire to Independence, we just despair at the absolute no-hopers who are in charge. You can pretend they have a clue what they are doing if you like, the rest of us can see the utter shambles everything they touch turns into.

    2. Frank Mahann says:

      Johann Lamont was right? Scots are not ‘genetically programmed’ to make decisions.

    3. Graeme Purves says:

      I want both Alasdair, and am distressed to discover that, in important election year, SNP and Scottish Green ministers were unable to see that the Land Reform Bill offered a golden opportunity to show commitment to progressive and potentially transformative legislation. This bill is timid in the extreme.

      1. Hector says:

        Half thr last bill is still not enacted.
        The one before that was destroyed by the lairds while scotgov looked on, ruining the lives of the poor sods drawn into the court of session (colliseum ) to be devoured by the landed establishment.

  6. SteveH says:

    The Bolshevic Decree on Land started like this. Look where that ended.

    1. Niemand says:

      Did it? What are the details of that exactly cos funnily enough, I’m not seeing a meaningful connection?

  7. Hector says:

    Scotgov has poured millions of pounds into the landlords coffers over the last ten years.. Eu subsidies used to be paid to working farmers till scotgov changed the rules in 2014 and allowed tenants to be evicted and paid the subsidy direct to the landlords.
    This needs addressing before any more tinkering with land reform.

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