David Johnstone chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, questions the value of Scottish Land Reform.
SCOTTISH LAND REFORM: RADICALISM?
For the past two years we have been locked into a period of “Scottish land reform” review. It has been a long haul by any standards. There is still some distance to go. In the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence, the SNP may have lost its talisman, Alex Salmond, but it did not break stride. It appointed a new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, now firmly ensconced as First Minister of Scotland.
Ms Sturgeon showed no lack of vigour in setting out her stall as Scotland’s political leader. She made it clear in her legislative programme speech to the Scottish parliament that Scottish land reform was at the heart of her agenda and “radical” reform was on the way.
It was no surprise to the land-business and landowning community that Scottish land reform legislation was coming down the tracks. What was surprising was the primacy Scottish land reform was awarded in the new First Minister’s first legislative programme. And the rhetoric that went with it. The major social, economic and environmental contribution of estate businesses went entirely unrecognised. Private landownership was cast in an unashamedly negative light.
On the back of her legislative programme announcements, the First Minister seemed keen to steady the ship with the business community. She reassured with the Scottish Business Pledge and in an interview with the Financial Times said“business has nothing to fear” from her administration.
But, it appears that landowners and estates that run land-based businesses continue to be viewed as separate to the business community and this is fundamentally wrong. I have written to the First Minister seeking a meeting to discuss this and to reinforce how much land-based businesses already deliver and what more could be achieved.
The headline-grabbing announcement was that the exemption from business rates is to end for sporting estates and the revenue raised will swell the coffers of the Scottish Land Fund to enable more community buy-outs. This proposal – on top of an earlier announcement that the Scottish government had decided to put “non-agricultural sporting estates” on the negative list for Single Farm Payment as part of CAP reform – gave the impression that land-based businesses with sporting interests are in the cross-hairs.
We have finished the consultation phase on the Scottish land reform proposals, which closed on 10 February, prior to the introduction of a Scottish land reform bill.
Aside from the sporting rates issue, the Scottish land reform proposals include:
- increasing publicly accessible information on land, its value and ownership.
- limiting the legal entities that can take ownership of land in Scotland to European Union-based entities.
- providing powers for Scottish ministers or other public bodies to intervene in situations where the scale or pattern of land ownership in an area and the conduct of a landowner is acting as a barrier to sustainable developmen.
- extending the powers of Forestry Commissioners; placing a duty of community engagement on charitable trustees when making decisions on land under the trustees control.
- improving deer-management legislation.
- taking forward legislative changes required in the light of the upcoming recommendations of the Agricultural Holdings Legislation Review Group on the future of tenant farming.
FORCED SALE OF LAND
This is quite a package and there is a need for greater clarity on key elements. For example, forcing landowners to sell land if they are regarded as a barrier to sustainable development seems a disproportionate measure. Powers to intervene in extremis already exist through compulsory purchase. We question whether there is evidence to suggest this measure is necessary and why the government thinks it appropriate to force someone to sell his or her home and business.
We are also concerned by what the Scottish government means when it claims that land should be owned and used in the public interest. Does that mean all land-based business activity? What happens on private land across rural and urban Scotland has to be solely in the public interest?
We have made a forceful case that the recommendations of the Agricultural Holdings Legislation Review Group be treated separately rather than within the land reform bill. All those who work in farming have spent a great deal of time and effort on putting forward solutions to make the tenant-farming sector more vibrant and dynamic for all involved. This is a complex area and we believe it merits separate consideration.
Taken in the round, all these government proposals have the potential to deliver a serious blow to land-based businesses. We do not think that this is in the best interests of rural Scotland. The First Minister has said that responsible landowners should have nothing to fear but not many will take comfort from the consultation and political rhetoric.