Scotland has both a long history of inequality in land ownership and of a failure to correct this inequality. The oft-stated fact that fewer than 450 people own half of Scotland’s land (a fact that is currently under review but extremely unlikely to have gotten significantly better) should be a cause for both national and international disgrace. The fact that since devolution at least two attempts to reform Scottish land ownership have failed to correct this should be similar. Scotland cannot afford for this latest round of land reform to similarly fail and so we call on the Scottish Government to ensure that it does not.
Common Weal has campaigned for Land Reform since our inception and we stand upon the shoulders of those who have campaigned even harder than we have, for far longer. We have produced multiple policy papers and blueprints for how it can be enacted as well as papers showing the environmental, social and economic benefits of doing so. We have similarly tackled head-on those with a vested interest in ensuring that reforms are not enacted and have shown that their own economic analysis is severely lacking.
As we stated in Our Land, our blueprint for Scottish land reform, we view land reform not as a tool to redress old injustices (though there are old injustices that deserve to be redressed), but as a key foundation of revitalised rural communities and economies, and a stepping stone to meeting some of the key challenges of the 21st century, namely rising economic inequality and climate change.
The proposals by the Scottish Government so far are significantly lacking in many respects – in particular their focus on fully regulating only a few of Scotland’s largest estates and thus extended only to around 20% of Scotland’s land area. We believe that land reform should be enacted everywhere that it is required, not merely where the Scottish Government believes that it can afford to spend resources.
We are also concerned about the lack of local democratic reform in this proposal. Without it and without the voices of local communities that that democracy will bring to the process, we cannot see that the Act will provide meaningful change of land ownership and land use patterns.
The answers on land reform have been provided by campaigners for decades and the current devolution framework already provides sufficient power to enact the required reforms. We do not need to “wait” for independence to occur before we can think about land reform. We merely require there to be a Scottish Government able and willing to carry out the plan. We believe that the membership of both parties of Government are in favour of land reform to be much more radical than the Government’s current proposals and we believe that there would be a natural majority in the Scottish Parliament for such a plan. We also believe that what we’re calling “radical” in Scotland is simply called “normal” in virtually all other countries in North-Western Europe. The sooner that Scotland recognises its own aberrant inequity on our land and rises to the level expected of our neighbours and peers, the better.
― The Scottish Government’s proposal to restrict regulations to “large-scale landholdings” above 3,000 hectares is far too high. We propose bringing that threshold down to not more than 500 hectares or 25% of an island or council ward.
― We are concerned with the Scottish Government’s proposals that regulations should be restricted only to “large” estates comprising just 20% of Scotland and we are deeply concerned with their reasoning that it would be too expensive to regulate more. The land regulation body should benefit from land taxes and from fines and levies from breaches of regulations such that at the very least, land reform is self-funding.
― We are concerned that no matter where the threshold is set, it will be possible for some landowners to duck under it by selling off shares in their land holding company or small, uneconomically viable portions of land. We therefore call for land regulations to apply to all land owned beyond a person’s principle house (as well as their garden or “curtilage”)
― Essentially we propose that land should be regulated if the public has the “Right to Roam” across it, though we would also extend regulations to areas that are exempt from this right such as active agricultural land, commercial forestry, mine workings and other active landholdings.
― Additionally, a “public interest test” should apply to all transactions of such land and that the test should be driven primarily by the local community. “Transactions” of land should include not just sales but also inheritances and other transfers of beneficial ownership such as the appointment of a new Director of a company that owns land.
― Regulations should apply to urban areas as well as rural – Scottish urban areas have also been badly affected by absentee landlordism and poor land management.
― Our major concern is that land reform will not happen unless there is reform of local democracy in Scotland. It’s one thing to suggest triggering a public interest test if a land holding takes up a certain percentage of a council ward (Scotland smallest statutory democratic unit) but some council wards in Scotland are larger than several EU countries combined.
― We therefore call for the restoration of municipal-scale democracy in Scotland so that land reform can be controlled fully by the communities on the land in question.
― Community buyouts are still heavily restricted in Scotland. The proposals in this consultation will not give communities enough time or notice to gather the information and funds required to buy out their local area should it appear on the market.
― Communities must have stronger powers of compulsory purchase and must be able to buy land at a “fair” price, not merely the highly inflated market prices seen just now.
― Regulations such as Land Management Plans should be compulsory for all landowners, now just “large-scale landowners”. The burden of administration as proposed should not be too great on small holders but should be designed to be more onerous for large landholders. Part of the point of land reform is to make holding large areas of Scottish land difficult and expensive to do and thus make breaking up and selling such estates more favourable.
― We deeply oppose the use of carbon credits to mitigate current CO2 emissions and believe that this activity should be banned in Scotland. Instead, carbon emissions should be taxed as part of a package of environmental externality taxes.
― Public subsidies should not be granted to large-scale landowners. Instead, the Scottish Government should offer equity buyouts of these estate proportionate to the scale of the requested subsidy with the revenue from the stake being granted in whole or, at the very least, in part to the local Common Good Fund.
― We oppose the proposal that owners of Scottish land should be tax domiciled in the EU or the UK as both of these political blocs contain known tax havens. Owners should be tax domiciled in Scotland for the purposes of the land ownership and and and all land taxes should be levied on the land itself regardless of who and where the owner is.