Inside Track: Land reform

Inside Track: Land reform
The Herald Scotland, by David Ross
22.05.13

There will be those on both sides of the land reform debate who will have been disappointed by the interim report of the Land Reform Review Group, published this week.

Those looking for hints of a radical change to the pattern of land ownership will have read the report in vain. There is effectively nothing on tenant farmers, the Crown Estate, common good land, taxation and succession. The prospect of a Land Agency is mooted and will be further explored. There seems little appetite for legislation extending and strengthening the community right to buy established in the Land Reform Scotland Act 2003 – which in truth for all but crofting communities was only ever a right of first refusal.

Meanwhile landowners and their representatives who oppose further land reform measures will not be encouraged by the report’s tone. Their organisation, Scottish Land & Estates, "remains disappointed at the persisting view that the pattern of land ownership in Scotland is unfair and unjust". Also: "Despite our members’ transparency, the report still refers to a need for greater scrutiny of private landowners. We feel this is totally unjustified."

It will be another year before we see the group’s final report, but many are raising eyebrows that within a few weeks the two vice-chairs appointed to the three-strong group have gone. Last month Highland historian Professor Jim Hunter resigned for personal reasons. On Monday it was announced Dr Sarah Skerrat will also be going.

A senior researcher and head of rural society research at Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC), she led a study into community ownership in 2011. It found buyouts were contributing to the repopulation of rural Scotland. Dr Skerrat explained her resignation was due to her promotion to scientific and strategic lead of a 30-strong research group at SRUC.

Between them Prof Hunter and Dr Skerrat knew a lot about the review group’s area of study and although there are replacements and advisers, chairwoman Dr Alison Elliot, the first woman to be Church of Scotland Moderator, will miss them.

Already there are those convinced that, despite the reasons given, a matter of principle must have been at issue behind one or both resignations.

A narrative was gaining currency that there had been more to Prof Hunter’s departure. While many were surprised by the wide-ranging remit given to the group by ministers, described as "deliberately biased against landowners", they were equally surprised by his appointment. He had been an outspoken critic of the Scottish Government’s apparent lack of commitment to land reform during the SNP’s first term of office. He was seen by many, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, as giving the review group credibility.

The fact he had personal reasons for standing down will count for little as Dr Skerrat’s departure will add force to that more interesting narrative. This will hold they went because they were frustrated in their efforts to take the group in a more radical direction.

Attention will be paid to Alex Salmond’s address to Community Land Scotland’s conference on Skye next month to see what prominence land reform will be afforded in the remaining three years of this administration.