Massively rushed Land Reform Bill is not perfect – but it’s a good start

Massively rushed Land Reform Bill is not perfect – but it’s a good start
The National, by Lesley Riddoch


So, do we now have a radical Land Reform Act?


Well, sort of. As Commonspace’s Michael Gray put it yesterday – the only member of the press present and tweeting – “Bad week for UK’s biggest landowner the Duke of Buccleuch. His tax haven exposed & now he’ll pay tax on his shooting estate.”


Yip – that’s all true.


Business rates are being imposed again on “sporting” estates (linked to the standard of deer management) and a new Register of Controlling Interests will be established within 18 months (if the SNP forms the next government) to ensure the shadowy powers behind bland company names are exposed – essential if new taxation is to work.


So yes, the Land Reform Bill which passed its Stage 3 debate in Holyrood yesterday was feistier than the Scottish government originally proposed, but less far-reaching than the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) recommended back in 2014.


Their call for a right to buy for tenant farmers was vetoed by the Scottish government because it apparently infringed the landowners right to property and (I’d guess) because ministers didn’t want to emulate the British government when they liberated Irish farmers a century back and provide long-term loans. Nonetheless, tenant farmers are moderately chuffed. According to their spokesman Angus McCall, 80 per cent of tenant farmers finally have a way to pass it on or sell at commercial value to new farmers who are starting out. There are new controls on unfair rents and the first job of the new Tenant Farming Commissioner will be a review of land agent behaviour after complaints of bullying and undue pressure.


So, not as good as a right to buy – but not bad.


The LRRG’s other radical proposal was to create a maximum size of land holding. Legal worries again blocked that, but the Bill passed yesterday does let communities ask government ministers for help if neglect or the scale of land ownership is detrimental to the public interest and local sustainable development. That lever still looks too woolly and risky for most communities – but details will be thrashed out in the next Parliament and the principles of equality and human rights will have equal weight with landowners’ property rights. They will also be required to consult communities on development plans – oh to be a fly on the wall in village halls across the Duke of Buccleuch’s vast domain.


Much has been made of the need for transparency about who really owns Scotland. Patrick Harvie’s idea of banning companies based in tax havens was again rejected. The government argued that EU-based firms could easily have directors which were other companies registered in tax havens and insisted trade issues are reserved to Westminster. The Greens argued their tax haven ban was about transparency – something entirely within Holyrood’s control. But the move was voted down. Instead, the Scottish government will set up a new publicly accessible Register of Controlling Interests. How will this get more participation than the 27 per cent response to the existing Land Register? Another issue for the next Parliament.


Community Land Scotland said: “The new register of the people who really own or control land in Scotland will lift a veil of secrecy which has allowed all too many owners to hide behind shell companies registered overseas. Our right to roam Scotland’s land will soon be matched by the right to know who owns Scotland’s land.”


So, not perfect, but not bad.


There wasn’t much for urban areas, though. Sarah Boyack called for the creation of Compulsory Sales Orders to let councils force the sale of empty buildings. That was rejected by the government which nonetheless undertook to tackle the issue in the next Parliament. The same thing happened to Patrick Harvie’s proposal to end the ludicrous exemption from non-domestic rates enjoyed by owners of vacant and derelict land. There will be a consultation on this soon – but it’s crazy that the current crisis in local government funding can’t be partly offset by a quick empty building windfall right now.


So, nul points there.


So much remains to be done, that it’s good news a Land Reform Commission will be set up immediately to make sure legislative change tackles problems on the ground. It’ll have at least one Gaelic-speaking member and council staff will be able to stand, too, after a common-sense amendment from Labour’s Sarah Boyack. Indeed the amount of cross-party effort and agreement (often with the Tories) has been another good outcome of the Bill. With any luck, enough of these land reform veterans will survive the Holyrood elections to pick up where they left off – with more time in future to consider new ideas.


This was a massively rushed Bill – mostly because a rethink was needed when the hot air of lawyers’ objections hit the cold front of public opinion.


Now though, campaigners can look forwards and the focus of the second #OurLand festival in August will be workshops to show communities how they can use the new powers in the Land Reform and Community Empowerment Acts to revitalize Scotland.


A very good start.