Still much progress to be made on land reform

Still much progress to be made on land reform
Herald Scotland, by David Ross


Much has been made of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen being on course to become Scotland’s largest private landowner as he collects Highland estates to pursue his goals for environmental improvement.


It shouldn’t matter too much whether it is him or the Duke of Buccleuch who tops the seigneurial league. His intentions seem fairly enlightened. But that is just down to good fortune.


What does matter is that even now, after numerous legislative measures, any individual can still buy as much of the Highlands as their resources allow without official scrutiny of the cumulative impact of such purchases. There is no equivalent of the Competition Commission legislation to safeguard the public interest in regard to land. The Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review group recommended the imposition of an upper limit of the amount of land anyone person could own in Scotland. But ministers were not persuaded.


We have the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 which extended the Community Right to Buy to urban areas and introduced a right for ministers to back moves to buy “abandoned, neglected or detrimental land” without a willing seller.


The key provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 included a public register of those controlling interests in land and the creation of a right to buy land to promote sustainable development for communities.


We have had the crofting community right to buy (with ministerial approval), whether or not the owner wants to sell, since the Land Reform Act of 2003. That legislation also gave non-crofting communities the right of first refusal on land coming on the market. Crucially, the community would have had to have previously registered an interest. It would seem from the likes of Mr Povlsen’s programme of territorial expansionism that too few communities are taking the trouble to do so. That is to be regretted.


There is still no power for Scottish ministers to intervene if a private buyer starts squeezing out other parties from a particular area, to the detriment of local communities. This is something the new Scottish Land Commission should consider. Its creation could yet prove to be the single most important provision within this year’s Land Reform Act. It should ensure that land reform is a continuing journey for Holyrood.


Land Reform Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said she looked forward to embarking on that journey with members. She has been criticised for not having greater representation from landed and agricultural interests on the commission.


Many see in its members (Andrew Thin, Professor David Adams, Megan MacInnes, Lorne MacLeod, Dr Sally Reynolds and Tenant Farming Commissioner Dr Bob McIntosh) individuals who can help build a healthier relationship between people and the land.


An important step would be to persuade ministers that the Scottish Government should have powers to intervene in the public interest to prevent land transactions if necessary.