Labour towards land reform

The Scottish Labour Conference 2013, and particularly Johann Lamont MSP’s speech thereat, attracted a fair amount of coverage in the Twittersphere, blogosphere and the press. Here is my tuppence worth on one very specific aspect.

Lamont’s speech was critiqued in The Sun for only having one commitment, that being a commitment to extend the right of community acquisition. Fortunately, I do not need to worry myself about whether that critique is fair, because that is exactly what I want to look at. This is what she said:

Last year I saw community ownership first hand when I visited the Galson Estate Trust on the Isle of Lewis. You would be surprised and impressed by what community organisations like Galson are delivering: house building, developing renewables, reversing population decline and reinvigorating their area.

Community ownership of assets is a powerful vehicle to tackle not just social injustice and inequality but it also delivers economic growth. It gives power to the people and allows them to transform their communities.

It was a Labour Executive that brought in the Land Reform Act. It has allowed remarkable progress to be made in the number of communities that now own their land. But despite that Scotland’s land ownership patterns are significantly out of line with what is the norm in most of Europe and much of the world.

Just 16 owners have 10% of Scotland’s land and get tax breaks for doing so.

Land reform has stalled under the SNP.

If we want to have any real hope of changing the current patterns of land ownership in Scotland, then we have to be bold. We have to be radical.

Conference, Scottish Labour will commit to extend rights for community purchase of land and for those rights to be available across Scotland.

If it is in the public interest, communities will have the right to purchase land, even when the land owner is not a willing seller.

I do not think I am overplaying this (because I happen to be interested in the area), but that is a huge and radical commitment. Of course, there are rights of compulsory acquisition in Scotland as things stand (for local authorities and some tenants) and there is a right of compulsory acquisition for communities in Part 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Although bureaucratic, this right has received something of a human rights fillip in the Court of Session when it was held that the right was compliant in terms of the “protection of property” and “fair trial” provisions of the ECHR.

So Lamont’s plan would likely be acceptable as not being “manifestly unreasonable” to the rights of the landowner (that being the test from the AXA case) and within the margin of appreciation of a signatory to the ECHR. The key political question is would it be acceptable to Scottish voters. That might then be split into two questions, one party political and one about the independence referendum (i.e. can land reform be controlled/managed/effected, depending on your politics, better or worse in an independent Scotland). I shall offer no answer to the political questions, but it is intriguing that both Labour and the SNP seem to be positioning themselves for more reform.

Two other quick points. Lamont noted land reform under the SNP has “stalled”. That is a tricky point to rebuff or prove, but I am inclined to agree that this particular majority SNP administration could have done more since its election, although I suspect that might be canny politics. Second, Lamont noted it was a Labour Executive who passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Whilst they were the junior players in the first Holyrood government, the Liberal Democrats might be a little concerned they are being written out of history here. Again.

There is much more to write on this issue and I did hope to write a longer blog. Fortunately, Calum Macleod has done that for me. Those not sated in matters land reform by this post should go and have a look at his blog.

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About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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