Last week, the Scottish Affairs Committee published its Interim Report (PDF) on land reform in Scotland. This (Westminster) report – which is not to be confused with the (Holyrood) Land Reform Review Group‘s interim report – builds on the input of a commissioned research paper by “four Scottish commentators” – Michael Foxley, James Hunter, Peter Peacock, and Andy Wightman – together with a number of written submissions and oral testimony recorded at a number of meetings. I submitted evidence in written form (but unfortunately missed the evidence session in Inverness that I was invited to on 2 December, as I had a more important appointment with the chemotherapy drug bleomycin at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary – yes, land reform is important, but other things are important too).
My own evidence to the committee focussed on the two things that I thought were better addressed at Westminster in the current constitutional set-up – namely fiscal measures and corporate entities (and the role such entities can play in terms of land-holding).
The role of corporate entities is touched on in relation to transparency – citing the example of Linwood, a town I know well from my formative years as a piper in Linwood Caledonia Pipe Band and a part-time cashier at a cinema built over the remains of an old car factory. Linwood is a rather sorry place, and I take no pleasure from writing that, but it will soon have a shiny, new Tesco (as documented in a blog by Andy Wightman). Corporate entities are also mentioned in relation to the proper place of charitable companies in estate ownership, on which the Committee has invited further evidence.
The report is perhaps most interesting when it addresses fiscal matters. The terminology of “cosy tax deals” has certainly caught the eye – hence the prompt, defensive response from Scottish Land and Estates – but there are some conclusions in relation to fiscal measures that are very difficult to argue with. Can anyone explain why Heritage Tax Relief applies to estate owners who (for example) provide the public access to their estates, when they are obliged to give the public access anyway under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003? It seems akin to giving someone relief from road tax for driving within the speed limit.
If that is a cheap and easy shot, other things are more nuanced. For example, inheritance tax relief is highlighted. That relief contributes to estates remaining as large/viable [delete according to political preference] entities. And then there is the matter of public subsidies for land use, or perhaps even non-use, aka “slipper farming.” The prevailing regime for subsidies for land is rather opaque and the exact impact of that opaque regime is very difficult to quantify, but for present purposes all that I would note is it seems proper such impacts (for example to the land market and to productivity/food security) are looked at and justified.
For completeness, it should be acknowledged that other issues like state aid and tenant farming are touched on in the Report. Much has been written on these topics, so I have no plans to add more writing here, other than to note the whole spectrum of topics shows just how interconnected the reform of [land] laws can be.
Where next for land reform? As Calum MacLeod has written, there are a number of land reform buses in circulation at present, seeking both passengers and directions. The frustrating “let’s wait and see what happens” conclusion is therefore appropriate, for now at least, but there will be a time when politicians will have to stop driving around the issues and arrive at legislation. That assumes, of course, that at least one bus will arrive at a legislative terminus. Land reform is inherently political, and the decision to legislate or not is one that is properly for our elected politicians, in whichever legislature they may sit. Landowners and stakeholders are watching their political journeys with more than a keen interest.