Amidst all the other Westminster shenanigans that accompany the run up to a UK general election, the outgoing Scottish Affairs Committee released its last hurrah of a Final Report on Land Reform in Scotland.
The publication of this originally named document means we now have two Final Reports, the earlier being the Final Report of the Land Reform Review Group. The earlier Final Report (fortunately) has an alternative title, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good.
The interaction between the LRRG and the Scottish Affairs Committee is interesting. The SAC, it might be recalled, published an Interim Report. The Land of Scotland and the Common Good tracked some of the recommendations of that, including in relation to “the transparency of land registration and on the abolition of tax exemptions for sporting land” (that slightly self-satisfied quote being from the SAC Final Report, at para 47).
In turn, the SAC Final Report makes reference to the LRRG Final Report, in relation to “offshore ownership” (that is to say, land that is owned by an entity registered in an offshore jurisdiction for “tax planning reasons” (para 37)) and tax reliefs for agricultural and forestry land (para 31).
That gives a bit of an indication of the key focus of the SAC: tax and rates; and transparency. Whilst you cannot quite hear the harrumphing of (some of) the SAC membership as you read the Final Report, it is clear that (as a whole) its membership was not completely content with the lie of the land. This can be seen as the SAC dishes out disappointment about:
- the Valuation Office Agency, who (it is noted at paragraph 7) “having identified problems with the effectiveness and application of the data underpinning the land price indices, chose to cease publication rather than tackle these issues”;
- the attitude of HMRC as regards the effect of tax reliefs on agricultural land prices (para 26);
- the Government stopping short as regards ensuring public access to information on beneficial ownership of land held by trusts (para 44); and
- the Scottish Government ruling out any review of the exemption from non-domestic rates for agricultural land (para 50).
The SAC Final Report singles out Agricultural Property Relief for some attention. Key questions include: why it is in place (the normal arguments in favour being productivity/food security and preventing the break up of family farms); and – assuming the reason for its existence can be established – to review whether those purposes are actually being met.
What next? For devolved matters, it is noteworthy that the SAC felt at liberty to heckle the Scottish Government’s decision not to review the exemption from non-domestic rates for agricultural land (see this PDF of the Scottish Government response to the LRRG Recommendations at number 42). Also noteworthy is the fact that the Scottish Government’s direction of travel seems, in general, to be welcomed (see paragraphs 49 and 53, where the SAC expresses it is “pleased”).
For reserved matters, the final paragraph (54) of the SAC Final Report concludes as follows:
Concentrated land ownership has a negative impact on attempts to create a more socially just Scotland. Accordingly, the long term impact of the Scottish’s Government’s reforms and the new Common Agricultural Payments scheme, along with the effects of Community Land Fund on land ownership and management should be a matter of great importance to the next Scottish Affairs Committee.
Just how important a matter it proves to be, and just what an incoming government makes of this SAC Final Report on Land Reform in Scotland, will depend very much on the general election result. Elsewhere in the report, it is noted that, “Land reform is an intensely political area of public policy” (para 53). It surely is. The new UK Government’s makeup, and its decision to act or not act in the areas identified above, could have a marked impact on Scotland’s land, irrespective of what happens at Holyrood.
Which makes for one more variable in what promises to be a fascinating election.