Scottish Land Commission Investigation into the Issues Associated with Large scale and Concentrated Landownership in Scotland

On 20 March 2019, the Scottish Land Commission published a Report (PDF) on its website, and used that Report as an opportunity to make a number of recommendations about Scotland’s land.

The Report is entitled “Investigation into the Issues Associated with Large scale and Concentrated Landownership in Scotland”. It was written by three employees of the Scottish Land Commission (Shona Glenn, James MacKessack-Leitch and Katherine Pollard) and two researchers from Scotland’s Rural College (Jayne Glass and Rob Mc Morran).

To the extent online publications can reverberate, this one landed with quite a thunk. For a time on publication day this story was given top online billing at BBC Scotland’s news homepage, and it was covered in The Guardian, The Scotsman, and the Press & Journal, to name but a few. A couple of days later, it got some sceptical coverage in The Telegraph (£). (I appreciate Cochrane enjoys writing with a flourish, but I was particularly entertained by the idea of that dastardly Jayne Glass participating in a kangaroo court. For full transparency, I should declare she is a friend and we have worked together and continue to work together on a few projects.) The land reform activist and MSP Andy Wightman welcomed the Report (writing in The Herald). Meanwhile, Scottish Land & Estates’ response is available here (welcoming some bits, pushing back on others), and one particular large land owner’s response was covered in The Guardian (noting some of the concerns raised, but highlighting the positive steps that were planned anyway and how some of the proposals might get in the way of this benevolent activity).

It was also covered in the Scottish Legal News, and yours truly has a quote there. It feels weird to quote yourself, but, eh, here’s what this gobby Combe character said after quickly skimming the report and its coverage when asked for a comment.

For those who have been following the Scottish land reform debate for a while, the contents of the report might not be a huge surprise, with its highlighting of matters such as the concentration of land owners in some rural areas and possible monopoly-like effects large land owners can have on local communities.

The report does offer a new, accessible entry point to the debate and gathers things together nicely, and the press coverage it has already generated shows that the Scottish Land Commission is doing the right things to fulfil its statutory function and get people thinking about Scotland’s land.

After watching the dust settle for a few days I think that quote just about still does the trick, although I was perhaps a bit curt in not acknowledging the Report really does bring together a whole heap of research in a very useful way. Cochrane might contend this is a watered-down kangaroo court charged with providing the correct evidence, but the evidence the Report refers to seems robust rather than jumped-up to me. (Full disclosure again: I was at least tangentially involved in three bits of work that are referred to in the Report, but there are over twenty other sources included in the References that I am not inherently biased towards.)

The question now, I suppose, is this: where do we go from here?

Bouncing off this Report, the Scottish Land Commission took the opportunity to say the following:

Informed directly by the evidence that has been gathered, the Commission is today making initial recommendations to address the adverse effects identified, and to stimulate a more productive, diverse and dynamic pattern of rural land ownership.

Recommended statutory changes include:

  • Public interest test for significant land transfer

  • Requirement for a management plan

  • Statutory Land Rights and Responsibilities Review

The Commission also made two (non-statutory) recommendations relating to the promotion of more diverse private ownership and local engagement in any land use changes.

To focus on one of these points, the idea of a public interest test for a significant land transfer is not new. The Land Reform Policy Group (remember that?) aired it approximately twenty years ago. Australia – home of actual kangaroos as opposed to kangaroo courts – has rules that allow for approval and/or suitable publicity for certain land transactions (something I considered as part of a research team led by the dastardly Dr Glass). Is now the time for something to happen in Scotland?

Well, just maybe. The Scottish Parliament discussed this on 21 March 2019, and at the conclusion of proceedings agreed to this motion.

That the Parliament agrees that land is one of Scotland’s most important assets; recognises the value of the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement in providing a framework for land decisions and land management in Scotland; recognises the close relationship between land ownership and land use; agrees that community ownership of land should be the norm and not simply a response to market failure or disputes with landowners; recognises the importance of the Scottish Land Fund in supporting community land and asset buyouts; recognises that the work of the Scottish Land Commission is making a positive contribution to delivering the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda; agrees the importance of ensuring that land reform continues to be a key policy priority to change the entrenched and inequitable pattern of land ownership in Scotland so that everyone can benefit from land and assets, both rural and urban, across the country, and urges the Scottish Government to support the recommendations of the Scottish Land Commission on how to deliver interventions in the operation of Scotland’s land markets and ownerships that will provide disincentives to the future accrual of large privately owned land holdings and help deliver a more equitable distribution in the ownership of Scotland’s land assets in the public interest.

It can be seen that these recommendations already have a certain momentum at Holyrood. One brief thought just to rain on the Scottish Land Commission and Scottish Parliament’s parade though: a public interest test for land transfers is all well and good, but how will a transfer of shares in a landowning company be dealt with in this regard, what with commercial law generally being reserved to the UK Parliament?

That heckle does seem like quite a naff way to finish a blog post though, so I will briefly conclude by noting this Report and the reaction to it are more than a little interesting and difficult to ignore. The Scottish Land Commission really has thrown a land reform cat amongst the landed pigeons. Now we wait to see how things settle after this initial ruffling of feathers.

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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