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MAGNUS DAVIDSON: New land reform bill could yet have a positive impact on rural communities

By Magnus Davidson

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Big landowners including the RSPB could be forced into publishing land management plans.
Big landowners including the RSPB could be forced into publishing land management plans.

Last week I attended a consultation event in Helmsdale for the proposed Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation bill from the Scottish Government. Land reform and its legislative process can be difficult for the public to engage with yet the setting in Helmsdale, with the Emigrants Statue and the Land League monument at Gartymore, indicates that this hasn’t always been the case.

That the consultation is being toured suggests that the government, or at least minister, is taking it seriously. Màiri McAllan, the Minister for Environment and Land Reform, was unrepentant on the ruralness of this bill and that urban communities will have their say through the review of the 2015 Community Empowerment Act.

This bill comes at a time when rural land use and ownership is under intense scrutiny from heated land markets, reflecting the value of land in achieving net-zero. Afforestation, woodland creation, and peatland restoration have seen a raft of ‘Green Lairds’ descend on Scotland to exploit an unregulated land market and concentrated land system.

Fundamental to the bill, and what is becoming a major point of contention, is the definition of large-scale landholdings. The consultation suggests a baseline of 3000 hectares, or related definitions around landowner share of statistical units called datazones or inhabited islands.

For greater impact that figure should be 1000 hectares, pulling more landowners into scope. There’s understandable concern from the National Farmers Union on family farms facing more regulation if that limit were to be lower – an exemption here would an obvious choice.

The first main point of consultation sits around the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement which has been a voluntary measure to date, aimed at large scale landowners recognising the responsibilities that come with landownership. The bill would aim to make the statement a legal duty but is less clear on how the five-year-old set of principles could be modernised to encompass new thinking around Just Transition and Community Wealth Building.

The second takes aim at management rather than ownership of land, with the introduction of compulsory land management plans. Large scale landowners will be required to prepare and publish a management plan on issues such as the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, net-zero, and nature restoration.

Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform, Mairi McAllan.
Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform, Mairi McAllan.

The penalty of failing to do so could result in losing public subsidy but it appears this rests on failure to provide a plan rather than the quality or implementation of the plan itself.

The third key area of the new bill sits on the much-awaited Public Interest Test. Aimed at tackling Scotland’s concentrated, and at times monopoly, land ownership, the test will try to mitigate excessive landowner power when it acts against the public interest. The key drawback is that this will only act if a piece of land is to be bought or sold, rather than faced by all landowners.

As part of the bill the government is also consulting on transparency of ownership, largely as a reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This could see ownership restricted to legal entities registered in Europe or the UK and tentative steps towards limits on foreign ownership.

As well as attaching reform of smallholdings to the consultation there is an interesting but technical suggestion to the creation of a new Land Use Tenancy. Aimed at the creation of new tenancies for woodland management, nature restoration, or peatland restoration, it may offer an interesting perspective beyond tenant farms or crofting.

One can start to get a feel for how these measures could be implemented in the far north. Public Interest Tests could be considered a case study in legislation to prevent Anders Povlsen’s Wildland Ltd from buying more land in north Sutherland. Another outcome could see the RSPB needing to provide land for community housing in Strath Halladale if they wanted to purchase more of the Flow Country.

Management plans may push traditional landowners towards culling more deer. New tenancies could provide the answer to the proliferation of self-seeded non-natives across the peatlands, getting people back to the land.

This bill is already facing criticism from some proponents of land reform as not going nearly far enough, and some have already given up on it. Those of us who are pragmatic can see a somewhat meaningful bill come out the other end, but that will require hard work.

Without considering tax or laws of succession, this bill will not see an end to Scotland’s concentrated land system, but it may well help curb the worst excesses of it.

Magnus Davidson.
Magnus Davidson.
  • Magnus Davidson is a researcher based in Thurso.
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