Land reform Podcast

I like listening to the growing number of podcasts covering a wide range of topics. A particular favourite at the moment is the remarkable story of the diary that was at the centre of the controversy over the sinking of the Argentinian naval cruiser, the General Belgrano in 1982. It is published by the London Review of Books and presented by Andrew O’Hagan. Have a listen – you won’t be disappointed.

Recently I have been listening to a podcast presented by the Green MSP Arianne Burgess. Titled Regenerative Scotland, it explores it range of topics to do with land use in the context of the climate and nature crisis. The current series focusses own land reform.

The most recent episode (click on image at top of this post) is an interview with James MacKessack-Leitch who works for the Scottish Land Commission and leads its work on land governance and ownership.

Ordinarily I would not blog in response to a podcast such as as this.

But this is a discussion between a senior official of a government agency and a Member of the Scottish Parliament and so what people take from it matters. There are a number of issues raised in the conversation which I want to challenge. This blog will be brief and is primarily for the record.

The first is a claim made by Mr MacKessack-Leitch in relation to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill

“is a very significant step forward ….. it is worth bearing in mind that until this point in history, the only qualification for owning land has been the stretch of your cheque book. And that is going to potentially change. So in that sense this is a massive step forward for something that has been the way it’s been for centuries…

The change referred to, according to a clarification provided to me, is that the Bill prevents a person acquiring more than one lot of land where a lotting decision has been made by Scottish Ministers (see earlier blog for outline of the Bill). But this is not a qualification (something characteristic of the buyer), it is a limitation. And there are many examples of both historically. Age remains an important qualification (you have to be over 16 to enter legal transactions such as landownership) as does capacity. Limitsations include inhibitions which can be placed on land preventing its sale (for example, I registered an inhibition over land owned by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC who owe me £60,000). The Register of Overseas entities limits land being acquired where no declaration has been made about beneficial ownership.

The idea that such a modest limitation is a massive step is in itself a massive over-statement. As my recent analysis of qualifying land sales reveals (see here, here and here), a lotting decision will very seldom be made. In any event, there is nothing to stop a buyer who is prevented from buying more than two lots, simply acquiring another the other one at a later date.

The second matter concerns is the conversation around tax in which they discuss the need for some form of tax on land values. The central argument put forward by Mr MacKessack-Leitch is that we cannot tax land values until we have a complete land register.

There isn’t a recent price or value so a valuer will have to go out and make an assessment. All that needs to be sorted out before you can levy anything. So, similarly, until the Land Register is complete, we don’t necessarily have the legal certainty on those red line boundaries. At the moment a lot of land is still on the Sasines and paper records and trying to get that all into a digital system will take a lot of time. So before we can even think of a better taxation of land values, that underpinning infrastructure in terms of identifying the land and identifying the value we could be taxing needs to be done. We’re a very long way from doing that.”

There was no discussion about the Scottish Government’s 2014 commitment to complete the Land Register by 2024 and why that hasn’t happened – another missed opportunity. Putting this to one side, however, the central argument is false.

We do not need a complete Land Register even were we introduce a full blown land-value tax. We would certainly need to know who owns the land but that is that is knowable today. For centuries, there have been levies applied to land. Feudal dues did not require a modern Land Register. They did not even require the Register of Sasines (introduced in 1617). Non-domestic rates have been levied on the rental value of land since the mid-19th century and even today, with 48% of Scotland not on the Land Register, there is a valuation roll and bills are issued and rates paid.

You can have a look at all the historical valuation rules in the National Records of Scotland. The current valuation role is on the Scottish Assessors website.

Finally, there is a conversation around the need for what is described as a cadastral system although I think what has actually being talked about is a land information system. Ariane Burgess talks about the example of New York where she lived and worked. My favourite example of such an approach is from the state of Montana. A new refreshed version was published last month. Have a look for yourself here.

The conversation concluded that such a system would be desirable although it may have quite high upfront costs but nowhere was there any recognition that in fact we have been attempting to put together such a system for some time. In 2015 John Swinney announced that such a system would be created and be operational by 2017. It never happened. I wrote a report for the David Hume Institute and Built Environment Forum Scotland last year reviewing all of this. The conversation should have focussed on why the project failed and why nobody in the body politic has yet explored this question.

Land reform does not get the level of serious and detailed discussion that it merits. This podcast was a welcome exception but exposed some flaws in the analysis of where we are. it is also interesting to note that two of the topics discussed above concern committments made by Scottish Ministers that were never fulfilled. Why was that? We are still none the wiser.