It is probably quite appropriate that today, within 24 hours of publishing her Interim Report, the Chair of the Land Reform Review Group, Alison Elliot, is giving the keynote address to Scottish Land and Estates AGM at Perth racecourse. (1) No doubt she will receive a warm welcome and a rousing cheer from the landed class and its legal and financial advisers as the latest attempt at kick-starting land reform withers and dies on the vine of complacency and ignorance. See previous blogs on the topic and, in particular the immediately previous one for a foretaste of developments today.

The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) was announced by Alex Salmond at a meeting of the Scottish Cabinet on Skye in 24 July 2012. On 23 August it’s remit was published and on 8 October the Group’s advisers were announced. Given that nothing had happened on the land reform front for a decade, this development was widely welcomed at least among those who believe that Scotland needs land reform.

Yesterday, the Group published its Interim Report together with an analysis of the evidence submitted to the Group. Following the previous resignation of Professor James Hunter, it was also announced that the one other member with (limited) experience of land reform has also resigned – Dr Sarah Skerrat. She is the co-author of the report along with the one member left from the original Group – the Chair Alison Elliot.

The Interim Report fails to deliver anything meaningful and effectively kills off any prospects of radical land reform due to one significant (and for those unfamiliar with the topic not immediately obvious) and devastating revelation in the report.

wrote at the time the group was established that whether any of the wicked issues like “inflated land values, affordability of housing, succession law, tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, theft of common land, land registration laws, common good etc. etc. etc.” got looked at depended on 1) a definition of land reform and 2) the remit of the group. Last August, I welcomed the remit as wide-ranging and I did so because on a straight reading of the words, it was just that. For the avoidance of doubt it is worth re-stating the preamble and three key tasks that the Group was set.

The Scottish Government is committed to generating innovative and radical proposals on land reform that will contribute to the success of Scotland for future generations.

The relationship between the land and the people of Scotland is fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country. The structure of land ownership is a defining factor in that relationship: it can facilitate and promote development, but it can also hinder it. In recent years, various approaches to land reform, not least the expansion of community ownership, have contributed positively to a more successful Scotland by assisting in the reduction of barriers to sustainable development, by strengthening communities and by giving them a greater stake in their future. The various strands of land reform that exist in Scotland provide a firm foundation for further developments.

The Government has therefore established a Land Reform Review Group.

The Group will identify how land reform will:

1) Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;

2) Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;

3) Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland

The emphasis is mine and I interpreted the three tasks as relating broadly to 1) individuals 2) communities and 3) governance. Others may read it differently of course but it appears to provide a wide framework of analysis. It follows on from a preamble that highlights structural problems, progress to date and community ownership as representing one strand of land reform.

Yesterday that remit was ripped up.

Section 4.4.2 contains the first clue in a passage that tenant farmers across Scotland have reacted to with a sense of anger and betrayal.

This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention. For the LRRG to address these issues would be to interfere with the work of the TFF [Tenant Farming Forum] and to stray considerably away from our remit which focuses on communities rather than relationships between individuals. Having spent time on the issue during the first phase of the review we would be interested in sharing perspectives with the TFF through our advisers as appropriate but we do not intend to report further on this matter, except where it can be addressed within the context of community ownership” (my emphasis).

This a kick in the teeth for Scotland’s tenant farming sector. As the Group noted, some tenants were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” (2) Now they learn that, after patient and diligent engagement with the Group, their concerns are to be addressed by a talking shop in which the lairds have a veto.

But the revelation goes way beyond the immediate concerns of tenant farmers

It redefines the remit of the group as focussing on “communities rather than relationships between individuals“. This redefinition is confirmed by Sections 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 of the report which interpret each of the three aims in the remit as relating solely to community ownership. Section 4 opens with the claim that,

The group was given a wide-ranging remit which entailed a review of the legislation of 2003 as well as the task of considering how the benefits of community ownership could be extended to more communities through the exploration of new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland” (my emphasis).

It concludes by announcing that “some more technical issues that are frequently raised in discussions of land reform – the position of the Crown Estates, common good land, taxation and succession” have not been considered but the Group “may do so if they are likely to throw light on the other topics on the Phase 2 agenda.”

So these important topics (not to mention tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, housing tenure, land information etc.) will only be considered if they have a bearing on advancing community ownership.

I was thus wrong when I welcomed this wide-ranging remit because I failed to understand what it meant.

Either that or, effectively, the Group has re-written its remit so as to exclude concerns relating to anything other than community ownership.

Has the Scottish government approved of this redefinition or was I alone in having interpreted the remit wrongly? From the Media Release issued, it appears that the Minister, Paul Wheelhouse agrees with the Group that the Review is, in fact, about community ownership.

“The LRRG has made good progress over the past few months as they have travelled across Scotland meeting a wide range of people with an interest in land reform and in an effort to understand how Scottish Government can utilise Scotland’s land and assets to empower Scotland’s communities – both rural and urban.  The interest in the review has been great with the Group receiving over 475 responses to their initial consultation.

 “I now very much look forward to the next stage as the LRRG move into the second phase of it’s work looking at radical options for community land ownership before the final report in 2014.” (my emphasis)

So it must be me then. I just misunderstood the remit. This is not a land reform review group – it is a community ownership review group.

Given the coverage in the media today (a few sentences in the Herald’s farming page and a brief interview with myself on BBC Radio Highland (itself quote a reflection on the marginal significance now attached to land reform), it is clear that land reform is effectively dead as a matter of public policy. That does not reflect my own experience of speaking to thousands of people across Scotland over the past couple of years (during which events less than a handful of people ever appeared to have heard of the LRRG) but it does sit comfortably with elite Scotland’s view of the world.

What makes the report hard to understand is that there are flashes of radicalism like this.

Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to people who live their lives on it. While many of these will be good decisions, it is an expression of the material inequality in the country that this situation obtains.”

But then there is a complete and utter failure to say anything at about how this is to be dealt with.

Perhaps it is time that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament called the group in for another chat.

Finally, as I have made clear in the past, I remain concerned at the lack of transparency in the proceedings of the Group and in particular its refusal to publish the evidence being submitted to it until April 2014. I thus submitted a Freedom of Information request for this information – something that respondents were made aware was a possibility in the Call for Evidence. I was thus rather surprised to read in Section 2.5 Alterations to timescale the following claim.

Immediately after the deadline for submissions in January, a Freedom of Information request was received that the full set of submissions should be made public. This request was dealt with by the Secretariat but it did have an impact on how the group approached analysis of the submissions. Uncertainty over whether confidential responses would be made public worried some respondents and did nothing to enhance the trust some people felt towards the group or the process.”

For the record I never asked for confidential responses to be released and there is a perfectly legitimate exemption under FoI legislation to cover this. To blame an FoI request for undermining trust in the group is frankly pathetic.

(1) Perth racecourse is on Scone Estate – land subject to a heritage tax exemption for allowing public access (map here).

(2) Interim Report page 14

UPDATE – further media reports.
BBC Highlands & Islands online 21 May
BBC Naidheachan online 21 May
Herald 21 May
Herald 22 May

26 Comments

  1. This tenant farmer, as one who recognises an urgent need for radical land reform, shares your deep concerns.
    Without such reforms, denying fundamental power to those who need it, independence will achieve nothing.

    Reply

  2. I liked the way that estate interests complained about a lack of evidence for the benefits of wider ownership and yet still managed to complain about adverse impacts on conservation and tourism without, er, providing any evidence.

    Maybe we should produce an alternative report and then start a petition on change.org to demonstrate support for that.

    Reply

  3. Salmond has probably been offered “estates in yorkshire and scotland if you lead your land reform army from the field”
    He will be moving there after switching sides to the NO campaign at the last minute.

    Reply

  4. Better to view it as a battle lost rather than the war. Land reform in Scotland will not go away it’s far to important to just let die.

    If we get our independence back in 2014 and if we want to build a prosperous, modern economy, land reform is a neccesary part of that process.

    It will come eventually whatever the big landowners, vested interests and offshore hidey holes say and do!

    Reply

    • Agreed, but it is time to start making the point that land reform is the key issue toward both achieving our independence and why we need to achieve it. We sure as hell won’t get land reform without independence or will we get independence without definitive steps toward meaningful land reform.

      Reply

      • Robbie Pennington

        It’s so difficult to get otherwise radically-minded independence supporters to understand the importance of land; most seem to feel that Scotland’s land ownership system as having been handed down on Mount Ararat as some sort of 11th Commandment, god-given and immutable. Just goes to show how effectively the rich and powerful have protected their own interests.

        Reply

    • joni buchanan

      And the moon is made of cheese

      Reply

  5. Won’t dispute your take on the LRRG, but I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair to say that

    “it is clear that land reform is effectively dead as a matter of public policy”

    At Scottish Labour Conference in Inverness last month Johann Lamont siad

    “Just 16 owners have 10% of Scotland’s land and get tax breaks for doing so… If we want to have any real hope of changing the current patterns of land ownership in Scotland, then we have to be bold. We have to be radical. Conference, Scottish Labour will commit to extend rights for community purchase of land and for those rights to be available across Scotland.

    If it is in the public interest, communities will have the right to purchase land, even when the land owner is not a willing seller.”

    (Which is probably as radical a commitment I’ve heard at the Conference of any mainstream party, not just on land but probably anything, in 20 years. )

    So Labour are clearly up for doing something and it’s not absolutely inconceivable that this could prod the Scottish Government into some sort of action even if only to stop Labour making political capital.

    Reply

    • Very fair comment. I should have made clear that my remarks relate to the actions of the existing Scottish Government. Of course, Labour, Greens, Lib Dems etc all have ambitions in this field. In fact I am meeting Johann Lamont tomorrow to talk about this very topic.

      Reply

      • Well, if the initial Jimmy Reid Common Weal effort is any indication, you’ve got your work cut out there as well.

        Since Labour’s ideology is based upon the proposition that all value emanates from Labour, Land Reform – other than nationalisation, comrade – has never been on their radar screen.

        Reply

  6. joni buchanan

    Meant to say that in response to Stuart’s wishful thinking!

    Reply

    • If folks had never worked for change and brought it about sometimes after centuries of work we would all still be living in holes in the ground!

      Reply

  7. hebrideanfarmer

    As tenant farmers I thought that the LRRG came, listened and understood our situation. I thought that their remit was to identity a way of addressing the balance of power and adopt radical thinking. I thought that they understood our feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness. Apparently I was wrong. The LRRG have washed their hands of us and thrown us into the lions’ den. Like King Darious, the LRRG have thrown us to the mercy of the TFF.
    Without doubt our faith lies with the Scottish government, and they will deliver us from the TFF, just as Daniel was delivered and saved.
    It’s now up to us, to put all our trust into Holyrood, and explain to them how different things could be, and how we are ready, willing and able to contribute to the economic growth of Scotland. Only then, when we are given a chance, and shake off the suppressing nature of feudalism will we be free to do exactly that.
    The LRRG was given an opportunity to contribute to this, instead they chose to ignore us. No wonder Jim Hunter’s name is excluded from this interim report.
    We were invited to write in and give evidence. We were questioned and invited to expose our thoughts. Then we were abandoned, ignored and betrayed. Thanks to the LRRG we are now in a worse position, risking reprisals from the landlord.
    When Alison Elliot was question by the RACCE committee, she expressed her awareness of how difficult it may be to get to the grass roots and hear from those people who are not used to speaking out, and preparing written submissions. This was a challenge she was up for. Now though, in her interim report, she puts great store in the percentage figures of opinion, so eloquently put in glossy submissions and videos of a vociferous minority, the landed elite, who rally up scores of submissions. Every page of the interim report seems to contain the views of large estates. No wonder we feel angry and betrayed.
    The TFF messed up with the Rent Review Group, so why these two authors think the TFF are the ones who can be “sensitive and expert” and are able to sort out “problematic and complex” issues with regard to tenancies is anybody’s guess !
    With two out of the three LRRG members resigning, one wonders what has been happening behind the doors of the LRRG.

    Reply

    • Yes indeed, when the first went you wonder, but leave it at that.
      When the second goes I ask, what sort of person in SRUC offers promotion to a key player in this project at such a sensitive time and what sort of person would consider any other job more important?

      Reply

      • Alison Macleod

        A person who is not being allowed to influence the direction of the report in the way she believes it should go? Just guessing, but she certainly gave me every opportunity at a meeting to speak about our experience and appeared to fully understand and sympathise.

        Reply

        • As others I know enjoyed similar reception and response at a meeting, I suggest that is a good guess Alison.

          Reply

  8. As I commented to the Consultation on Taking Foward A Scottish Land and
    Buildings Transaction Tax Consultation
    “Land is one of the most valuable assets that Scotland has. As
    shown in the supporting documentation currently land transfers
    are dropping therefore the tax return from such transfers will fall
    rather than increase. Would it not be sensible now that the
    Scottish Government has a chance to do so to move from a one
    –off transaction tax to an annual tax on land? This would
    encourage unused or underused land to change hands, become
    productive and fulfil a real benefit to get Scotland going again.”

    Reply

  9. A particular problem is that one of the most useful weapons in achieving land reform – taxation – is simply not available until we have achieved independence. Once we have that, it is far easier to decide what the desired end(s) should be, and use the stick (and the carrot of offset arrangements) to achieve it. For example, if we desired to make more land available for individuals to purchase, live, or work on – especially with the end of repopulating parts of the Highlands in view – we could levy a land tax for estates over a certain acreage, which could be offset against land released for sale. Equally, the absentee problem could be looked at in terms on insisting the owner (or a designated director in the case of corporates) was in residence for 90 days each year, failing which…tax! But we can’t do such things without independence, so to some degree the LRRG was bound to eschew the radical options. This is not to say that the evidence it has gathered will not come in useful once we have the full ability to act on it.

    Reply

    • We could do all that you suggest now within the existing devolution powers. Local govt taxation is devolved and is based upon land/property. Would just require reform to make it into a proper land tax. Similarly residency is within powers of Scots law of land tenure (some agricultural tenants & all crofters have residency obligations) and these could be extended to owners too.

      Reply

      • hebrideanfarmer

        I completely agree, the powers ARE there already. It requires only a change in legislation. The old question still remains, why is there one rule book for crofters, and another modified rule book for lairds? (and further stricter rules for tenants……Sir Crispen Agnew had very interesting views on this at an evidence giving session for the RACCE committee) What an opportunity the LRRG had. They must be held accountable for their actions…or lack of. Social justice for all please.

        Reply

      • Agricultural tenants don’t.

        Reply

      • Andy,
        Pity you used the term ‘land tax’ here. Such terminolgy has been detrimental to the
        Land Rental Value approach for 100 years. Well no surprises from the LRRG, with its chairperson being from one of the biggest property owners in the country and the SRBPA stating on their website how pleased they were to see two of their members being appointed.

        Reply

  10. Pingback: Land Reform Review Group Interim Report | basedrones

  11. Section 65 (new section 16A of 1991 Act) only applies if the lease contains a residency clause. Older leases tend to, more modern ones don’t.

    Reply

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  13. Pingback: Land tenure is one of the biggest issues facing rural Scotland | Land Matters

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