11th June 2015
It's early summer and the arrival of the long awaited and much publicised Land Reform Bill is imminent. Land Reform is not a new concept in Scotland. It has been quite firmly on the agenda since a programme of reform was first kicked off by Lord Sewel in 1998. The concepts currently being discussed (land tenure, agricultural tenants' rights, community ownership, etc) go even further back. Land Reform is synonymous with devolution in Scotland, the original Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 having been one of the flagship pieces of legislation produced by the Scottish Government during the very first term of the Scottish Parliament.
This time, however, there appears to be an even more determined aspiration on the part of the Scottish Government to change land ownership as we currently know it, both in the country and, significantly, in towns and cities. Not only did Land Reform receive a name check in Nicola Sturgeon's first speech as leader of the Scottish National Party, it then went on to form a key aspect of her government's current legislative programme. There seems little doubt that whatever the Scottish Government unveil, change is coming.
Owners of traditional Scottish Estates are understandably concerned. There is talk of placing a limit on the amount of land a person may own. There is talk of land being taken away from Estates if the owner of the land is shown to be a barrier to sustainable development. There is the possibility of land being lost if communities can show that the land is"abandoned or neglected", although that phrase may be defined in due course. Questions about Land Reform are currently being asked at many levels in the rural property market place. Some prospective purchasers of rural property from outside Scotland are asking whether they may still buy land in Scotland – and, if they do, might they be in danger of losing control of it, against their wishes, further down the line?
Concern on the part of owners of traditional Scottish Estates about Land Reform is understandable, particularly as Estate owners primarily appear to be in the sights of the Scottish Government. However, what is interesting in the context of the current reform proposals is that a much wider group of owners and managers of land are beginning to grasp the implications of Land Reform. Farmers with average sized farms, for example – are they at risk of losing some land if someone can show they have been a barrier to sustainable development? Some commercial property owners are wondering whether communities may be able to influence the sale and purchase of commercial property assets – indeed might they be able to force the sale of urban commercial property assets if the community can show that the property in question is abandoned? And who decides what abandonment looks like? Some Charities are nervous at the prospect of having to take account of the effect which a sale or transfer of land may have on the local community – and what happens if there is a collision between, on the one hand, the interests of the local community and, on the other hand, the purposes of the Charity?
The proposed scale of the reforms could be significant, but what is also notable is the depth of the reform measures, and the way in which they cut across many and various different departments of the Scottish Government. In 1998, Lord Sewel was talking about landlord and tenant issues, crofting, and such like. Fast forward 17 years and the Scottish Government is talking about: community right to buy in the country, in towns and in cities; the law of succession; deer management; aquaculture and wild fisheries; the common good; agricultural holdings; taxation, duties of charities as owners of land; housing law; and compulsory purchase. The scale and breadth of the subject matters which come under the Land Reform grand projet is very significant indeed.
After months of discussion and speculation, it is not long until the Bill is published, and how the Bill progresses through Parliament over the coming months will be of great interest to all owners and managers of land, whether rural or urban. It is understood that the Bill will become law before the end of the current session of the Scottish Parliament in June 2016. In the interim, no doubt definition will be provided and the headline proposals will begin to take shape. Perhaps some concerns will be alleviated once the Bill is before us in black and white. What seems clear, however, is that the Bill, once enacted, will have at least the potential to change land ownership in Scotland as we know it.
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