On 20 March 2019 the Scottish Land Commission (SLC) published its report, ‘Investigation into the issues associated with large scale and concentrated landownership in Scotland’. It follows a call for evidence from the SLC which received over 400 responses from a variety of stakeholders ranging from landowners and land managers to community representatives and individuals.
The report’s overarching conclusion is that the economic performance of rural Scotland, indeed the country’s overall economy, could be improved by increasing the diversity of rural landownership and enabling more effective participation in land use decision-making.
The call for evidence
The call for evidence asked two simple questions. Firstly, respondents were asked whether they believed there were any benefits or disadvantages of land being owned by a very small number of people and secondly they were asked whether they had any experience of such benefits or disadvantages.
Respondents were also asked various questions about who they were and where they lived to help the research team to select a broadly representative sample of respondents to invite to participate in follow-up interviews.
Local economic opportunities
Respondents acknowledged that while some of the disadvantages associated with Scotland’s current pattern of landownership are offset by the potential to create economies of scale, the most frequently raised theme, which accounted for 40% of all themes raised, was local economic opportunities. With three quarters of respondents referring to local economic opportunities, it is clear that local economic development is at the heart of issues relating to Scottish landownership.
With respect to this theme, however, 52% of respondents considered the current pattern of landownership as bringing benefits, while only 25% considered there were disadvantages, such that more than twice as many respondents cited advantages as opposed to disadvantages.
The report concludes that most of the advantages associated with Scotland’s current pattern of landownership are related to economies of scale and most of the disadvantages relate to concentration of social, economic and decision-making power, but not necessarily the size of landholdings.
Report to ministers
The SLC has published a set of recommendations to Scottish ministers alongside their report, to be addressed as part of the wider land reform agenda in the current legislative cycle. One of the key recommendations is the proposal to introduce a public interest test for significant land transfers, drawing parallels with established practice in regulating corporate acquisitions and mergers.
The SLC has also recommended that landholdings above a defined scale threshold are required to prepare a management plan incorporating community engagement and the introduction of a statutory review, underpinned by codes of practice relating to the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement.
Landowners and communities will now wait to see how the Scottish Government responds to these recommendations and which, if any, it will choose to take forward. Several provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 are yet to be implemented and some, such as the right to buy land to further sustainable development and the guidance on engaging communities, have only recently been introduced. The full impact of the 2016 Act upon the issues raised in the report are not yet known, therefore any radical changes at this stage may be premature.
In the meantime, according to a press release, the SLC intends to ‘engage widely with stakeholders and the public on the findings of the evidence, its implications and their recommendations, through a series of events and public meetings culminating in a land reform conference in October 2019.’
The first of these public meetings was held in Edinburgh on 2 April, and details of future events are available on the SLC website.
For advice on land reform and related matters, please contact a member of our Land and Property team on 0131 228 8111 or at Enquiries.