Rural and Environment
Land Reform reflections
The question of who owns, controls and benefits from land has been a pervasive issue in Scotland for centuries. It is of fundamental importance and it affects us all, wherever we live in Scotland. For too long, many of our communities have been marginalised. What we want, and need to see in order to realise our full potential as a nation, is a truly diverse pattern of ownership rather than one dominated by a few hundred large land owners.
But despite its importance, the concept of land reform is not always well understood.
Indeed, recently-published research, commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore public attitudes to land reform, revealed an uncertainty about what the term ‘land reform’ actually means. Respondents largely associated it with rural, undeveloped land. It was seldom related to more tangible issues, such as housing, urban greenspace, community buyouts or redevelopment of vacant and derelict land.
What strikes me most is that land reform is an increasingly relevant issue the length and breadth of Scotland, including in our towns and cities. Indeed, in 2017, a year after becoming Land Reform Secretary – and with Ministerial responsibility for land reform having been given Cabinet Secretary status for the first time – I approved the very first urban community right to buy in Scotland in Portobello.
Overseeing Scotland’s Land reform in recent years has been a highlight of my career. As I near retirement from government, and indeed from Parliament, I want to reflect further on the history of land reform, my own experiences, and set out my predictions for future reform in Scotland.
I will say from the outset: the job is not done yet, but there is no doubting the progress that has been made since devolution.
Holyrood has seen a steady sequence of land reform legislation, from the Abolition of Feudal Tenure to the establishment of our National Parks to the landmark Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.
In 2013 we commissioned a long overdue review of land reform a decade after that first Act. The review was broad and wide ranging, and we took a ten part Bill through the Scottish Parliament that spanned a number of portfolios and policy areas.
A remarkable consensus was built around what became the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.
Over this Parliamentary term, we have methodically completed implementation of all of the core provisions of the Act, culminating last month with the passing of regulations to increase the transparency of land ownership in Scotland. This will make it easier for individuals and communities to engage with those who make decisions about land issues that affect local communities.
Another significant milestone in the 2016 Act was that it enabled – with cross-party support – the establishment of the Scottish Land Commission. The Commission was established to demonstrate a commitment to land reform on an ongoing basis and it has played a critical role in building consensus and encouraging collaboration between landowners and communities. Its advice and analysis will continue to be pivotal in underpinning the next phase of land reform. Their next Programme of Work and Strategic Plan, which are well underway, will also seek to inform our green economic recovery from the pandemic.
The research I mentioned earlier found considerable support for the overall aims of land reform, and for specific policies on the diversification of land ownership, reducing vacant and derelict land, access rights, and community involvement in decision-making.
We have done much to empower communities in these areas.
Just before Christmas we announced that, as part of our green recovery, we would invest £50 million over the next five years to transform vacant and derelict land, revitalising our communities and town centres and supporting our wider wellbeing together with our net-zero ambitions.
Last month we announced a Regional Land Use Partnership pilot programme, which will bring together local government, communities, land owners and stakeholders to help develop Scotland’s approach to land use in support of our green recovery and transition to net-zero.
Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to support communities up and down the country through the Scottish Land Fund – which has now provided funding to over 240 projects – breathing new life into crucial community assets, from post offices and pubs to forests and treasured open spaces.
More communities owning land and buildings will mark a clear demonstration of what our land rights and responsibilities statement, and indeed all of our land reform measures, is seeking to underpin. We want to see a more diverse pattern of land ownership. There are now 590 assets across Scotland, owned by 418 community groups, a figure which is increasing all of the time. There are also more negotiated sales between major landowners and community groups. The various options for a legislative community right to buy are still there – but they are not always needed. I am, however, confident that their existence is driving the culture change.
Our land needs to do a lot. It needs to support our communities’ needs and aspirations, and it also our key asset to tackling climate change and ensuring Scotland is a net-zero society by 2045.
Land reform is unfinished business. Not least because it is a necessarily gradual journey, driven by culture change as well as legislation, which in turn is dictated by the differing and often complex needs, demands and aspirations of our diverse and vibrant communities across the country.
But we continue to make progress to realise those aspirations, and I am convinced that one day Scotland’s land will belong to the people who live and work here.