Nicola Sturgeon’s government has been urged to be far bolder on land reform after proposals to cap the amount of private land owned by one person or company were dropped.
Land campaigners and opposition parties said they were disappointed that the Scottish government’s new land reform bill failed to endorse independent proposals made last year for a fixed limit on private ownership.
The bill, published on Tuesday, makes a series of radical proposals to strip Scotland’s sporting estates, where deer and grouse are shot, of business rates relief and measures to force landowners to sell estates to local people if their land is badly managed.
The campaign group Community Land Scotland (CLS) said it welcomed many of the measures, which include a beefed-up landownership register and stronger protections for commonly owned land, because they helped address Scotland’s long history of unjust land distribution.
Lorne MacLeod, chairman of CLS, said that to achieve its aim of improving the rights of rural communities and promoting greater diversity in ownership, ministers had to be bolder. “There need to be strong powers of intervention deployed when the public interest demands this,” MacLeod insisted. “At first reading, the proposed bill seems silent on the question of the effects of a monopoly of land ownership by a few people through the size of their landholdings.”
The Scottish Green party (SGP) is considering amendments to the bill, which has months of committee and parliamentary scrutiny to come. Alison Johnstone, the SGP MSP, said ministers had to look again at the failure to cap land ownership levels. “We still have a long way to go if we aspire to truly reform our undemocratic system of land ownership, and end the vast inequalities where half the country is estimated to be owned by as few as 432 people,” Johnstone said. “This bill can allow us to begin to address some of the deepest problems of land ownership in Scotland, but we cannot pretend it is now job done.”
Scottish landowners and agricultural accountants said that some of the extra controls were unjustified and punitive, and could force some estates out of business. Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), which represents the country’s largest landowners, welcomed measures to improve community ownership, but said the bill set up new conflicts with land managers, particularly if ministers had new powers to force people to sell their land.
“We have been very disappointed that, in this debate, private land ownership is pitted against community ownership and landowners are seen as being against reform. This is wrong,” said David Johnstone, SLE’s chairman. “The proposed right for government ministers to intervene and enforce the sale of property is a key concern.”
Susie Swift, a partner with chartered accountant Saffery Champness, said that lifting the business rates exemption for deer estates, which also face stricter controls on deer numbers, misunderstood their role in the modern era. They were frequently far more involved in deer culling for environmental reasons. “The deer sector has moved on considerably since the exemption was applied 20 years ago, and now deer management is primarily concerned with control rather than ‘sporting’,” she said.
Aileen McLeod, the Scottish government’s land reform minister, said there were many exemplary landowners, but the bill was underpinned by the principle of responsibility. “It is no longer acceptable to own land in Scotland and not take the public responsibilities that come with that ownership seriously,” she said. “I know this bill will be good for the people of Scotland, encourage greater public interest and participation in land, and help our communities reach their potential.”
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 23rd June 2015 19.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010