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October 18, 2011

Who shapes policy?

With the furore over the role of political advisors and professional lobbyists refusing to go away with the departure of Liam Fox, interesting questions have been raised concerning the extent to which politicians are able to maintain their independence in the face of vested interests. In an interview with Holyrood magazine, Andy Wightman explains why he thinks certain policy agendas have been effectively shaped by forces from outwith the Scottish Parliament


Extract from an interview printed in Holyrood Magazine.  To read whole interview click here

……A leading exponent of land reform, Wightman argues that the transfer and value of land in Scotland is skewed in favour of established owners and property speculators, while community ownership and local accountability, which could provide greater transparency, flexibility and equality has been sidelined.


The situation is not new. In a political system in which the space for specifically Scottish legislation was limited and the House of Lords was stuffed with landowners, land reform in Scotland was left untouched for generations.

That changed with devolution. Wightman says the Scottish Parliament has “95 per cent” of the powers required to enact far-reaching reform, and praises the flurry of activity that followed its establishment. In its first years, the Parliament enacted the National Parks (Scotland) Act, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the abolishing of feudal tenure, a policy Wightman first saw on a Donald Dewar pamphlet in 1968.

“It wasn’t just the legislative programme but the culture that they changed,” he says, “because I remember clearly the Scottish Land Owners Association coming to committee meetings in the Scottish Parliament. (It was) very, very uncomfortable for them because they hadn’t been used to being grilled by politicians.” However, momentum soon dissipated.

Wightman says that in the last parliamentary session the Scottish Government “basically did nothing”. “What’s happened is we’ve now got a culture where landowners feel very buoyed,” he adds. The problem, he says, is a culture where property speculation and land ownership as a form of wealth creation has become entrenched in the media and politics. Wightman argues politicians have failed to be adequately independent, allowing vested interests able to effectively control policy debate. “This is where we need strong political leadership,” he says, adding that “on many occasions” Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead “appears to be little more than almost a paid employee of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland…because he’s strongly advocating the farming interest.” He continues: “So farmers effectively dictate farming policy, foresters effectively dictate forestry policy, fishermen effectively dictate fisheries policy, and they do that by capturing the political process, capturing the minister, dominating the process. In many cases the majority of things they are talking about are very complicated; no one really understands crofting law, no one really understands the intricacies of agriculture support, no one really understands the intricacies of the Common Fisheries Policy, etc. So, understandably, very few other people join in. I think it’s the role of government, of Parliament, to lay out the public agenda in all of this. But I think this government has got far, far too close to these producer interests.” Wightman says that by emphasising consensus and trying to reconcile completely divergent economic interests, too often the Scottish Government’s approach to land reform issues lacks conviction. The ultimate goal, he says, should be to dramatically reduce the cost and increase the availability of land. Denied an adequate say in the formulation of land management decisions and public policy, people’s economic opportunities are stymied……