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May 7, 2014

Land reform warms up

The Land Reform Review Group will publish its final report later this month. Responding to the Group’s interim report last year, Scottish Land and Estates appeared comfortable with the overall direction of travel, reiterating its view that there was ‘no evidence that significant demand for land reform exists in much of Scotland’. Since then however, the mood has changed.  In January, Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP made it clear the Scottish Parliament was on a journey towards radical reform and now Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster has weighed in with its own Inquiry and interim report. Interesting times ahead.


Scottish Affairs Committee, Westminster

Land Reform in Scotland: Interim Report – Scottish Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Committee believes that, in order to formulate a successful land reform policy, far greater transparency is needed over who owns what land. We recommend that information about the boundaries and ownership of parcels of land should be made publically available via a National Land Information System, with a searchable database, and the same data should be freely available for the public to analyse. (Paragraph 24)

2.  We are surprised to learn of the lack of detailed, openly-accessible information on such topics as landownership, land values, land occupation and land use. (Paragraph 28)

3.  We found it surprising to be told Scotland’s land information systems are not as advanced as those of other countries, such as Turkey and Latvia. We recommend that all datasets relating to landownership, occupation, land values, land use and core reference geographies such as addresses be made freely available under an open data policy. We regard the availability of such information as a high priority and consider it doubtful as to whether the Scottish Government and civic society is in a position to develop a coherent land policy and programme of land reform in the absence of such information. (Paragraph 29)

4.  We recommend that the Scottish and UK Governments consider using the World Bank’s Land Governance Assessment Framework to assess whether Scotland’s system of land governance is fit for purpose. (Paragraph 30)

5.  We are concerned to hear that the Valuation Office Agency no longer publishes land price indices and recommend that this publication resume, in order to allow informed debate about public policy on land. (Paragraph 31)

Land Markets and Values

6.  We would welcome further evidence on the case for the retention of a distinct Agricultural Property Relief. (Paragraph 46)

7.  We would welcome further evidence on the case for the retention of the specific exemption of agricultural property, or sporting land, from non-domestic rates. (Paragraph 56)

8.  We would welcome further evidence on whether the annual reports on undertakings under the Conditional Exemption Tax Incentive Scheme should be disclosed. (Paragraph 64)

9.  We would welcome further evidence on whether the Government should publish the amount of tax foregone in exchange for the reliefs granted to the owners under the scheme. (Paragraph 65)

10.  The Committee accepts the evidence that the system of landownership in Scotland is a direct consequence of choices made in the past in relation to the legal and fiscal framework within which land is held. These choices were political decisions in the past and they will continue to be in the future. (Paragraph 75)

11.  The Committee has received evidence that questions the continuing justification for agricultural property relief, business property relief, business rollover relief and non-domestic rates exemption for agricultural and sporting property. (Paragraph 76)

12.  We are concerned that tax reliefs and exemptions distort the market as well as pushing up prices. (Paragraph 77)

13.  The Committee would be interested to hear further evidence on the continuing public interest in maintaining these reliefs and exemptions, and their impact on the market. We encourage further consultation on this topic. (Paragraph 78)

14.  We recognise the apparent complexity of state aid rules and the frustration felt by community groups and others over their interpretation, which can be seen as over-cautious and risk-averse. We understand that discussions are ongoing to clarify and resolve the issues that have been raised with us and welcome these. (Paragraph 97)

15.  In the course of the current State Aid Modernisation process we believe the Scottish and UK Governments should devise and secure agreement for a change in both the rules and the way they are interpreted, to allow community ownership of forests and other land to proceed in a clear and predictable manner. (Paragraph 98)

16.  We will maintain an interest in how the State Aid Modernisation proceeds and review the matter in our final report. (Paragraph 99)

17.  The Committee has identified the apparent contradiction of seeking to promote land reform by means of public money, through schemes like the Scottish Land Fund, when the price paid for the land is itself inflated through the reliefs and tax exemptions granted by Government. It would appear that taxpayer’s money is being used to pay for land that another part of Government has rendered more expensive through tax policy. We will be able to form a settled view after receiving further evidence. (Paragraph 101)

18.  We share the Scottish Government’s desire to see both an expansion of forestry in Scotland and greater levels of community ownership of land. We are not clear that the support framework for community forestry is well aligned with that for the public sector and the private sector. In particular, we are keen to explore further the economics of public, private and community forestry in terms of the funds that are committed by public agencies to support state, community and private forestry and the funds that, through grants and tax reliefs, are provided to the private sector. (Paragraph 109)

Topics for future consideration

19.  We would welcome further evidence on whether the ownership of estates through charitable companies set up by private owners is in the public interest and how governance of such organisations should be best organised. (Paragraph 111)

20.  We would welcome further evidence on how the fiscal framework of agricultural land might be reformed to meet the concerns of tenant farmers. (Paragraph 112)

21.  We would welcome further evidence on how the new CAP framework can best support farmers. (Paragraph 115)

22.  We would welcome more evidence on the extent to which land is owned in offshore jurisdictions as part of individual and corporate tax planning. (Paragraph 119)