August 12, 2015
Just one step in a journey
For the rest of this Parliament, a great detail of attention and debate will inevitably focus on the new Land Reform Bill that has began its journey through Parliament. Published in June, the general principles of the Bill will soon be subject to scrutiny by a committee after its call for evidence ends (14th August). Andy Wightman has produced a briefing to encourage anyone still wishing to submit evidence. While the Bill is very important, Andy argues it is only one small step in what is going to be a very long journey.
Contrary to how it is often portrayed, land reform is not a process concerning only community landownership or farming tenants or indeed rural Scotland. It is in fact a process of reforming the legal, fiscal and administrative framework governing all land in Scotland. It is about how land is owned, occupied, taxed, inherited, and used from the centre of Glasgow to the island of Rockall in the North Atlantic.
It follows, therefore, that land reform could be transformative. In the housing sector, it could mean secure and affordable homes for owner-occupiers and tenants. In local government it could deliver an autonomous, equitable and comprehensive system of public revenue from land and property. In the wider economy it could mean an end to land speculation and profiteering and the diversion of finance and investment to more productive parts of the economy whilst reducing levels of private debt. For local communities it could mean much greater control over how vital resources such as the seabed, open spaces, common land, public buildings and forests are used. For business, it could mean quick and free access to sophisticated data on the ownership, occupancy, value, and constraints of land. For households, it could mean access to land for fresh food and fresh air in community gardens, huts and allotments.
How land is owned, used and governed is vitally important to the wellbeing and prosperity of all who live in this country – in particular to those who, because of inflated land values, cannot afford the basic human right of a home. Land is a finite resource and should be owned and used in the public interest for the common good of all the people of Scotland. The Land Reform Review Group, whose report in May 2014 revitalised the debate on land reform, highlighted how some of this could happen. The forthcoming land reform bill will put some of these ideas into law. Further consultations over the coming year will prepare the ground for further reform in the next Scottish Parliament.
For centuries, the ownership and control of Scotland’s natural resources was in the hands of a small elite. Their political influence was such that reforms of inheritance law, for example, have been blocked as an unjustifiable attack on the very fabric of Scottish family life. Vested interests in finance, property and land still promote the idea that change that has long been normal across continental Europe is somehow extreme and dangerous in Scotland in the 21st century.
Fortunately, Scotland is now alive with ambition to build a fairer and more equal society. Land reform has the potential to unlock the potential of Scotland’s people if they are given a meaningful and equitable stake in the ownership, governance and wealth of urban, rural and marine Scotland. This is a wide and ambitious agenda. It is urgent and it has only just begun.