January 13, 2016
This week it was reported that the Qatari royal family had purchased a Scottish estate. In fact, it’s difficult to verify whether the land was purchased by them because the actual buyer turns out to be a registered holding company which is owned by other registered companies which are owned by another and so on. Andy Wightman’s blog tries to shed light on this particular land ownership labyrinth. The extent to which the Scottish Government is prepared to clarify (literally) the whole question of who can own land, is being viewed as the acid test of its appetite for land reform.
A Community Land Scotland contribution to public discussions on the need and justifications for full disclosure of who owns Scotland’s land.
An essential question that must be answered in the Scottish Parliament using its legislative competence to require the full disclosure of who owns Scotland’s land, including the beneficial owners of legal entities which own land, is whether there is a public interest justification for such a general disclosure which outweighs any individual protections that may be given for non-disclosure under ECHR, particularly Article 1 Protocol 1, Article 8 and Article 14. In the public dialogue about this issue arising from the provisions within the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill (as introduced 2015), the Scottish Government’s response to the Stage 1 Committee report on the Bill reveals that it has yet to be fully convinced that there is sufficient public interest reasoning, such as to justify the general disclosure of such information. Current proposals seek to provide a mechanism which might allow disclosure when a justification to know can be reasoned by an individual with a specific issue with an area of land. Even then, there would be no guarantee the information sought would be forthcoming. This paper seeks to capture key clear benefits which justify requiring full disclosure (public interests reasons). It sets out general public interests arguments which we believe are compelling, and the action needed to effect disclosure proportionate.
What are the public interest reasons for maximum disclosure?
There are at least three sets of public interest justifications for maximum disclosure and a further significant issue which touches on discrimination and equality of treatment under the law. The public interest reasoning builds around the following:
· A general and legitimate interest of citizens’ in who owns land, as all of Scotland’s land uses and management impact on all Scottish citizens all of the time, and land use and management is consequent upon who owns, controls, and ultimately benefits from that ownership.
· Citizens’ democratic participation in the policies and life of the country is only fully enabled by maximum disclosure of ownership.
· The effective administration of a variety of statutes and policies, not least the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, as amended by the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, and the provisions envisaged in the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill 2015, are only fully effective with maximum disclosure.
Each of these matters is dealt with in turn in the full contribution of Community land Scotland which can be accessed here