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February 24, 2016

Land reform needs to look seaward

Anyone following the recent twists and turns of the Land Reform Bill’s passage through Scottish Parliament will have noticed a distinct stiffening in the resolve to produce a Bill that has real bite. Much of this effort to date has focused on achieving greater transparency as to who actually owns land. It now seems that this Bill is effectively laying the groundwork for a much wider programme of reform to follow. Glen Smith, researching for his PhD at Tromso University in Norway, argues that the marine environment needs to figure much more prominently in the debates to come.


Glen Smith, University of Tromso

For the past three years I have been engaged in research into how marine spatial planning will affect the management of Scotland’s coastal, foreshore and inshore areas (up to 12 nautical miles from the coast). The new planning system will be guided by the National Marine Plan (2015), and regional plans will be formulated within the 11 new Scottish Marine Regions. Marine planning partnerships – comprised of local experts, practitioners and stakeholders – will work within each of these regions to tailor the plans to local needs. The system is designed to allow more local ownership and decision making about specific issues within their area. 

In the course of my work I have become less interested in the technicalities of planning at sea, and more interested in what this new infrastructure means for local democracy and the voice of coastal and island communities. For several reasons it appears that the democratic foundation of marine spatial planning in Scotland might not be as strong as is claimed. 

Firstly, the consultation system supporting decision making in the marine environment is far from perfect, and often exclusive. The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), for example, has faced this problem. COAST is one of the UK’s leading community marine conservation organisations. Their achievements are quite remarkable, including the establishment of Scotland’s first no-take zone in Lamlash Bay in 2008. However, despite the high level of local support, the organisation has been denied input into consultation on the management options for marine protected areas and is unlikely to be represented in the new local planning partnership. It appears that COAST will be overlooked in the latest governance infrastructure for marine resource management. 

Secondly, marine spatial planning immediately raises questions over the role of the Crown Estate (Commission). This organisation owns and manages over half of Scotland’s foreshore and almost the entire inshore seabed. It negotiates leases on this space with any new actor wishing to develop a project, as they will require anchorage or some point of contact to the seabed. Although stringent environmental regulations and impact assessments are followed, the democratic input by local communities into these lucrative business deals is often limited. For many, marine management is an exclusive realm dominated by those bodies who possess the skills, knowledge, and expertise in the field: Marine Scotland; the Crown Estate; Scottish Natural Heritage; the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. 

For planning in Scotland’s seas the starting point is typically ‘blue growth’, project development, nature conservation, and conflict resolution. These are challenging issues that do indeed require careful planning. However, the starting point is rarely local democracy, subsidiarity, or strengthened communities, even though the government is committed to improving these aspects of Scottish life.

The key to raising the profile of coastal and island communities may lie in introducing a new concept into land reform debates. I propose we call it ‘marine land’. The 2014 report by the Land Reform Review Group clearly states, “the land of Scotland in this context is the territorial land area of Scotland, including Scotland’s seabed out to the 12 nautical mile territorial boundary” (p16). And yet this area is rarely more than name-dropped in debates over land reform (and, indeed, in the rest of that report). Seen from a governance and decision-making perspective, the Crown Estate is a private landowner. So why do we not consider more radical ways to increase input by communities in marine resource management, such as community buyout of marine land?


Critics will cite the lack of expertise and funds in communities, the need for a unified vision for Scotland’s seas, and concerns over the true intentions of communities owning the seabed. My research is focused on imagining what a new governance system might look like that addresses such concerns. Following through with the planned two-stage reform of the Crown Estate is an important element, as is continued strong guidance from the National Marine Plan. The potential roles of local councils, development trusts, and Community Land Scotland all need to be considered. Communities will also need to be able to count on localised scientific support. The devil is in the detail, and the details are complex. 

Terrestrial examples have proven that land buyout by communities can be risky. They need to be financially stable. Local governance structures need to be flexible, yet robust. And what happens if they fail? Who takes responsibility?

But successful projects have brought measurable community benefits such as job creation, population retention (and growth), increased investments and improved facilities, as well as less quantifiable benefits such as social trust, belonging, a sense of place and identity, and new local democratic institutions.

I do not advocate the immediate sale of all ‘marine land’ to communities. But I do propose that we address the worrying absence of the seabed in land reform debates. And I propose that we address the worrying absence of community development in marine spatial planning.