February 16, 2021
In the public interest
At this point in the parliamentary cycle, it’s time to speculate as to who is likely to win the forthcoming elections and what the new legislative programme might consist of. Since 2003, land reform has been one of the more consistent legislative themes of the Scottish Parliament. A timely paper in this respect from the Scottish Land Commission which highlights three areas for legislative change. Perhaps most interesting, and potentially most contentious, is the question of a public interest test on land acquisitions. It appears that land reform is a journey that is some way from being over.
A discussion paper published , Thursday 4 February, proposes three new legislative measures to modernise land ownership in Scotland.
The proposals are designed to support a dynamic and productive economy, by addressing the adverse effects of Scotland’s unusually concentrated land ownership.
The measures follow the 2019 report by the Scottish Land Commission into the impact of concentrated land ownership, the most substantial investigation into the issue conducted.
That study concluded that while there are some benefits in economies of scale, there are significant risks of concentrated power and evidence that this is having adverse impacts in some places.
Now three specific proposals for new legislative mechanisms are examined in detail in today’s paper [note 2] which also considers how they could work in practice.
The three measures are based on ideas that are normal in other countries and economic sectors to help markets operate efficiently and safeguard the public interest. They are:
- The requirement for significant land holdings to publicly engage on, and publish, a Management Plan
- A Land Rights and Responsibilities Review process, a practical means of review where there is evidence of adverse impacts
- A new Public Interest Test that could determine whether significant land acquisitions create risks of concentrated power.
Speaking about the suggested reforms explored in today’s paper, Hamish Trench, Chief Executive of the Scottish Land Commission, said:
“History has given us a pattern of land ownership in which localised ‘monopoly’ power can and does exist. This creates risks that run counter to the needs of a modern, dynamic economy. The measures explored in this paper are proposed as targeted and proportionate ways to address these risks.
“The proposals are based on measures that are quite normal in other sectors of the economy and have parallels across Europe in the ways countries regulate land ownership. Our research has shown that Scotland is unusual in not having similar measures to safeguard the public interest.
“These proposals are part of an ongoing programme of reform. They will not transform the patterns of land ownership on their own. That will require wider reforms, for example on taxation, as well as non-statutory action, all of which the Land Commission is addressing in our current work.
“They do offer an effective next step in modernising land ownership, ensuring the ways our land markets work keep pace with society’s needs and expectations, supporting a fair and dynamic economy.”
The 2019 report, which first proposed these measures, presented evidence that concentrated ownership is impeding economic development and causing serious and long-term harm to the communities affected in rural Scotland.
That earlier report included a set of recommendations to Scottish Ministers about how the issues identified could be addressed via statutory and non-statutory means and – at the invitation of Ministers – the Land Commission has continued to develop these ideas.
Significant work has been undertaken by the Land Commission to progress a wide range of non-statutory changes alongside other policy options and interventions to help bring about a more diverse, accountable, and productive pattern of land ownership and use. Details of this work can be found in the Land Commission’s Strategic Plan for 2020-23.
Progressing today’s proposals for new legislative measures will ultimately be a matter for the Scottish Government and Parliament and the Land Commission will continue to support and inform this work.