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December 7, 2021

Time to adjust?

It’s often hard to gauge overall progress when it comes to one of the most wide ranging policy areas – land reform – because there are just so many dimensions to it and, by its very nature, it is of such fundamental significance to the country’s long term progress. But intermittently, opportunities present themselves to pause and reflect on how the wider policy landscape has shifted and whether any adjustments are required to maintain the momentum. The Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement – a critically important device in that respect – is five years old and due a review. The Scottish Government is consulting.

Scottish Government

Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement review: consultation

Scottish Land Issues in 2021

2.1. Much has changed in Scotland and around the world since the preparation and publication of the first Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement in 2017. This new context includes the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic and social impacts, in addition to the impacts of EU exit. There has also been increasing worldwide focus on the twin climate and nature crises and the urgency of the transition to a net-zero economy. The role of Scotland’s natural capital has become increasingly prominent as its importance in achieving a just transition to net zero has become more widely recognised. All of these contexts need to be considered in re-evaluating how the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement can support a healthy relationship between the land and people of Scotland.

Covid Recovery

2.2. The pandemic has taken something from us all and so much from some. Covid-19 is having an enduring impact as individuals, communities and businesses across our nation continue to suffer in many ways. But this time has also seen people spend more time in the natural world, taking solace in green space. Communities have come together, often using community assets, to provide support and local resilience.

2.3. Land reform can support a greener and fairer recovery by seeking to ensure that people are at the centre of our environmental ambitions and that communities benefit from our natural capital. Land is an important asset for both our urban and rural communities. It can support economic growth and community resilience and contribute to a just transition. Land provides space for local communities to live, work and develop skills, while supporting biodiversity, sequestering carbon and reducing adverse climate impacts like flooding, overheating and air pollution.

2.4. The responsible ownership and management of land with a focus on community rights can further sustainable development and help to restore the economic health of rural and urban communities. We are keen that the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, supported by the implementation work of the SLC, supports post-Covid economic recovery for communities, tenants and land owners across Scotland.

Climate Change

2.5. Scottish Ministers have committed to ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change within a generation, reaching national net zero by 2045. Our approach on climate change is underpinned by a steadfast and legal commitment to delivery of a just transition. A just transition means reaching a net zero and climate resilient economy, in a way that delivers fairness and tackles inequality and injustice. Scotland’s climate legislation requires that just transition principles are reflected in plans to mitigate emissions[3].

2.6. To date, a just transition has typically been considered in the context of the energy sector, often in relation to managing the economic and social impacts of the phase-out of coal power generation. But its relevance as a concept is far broader and will be vital to managing many of the issues relating to land use in Scotland in the context of the demands placed on it by the net zero transition.

2.7. Natural capital is a concept that recognises our natural environment as an asset that provides vital benefits to our society and economy. Natural capital assets come in many different forms: from populations of wild species (e.g. birds, fungi, animals); to soils and minerals; to the ability of landscapes to absorb and store carbon or protect us from flooding.

2.8. Scotland’s rich natural capital means that we are ideally placed to lead the way in adopting nature-based approaches to tackling the climate emergency whilst simultaneously addressing the biodiversity crisis. This includes measures like peatland restoration, woodland creation and sustainable agriculture.

2.9. The Scottish Government is taking major steps to invest in natural capital in support of our climate change and biodiversity goals. We have committed £250M over ten years for peatland restoration and an additional £150M over five years to support woodland creation.

2.10. However, we know that public investment will not be sufficient on its own. The huge level of land use change needed to meet our climate change and biodiversity goals will require new and additional sources of investment to meet the pace and scale of the challenge. This will necessarily include a significant contribution from the private sector.

2.11. Private investment in Scotland’s natural capital, including carbon offsetting, and the impact of this on communities is an emerging and complex issue that needs to happen in a socially responsible way, to support a just transition. Scottish Government is committed to taking action to ensure that the increasing levels of natural capital investment in Scotland deliver benefits for local communities, and wider society, in line with just transition principles and our land reform objectives.

2.12. The SLC is now taking forward a package of work[4] to provide advice to the Scottish Government on finding a pathway that balances the need for private sector investment in natural capital with community rights and our legal requirement to deliver a just transition.

2.13. Landowners and managers in Scotland have access to two existing UK voluntary carbon codes that provide a quality assurance standard for the generation of independently verified carbon credits: (i) the Woodland Carbon Code[5]; and (ii) the Peatland Code[6]. These codes provide a robust mechanism for landowners and managers to sell verified carbon credits to private companies participating in the voluntary carbon offsets market.

2.14. The importance of land use and land reform to achieving a just transition in Scotland was recognised in the Just Transition Commission’s report published in March 2021. The Commission brought together a broad coalition of academics, trade unions, environmental NGO’s and sectoral representatives to make recommendations on how to put just transition principles into practice in Scotland[7]. In relation to land, the Just Transition Commission identified two main considerations: the need to acknowledge and manage the competing priorities for how land is managed, and the need to ensure the benefits of carbon sequestration are felt by rural communities.

2.15. The Just Transition Commission recommendations included one supporting the development of a statutory public interest test as part of the forthcoming land reform bill, and one supporting further roll out of regional land use partnerships. The Scottish Government accepted all of the Commission’s recommendations and has published a response to the Just Transition Commission’s report, setting out how we intend to take forward this work over the upcoming Parliamentary term[8].

2.16. The Scottish Government is committed to delivering a just transition, and we want the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement to play a strong role in this.