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April 8, 2024

A Bill in need of improvement

Anyone with an interest in advancing the cause of land reform may well be somewhat underwhelmed by the latest Bill. Indeed some have argued that rather than engage with the next stage ( an invitation to submit evidence), the response should be to call for the Bill to be scrapped and redrafted. Assuming that that is unlikely to happen, it’s nonetheless important that as many voices as possible are heard at this early stage in the process of it becoming legislation. Scottish Community Alliance has produced a briefing on the Bill which could help to inform some of these responses.


Scottish Community Alliance – Full Briefing on the Land Reform Bill


The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 13 March 2024, following an extensive consultation in 2022. The introduction had been delayed from last year, amid murmurs that “expectations would need to be managed”. Even so, the Bill as introduced is embarrassingly thin with respect to land ownership, with the bulk of the provisions focussing on agricultural and other tenancies, while many proposals covered in the consultation are conspicuous in their absence.

The definition of “large-scale landholdings” is partially reduced from the 3,000ha proposed in the consultation, with a threshold of 1,000ha now applying to some measures, and a new Land Commissioner will be established (although it is difficult to see how they will keep themselves occupied). Otherwise there are just three substantive measures, all heavily caveated.

1) The Bill gives Ministers the power to require that a publicly accessible land management plan be produced and regularly reviewed for all large-scale (>3,000ha) landholdings. Development of the plan must include community consultation and there are some indications of the required content, but the details will be in secondary legislation, with no timescale for when or even if these must be implemented. However, as there is no obligation on landowners to take any notice of consultation responses, the penalties for proven breaches are slap-on-the-wrist fines, and the only organisations that can report breaches are local LRA-compliant community bodies, the relevant local authority and three quangos, in practice most landowners can probably safely ignore this measure.

2) The Bill requires that owners intending to transfer all or part of a large (>1000ha) landholding, must notify the Scottish Government and certain other parties in advance, to give community bodies an opportunity to try and buy the land. This is welcome, however the threshold is too high and the timescale for any community response is very short, especially where there is no pre-existing LRA- compliant body.

3) The Bill introduces a prohibition on the transfer of large (>1,000ha) landholdings without an application to Ministers for a decision on whether to sub-divide the land into “lots”, to be sold to different purchasers. Whilst this is welcome in principle, the proposed “transfer test” is a pale shadow of the broad range of measures considered in the 2022 consultation under the banner of a public interest test and there is little to ensure that lotting will actually make communities more sustainable. Critically, by focussing on the seller and omitting any scrutiny of buyers, this proposal does little to encourage diversity or inhibit the consolidation and expansion of ownership by existing large landowners.

Given the broad range of potential provisions consulted on in 2022, and the widespread 

Support from respondents towards stronger measures, the three substantive proposals noted above are very weak, and appear to have been designed to do the minimum possible to meet the commitments made in successive Programmes for Government and the Bute House Agreement.

Various other measures, many of which were included in the 2022 consultation, have not found their way into the Bill, including:

Review and reform of the asset transfer provisions and the various community rights to buy introduced by previous legislation;

Modernisation of the compulsory purchase powers available to local authorities, and/or the introduction of compulsory sales orders;

Review and reform of existing taxes, such as non-domestic rates, capital gains tax and inheritance tax, and/or the introduction of land value tax or carbon emissions tax;

Strengthening the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement;

Conditions on those in receipt of public funding for land-based activity;

Measures to regulate who can own, control and benefit from Scotland’s land;

Measures to secure affordable rural housing for the sustainability of local communities.

Most strikingly, any consideration of the urban domain is completely excluded, with the measures in the Bill effectively only relevant to rural Scotland.

Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee is expected to be designated as lead committee for scrutiny of the Bill; they will issue a call for evidence, consult with stakeholders and prepare a report. Amendments to the Bill can be proposed and voted on in the subsequent stages 2 and 3.

The Scottish Community Alliance (SCA) should seek to work with member networks and other interested parties to strengthen the Bill for the benefit of communities, both through the parliamentary process and through wider campaigning.