‘Land Reform Bill doesn’t do everything that has to be done … but it’s still an important moment’

‘Land Reform Bill doesn’t do everything that has to be done … but it’s still an important moment’
The National, by Andy Wightman 

The publication by Parliament of the Land Reform Bill represents an important moment in the land reform debate. It is over a decade since the last one and in that time many long-standing issues have been neglected.

The Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group, however, put land back on the agenda and this Bill is just one of a series of laws designed to implement its recommendations.


The group’s final report last May set out an intellectually coherent programme of reform and the energised debate provided by the referendum has helped to put land back on the political agenda.


It is now widely accepted that land is a vital resource in urban, rural and marine Scotland. Its ownership and use needs to be governed in the public interest and for the common good of all the citizens of Scotland.


The Bill has attracted a lot of comment – when did the Jeremy Vine show last talk about land reform? – but its provisions are not especially radical and will not in themselves lead to rapid or fundamental change.


They are, however, overdue, very welcome, and open the door to debates that have remained off limits for too long.


Particularly welcome is the proposal to establish a statutory Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and a Scottish Land Commission. This brings Scotland into line with evolving norms of land governance around the world and will ensure that this topic never again slips off the political agenda again.


The three substantial reforms involve a new right-to-buy power for communities, the re-introduction of non-domestic rates on shootings and deer forests, and significant reforms to agricultural tenancy law.


The new right to buy, which in effect provides communities with meaningful powers to intervene in the land market, fills an important gap between existing pre-emptive rights to buy and the cumbersome and problematic powers of compulsory purchase held by public bodies.


The re-establishment of a local tax liability on land devoted to shooting and deer forests ends the indefensible abolition of this element of non-domestic rating by the Tories in 1994.


To most, it might seem odd that, while the village shop is subject to rating, deer forests and shootings pay nothing.


TO take one example: the Killilan deer forest near Kyle of Lochalsh is owned by Smech Properties Ltd, a company registered in Guernsey which, in turn, is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the King of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.


Killilan was included on the valuation roll in 1994 at a rateable value of £3,500. By comparison, the local caravan site had a rateable value of £3,100. Today, the caravan site has a rateable value of £26,250 and pays £12,127 per year in rates while one of the worldʼs richest men, whose land is held in a tax haven, has (unlike the local caravan site) paid no local rates for 20 years.


But this kind of fiscal reform should not take place in isolation. This Bill is the latest example of piecemeal reform in this area and there is a pressing need to review land taxes more widely, including both recurrent annual levies such as the council tax and rates, and the tax reliefs that can distort land markets.


Disappointingly, the Bill does not implement one of the proposals in the earlier consultation to make it incompetent to register title to land in offshore tax havens like Guernsey.


The reasoning given is unconvincing in the context of widespread concerns over transparency and money laundering that most recently came to light over the role played by Scottish Limited Partnerships in fraudulent activity in Moldova.


Other modest measures on charities and common good are welcome although extremely modest in scope. Fundamentally, the Bill needs to be seen in the context of the wider programme of reform now signalled by the Scottish Government. This includes matters still to be dealt with such as inheritance law reform and further fiscal reform. Scotland today, however, is closer to realising comprehensive land reform than for a long time. Let’s embrace the Bill and improve it.