Land Reform Debate – 21.03.19

Rhoda Grant: Land reform has been a focus of the Parliament from the very beginning. It has always been high on the agenda, as my colleagues Claudia Beamish and Alex Rowley have pointed out. I am proud of the achievements that have been made, but I think that we can go much further.
The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association wrote in its briefing to us that land reform had improved the lot of tenant farmers, but we need to protect them further. Some landowners have responded to land reform in a despicable way in their treatment of tenant farmers.
Why do we need land reform? One hundred and fifty people own 50 per cent of Scotland’s privately owned rural land. As Claudia Beamish said, land ownership is power. It provides opportunity and wealth. The disparity of ownership empowers and disempowers. Gillian Martin talked about someone feeling very intimidated at a meeting. Whether or not that was meant, it was the balance of power that led to that intimidation and fear. If somebody is there, taking notes, and the person knows that they have power over them, they will of course be afraid. Those who have not been in that position might not understand the way in which that power can disempower somebody else.
We need to build thriving communities, and we need to ensure that the power is shared. That can lead to very simple things getting done, such as building homes, as Liam McArthur pointed out. Alex Rowley spoke about land wealth, and its worth, being as much an issue as monetary wealth. Again, that is in the hands of the few rather than the many, and we need to consider better redistribution of both land wealth and monetary wealth. Alex Rowley spoke about land value taxation, which we could consider now to ensure that land has not been used—as land often is—as a way in which to avoid tax. We see some of the large estate agents selling estates around Scotland and encouraging people to buy them, not because they would work with the community and build the local economy but so that they could use the land to avoid their own taxation.
Monopolies have always been seen and understood to be bad things. Power is put into the hands of the monopoly, which disenfranchises everybody else. Land ownership in Scotland is largely a monopoly, and that needs to change. Land is an asset from which we all need to benefit. When someone’s livelihood depends on the land, they need a voice in the decisions that are taken about it. The way to ensure that their voice is heard is to ensure that they, too, have a stake in it.
I welcome the publication of the Land Commission’s report. As Angus MacDonald pointed out, the Land Commission was set up to provide leadership and direction on land reform. I have not read the report word for word, although I have had a good look over it, and I like what I see. To me, the fact that Edward Mountain was critical of it is a good sign, and I think that I will like it even more as I delve into it.
I am grateful to the commission for rushing the report’s publication to help inform today’s debate. The report has been an important part of the debate. To pick up on some of the commission’s findings, the report says that, in some parts of Scotland, concentrated land ownership is an impediment to economic development and is causing significant and long-term harm to the communities affected. It also says that there is little or no method of redress for communities or individuals when adverse economic or social impacts arise from concentrated land ownership.
The commission makes a number of recommendations, which I hope that the Scottish Government will consider seriously. They include the introduction of a public interest test for significant land transfers and acquisitions, which has been spoken about by a number of people; the creation of more robust mechanisms to ensure local democratic influence on and benefit from land use changes; and a programme of land rights and responsibilities good practice.
John Scott pointed out that some landowners take their responsibilities seriously, which is true—nobody is saying that all large landowners are bad. Some of them work with their communities. As we have heard in the debate, however, that can change on a whim or because of inheritance alone, and the balance of power then changes. If we do not have the right balance of power, the community can quickly be devastated by the change of ownership.
We have talked about community ownership. Only 500,000 acres of land in Scotland are in such ownership. The Scottish land fund, which many members mentioned, has been involved in some community buyouts. However, as those members noted, such communities have to jump through hoops and prove that they are acting in the public interest; they have to ballot people in their communities to ensure that they are happy to proceed. None of that happens in a private land exchange in which a private buyer takes over—they do not have to fulfil any public interest criteria.
Andy Wightman spoke to his amendment, which Labour members will support, which widens the definition of community ownership to include other kinds of common ownership such as common good and common land. We must also remember the concept of public ownership: for example, land is owned by the Scottish Government on behalf of the public collectively. In that context, I pay tribute to MacNeil of Barra, who gifted the island to the Scottish Government to ensure that it would be in public ownership. We need to remember that not all private landowners act solely in their own interests.
Some members talked about transparency. I look forward to the Government introducing the subordinate legislation that will be required to enable us to look at that. I hope very much that it will look at ownership from abroad as well as at home, because we need to know who owns the land that we live on.
There was not much mention of crofting in the debate, but I will use some of my remaining time to mention—
The Deputy Presiding Officer:
You have 10 seconds.
Rhoda Grant:
I have only 10 seconds left, so I will just say that crofters have a right to buy, which goes a long way towards fulfilling the balance of power between them and their landowners. However, that right is not easy to use, so I ask the Government to look at simplifying it in the context of the new crofting legislation that is being considered.