Land reform ‘gambling’ with communities and environmental investment

The Scottish Government’s Land Reform Bill is gambling with the future of communities in rural Scotland and investment in the transition to net zero.

Scottish Land & Estates, the rural business organisation, made the comments as it published its submission on the draft legislation following a call for evidence by the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee.

In its submission, SLE highlighted a series of critical faults in the Scottish Government’s plans, including:

  • The proposal to interfere with the sale of large landholdings by giving ministers power to split the landholding into lots jeopardises a range of projects supported by government including housing provision, renewable energy, commercial forestry and carbon sequestration schemes
  • Key measures in the bill to break up large estates rely too heavily on conjecture based on impressions rather than evidence
  • Evidence that land management at scale has positive outcomes for the environment and communities has been side-lined
  • Existing lending from banks and other finance agreements on property in rural Scotland are likely to require immediate review if property owners are no longer able to dispose of assets without recourse to government for lotting
  • No evidence appears to exist for the Scottish Government’s threshold of 1,000ha, 3,000ha, or any other defined scale, as a rationale for implementing onerous policies and legislation
  • Land management plans, which are supported in principle, could, as set out, lead to a cost of over £20,000 every five years for each estate required to do so
  • The sale of land by a large landowner to tenant or as part of a housing development risks being thwarted by new community purchase provisions as currently drafted
  • The new Land and Communities Commissioner is being afforded huge powers with very little detail on the responsibilities of the role

Sarah-Jane Laing, chief executive of Scottish Land & Estates, said, “There is growing evidence that management of land at scale has positive outcomes for the environment and communities. Some of the measures proposed present serious concerns not only for the owners of land but also for people, jobs and nature. This is gambling with the future of rural communities.”

In its evidence Scottish Land & Estates says, “Land-based businesses want to see a thriving rural Scotland which delivers benefits for all, and we believe that large landholdings play a vital role in this. We endeavour to play a constructive and forward-looking role in land policy and legislation and actively contribute to the development and promotion of good practice on community engagement, wider land management and landownership and agricultural holdings.

“We are also strong advocates of ever-increasing transparency and visibility of ownership and of responsible investment in natural capital. However, we believe that many of the measures contained within this bill will reduce the delivery of positive outcomes and, due to their overly bureaucratic nature, will create uncertainty and conflict.

“Breaking up large-scale landholdings is not the same as tackling concentration. A sale of a 3000ha estate of largely hill land in Sutherland for example, may have much less of an impact on local communities than a 20ha site suitable for housing on the edge of a town or village.”

“The process of ministers lotting estates for sale appears to be a clear interference with private property rights, which could lead to an impact on productive land use as well as value. The lotting criteria is sparse and unclear so it is impossible to determine at this stage the full extent of considerations that will be made by Scottish ministers.

“A sale lotted for sustainable development could have a detrimental impact on both the viability and marketability of the sale overall, and also on the viability of a mix of activities, such as landscape scale management for wildlife or the environment and commercial activities such as farming and forestry, which does not seem to have been considered within this legislation.

“While the bill as proposed seeks to bring in new legislation around large landholdings there seems to be little acknowledgement of existing legislation and vehicles which could be used to address any issues which may occur.

“We would like to see greater focus from the Scottish Government on supporting and facilitating constructive local planning and place making.”

Patrick Colquhoun, Assistant CEO at Luss Estates – which is owned by the Colquhoun family, said, “We are a business involved in green energy, hospitality, farming and forestry and other local businesses. We’re rooted in the community and are proud to have encouraged local communities to develop their local Place Plans which hold the estate accountable for its land use aims and responsibilities.

“We are wholly committed to community engagement and support measures that will take this forward. However, we are concerned by the introduction of a legal obligation for estates to consult on activities which any other business sector would consider to be within the realms of commercial business which often requires a degree of confidentiality and discretion.”

Crawford Mackay, Partner at Rural Property Consultancy Galbraith, said, “The proposals have the potential to bring an array of legal, financial and technical implications, and unintended negative consequences, to the Scottish Land Market.

“As drafted, the proposals include restrictions on the disposal of small areas of land within villages, where a member of the community may wish to extend their garden or business. The proposals are also likely to capture the sale of residential developments, where each and every house sale would require the prior approval of Scottish Ministers.

“At present, when an estate or farm is lotted for sale, it is done for very specific land use or operational reasons. Notwithstanding that lotting is a possible outcome of the sale process, the separate transactions involved increase the risks and costs for the seller, which would need to be considered if lotting was imposed rather than selected.

“By embarking on this process, without a clear timescale and reference to property professionals or owners, the proposals appear likely to create further uncertainty and so reduce confidence, and investment, in both the agricultural and environmental land market in Scotland.”

Scottish Land & Estates’ full evidence can be read here

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