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Guest Blog from Hamish Trench, CEO of the Scottish Land Commission

Guest Blog from Hamish Trench, CEO of the Scottish Land Commission

In this week's guest blog, Scottish Land Commission CEO Hamish Trench has kindly contributed a fascinating article about modernising Scotland's patterns of land ownership. Feel free to send us your thoughts, and you can find information on the SLC's events calendar at the end of the post.

Modernising Scotland’s Land Ownership

Land is at the heart of Scotland’s identity, economy and communities. The Scottish Land Commission seeks to make more of the nation’s land by shaping a programme of land reform across urban and rural Scotland.

There has long been debate and unease about the pattern of land ownership in Scotland, the Land Reform Review Group in 2014 made clear this should be addressed, and Ministers have stated a clear ambition for a more diverse pattern of ownership. Last month we published a report on scale and concentration of land ownership in Scotland. That this was one of the first things the Scottish Government asked the Scottish Land Commission to look at is no surprise.

Scotland has a strong framework in place now for considering this, in the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement. This is an ambitious statement about the relationship between land and people in Scotland promoting greater diversity in ownership of land including more community ownership, high standards and transparency of land ownership and use and better community engagement in decisions about land. The Statement now shapes our approach to land ownership and use.

Our report looks at a fundamental part of this system, the pattern of land ownership. We wanted to go beyond the headlines of who owns how much, to understand the issues associated with scale and concentration in land ownership. We draw on the substantial body of existing published research, together with the lived experience of people on the ground, collated through the public call for evidence the Commission undertook last year.

A clear pattern, and some challenging questions emerge. The evidence shows that the core issue is not simply about the scale of ownership itself. It is about the concentration of power and decision making, and about the ability to participate in and benefit from land use decisions. And these issues span all types of ownership - private, public, NGO and community.

The main findings in our report are that the concentration of power can, and in some places does, have significant impacts on the public interest. The power to make decisions over the use of land, its availability to others and on what terms, can influence many things from delivery of housing, community development and business opportunity, to environmental management and land use change.

The pattern that emerges has many of the characteristics of monopoly power that we are familiar with in other contexts. We are used in the corporate world to managing the risks of monopoly positions through a combination of regulation and good practice - the Competition and Markets Authority exists ‘to make markets work well for consumers, businesses and the economy’ and we think the same principles apply to the land market.

We have also looked at international experience. Last year the UHI Centre for Mountain Studies led a review of the ways in which other countries intervene in land ownership. It found it is normal for countries to have in place measures to ensure land ownership safeguards the wider public interest – although what this is varies widely. Of particular relevance are examples of approval mechanisms at the point of land acquisition. In some countries these simply relate to residency requirements, but in others they are geared more to influencing land use and the public interest.

Informed directly by the research, we have made initial recommendations to address the adverse effects identified, and to stimulate a more productive, diverse and dynamic pattern of rural land ownership. Our initial recommendations include three measures that would create a framework to safeguard the public interest more effectively:

· the ability to apply a public interest test at the point of significant land transactions;

· a requirement for land holdings over a defined scale to engage on and publish a management plan;

· a review mechanism to address those cases where there is evidence of adverse impacts being realised.

The Land Commission will also go on to explore other policy options to encourage a more diverse pattern of private ownership. While community ownership should be a normal option for communities across Scotland, it is only one part of a more diverse pattern.

The report also shows that addressing the pattern of ownership alone is insufficient. The evidence indicates many people feel a lack of opportunity to engage and participate in land use decisions. Importantly this is not just about being able to influence decisions, it is about making the most of the opportunities for communities to benefit from decisions about land use. The Government’s recent Guidance on Engaging Communities in Decisions Relating to Land and the Commission’s supporting Protocol, together with Scotland’s Land Use Strategy provide a clear framework for developing more effective local and regional approaches to land use decision making.

Land use change is a given – big drivers including climate change, rural and agricultural policy, repopulation in remote rural areas and wider economics will continue to demand and shape change. There are huge gains to be realised through making change in a way that is open, accountable and empowers people to identify and take up opportunities.

Land reform sometimes gets framed as a false choice about whether it is land ownership or land use that ‘matters’. Both are so inter-connected it would be odd if we were open to changes in one but not the other. The Land Commission’s role is to take a systemic look at how we own and use land. People can feel uncomfortable talking about land ownership in terms of power and participation, but this simply reflects why land matters to people. Land is central to the way we think of Scotland’s identity, to our economy and to our communities.

The Scottish Land Commission is engaging widely over the next few months on the issues and recommendations raised in this report. We want to stimulate discussion and debate on how to shape positive change and would welcome your views and reflections on the issues raised. Please look out for our public meetings around Scotland, our conference coming up on 2nd October or feel free to contact us directly.

The report is available at Addressing Scotland’s pattern of land ownership can unlock economic and community opportunities – Scottish Land Commission

Posted by: / 10 April 2019 at 13:38 / Comment

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