Action now needed on Land Reform

Below is my Herald newspaper Agenda column from Friday 23rd of May

Today the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group will be publishing their final report and the onus is on them to provide a comprehensive and radical argument for the reform of land in Scotland.  

So far they have yet to match Johann Lamont’s pledge for extended community right to buy – even if there is no willing seller – as long as it is in the public interest. Nor have they proved to be as challenging and questioning as the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster who propose a robust and workable land register and a review of taxation and financial benefits.

Instead we had an interim report that was widely criticised for having too narrow an agenda, for being cautious, lacking ambition, and, in the straightforward words of Brian Wilson, of being “the most useless 52 pages ever committed to print”.

The Government must now redeem themselves and if we are to see radical land reform any time soon we need a substantial report on, amongst other things, affordable housing, renewables, agricultural tenancies, land ownership’s interaction with the local community and the role of the crown estates.

Reports, however, will not deliver the reform of land that Scotland needs. This will only be achieved through the political will of the Government in power. There is a growing appetite for further progress to be delivered and with the opportunity given by the publication of the report this is the time for Scotland to set out its immediate and future ambitions.

The issue cannot be kicked into the long grass, if the current Government is not willing to make a firm commitment to land reform we are. Scottish Labour has a strong record, from Keir Hardie to Johann Lamont the issue of land reform has been high in the priorities of the party and our leaders.

Following devolution, the Labour led Scottish Executive introduced legislation including the Land Reform Act, the Abolition of Feudal Tenure and the introduction of Scotland’s two National Parks.

From Johann’s commitment, we have set our stall that we are committed to further reform, we are clear that more action can be taken and the opportunity to be radical is here again.

It is also important that as the debate around land reform moves forward that we ensure we have a mature conversation and temper the language used. Talk of land grabs aren’t helpful to either side. It is an issue about fairness and equality, of transparency over who owns Scottish land and tackling the fact that 50% of privately owned land is owned by only 423 people.

Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen is a good example of why our land system doesn’t work. Currently Scotland’s second biggest landowner, the Dane does not pay any money to the UK or Scottish Government nor to the local authorities where his land lies, instead paying tax on his Scottish land in Denmark. The Scottish Government only last year entered a land swap deal with Povlsen swapping land 150 miles apart. No rules were broken in this deal but it was seen as an unusual move and does call into question transparency over who owns what land in Scotland.

In a recent BBC documentary on Land Reform, the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse claimed that if there wasn’t land reform in Scotland under this Parliament then it would have failed. Presiding over a majority Government he could pass new legislation this year if the will was there.

Land reform is not a referendum argument. Progress can be achieved under devolution and within this parliament.  There will be opportunities and Scottish Labour will concentrate on proposals which will deliver for communities, offer more opportunities, secure rural populations, and move Scotland towards more equitable land ownership patterns.

If there is not land reform by the time of the next Scottish election in 2016 it won’t be the Scottish Parliament that will have failed the people of Scotland, it will be the SNP and the Scottish Government.