The wheel keeps turning on community land rights and land reform in Scotland

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

These are times of progress in the debate on community land rights and land reform in Scotland.  

No sooner had the latest piece of legislation in the Scottish Parliament completed its passage to the statute book in early June, but a further and new Land Reform Bill was introduced for consideration by Parliament in late June. The plan is that the new Bill should complete its Parliamentary process by March of 2016. Scotland has probably the most concentrated patterns of private land ownership in the world with just 432 people owning half the private land in Scotland. This concentrates power and wealth in very few hands. The legislation just passed is the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill 2015 is in part about redressing the power balance. Among its provisions are increased rights for communities:

  • The right to request the transfer of public land to community ownership.
  • An extended right from only small rural communities to every community in Scotland to gain first right of purchase of land that comes on to the market, through registering a community interest in that land.
  • An extended community right to seek the compulsory purchase of land by any community where they can show the purchase would be in the public interest the land is:
    • wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected
    • or its management or use is causing harm to the environmental well-being of the community
  • Simplification of the existing Community Right to Buy based on community experience of using the existing legislation.
  • A requirement for government Ministers when considering community applications to purchase land to have regard to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • New powers for government to facilitate mediation between communities and private owners.

The new Land Reform Bill now tabled for Parliament to consider takes these community rights to buy land further.  This includes the compulsory right to buy local land when a community can show the sustainable development of their community is being obstructed by the owner and the purchase by the community would be in the public interest. The Bill will also require all future Scottish Governments to have and to update regularly a policy Statement of Land Rights and Responsibilities. That Statement will help guide the work of an independent Land Commission that will be established to make sure that land reform is an ongoing part of national policy attention and change.

There are new provisions to improve the transparency of who owns Scotland’s land, and new rights for agricultural tenants, with new dispute resolution processes established. Government Ministers will have to issue guidance to land owners on how they must engage with local communities in decisions about local land use.  Community Land Scotland is pleased the debate has moved forward and welcomes many of the proposals in the new Bill. However, there is much that could be done to strengthen and improve the Bill to make it more radical and effective. Community Land Scotland is now working up detailed changes they would like to see in the Bill as it moves through Parliament. Already Parliament evidence sessions are planned and experience of the recent Community Empowerment Bill process has shown that a community based land organisation can effect change and strengthen community land rights in legislation if the case is well researched and argued.

On a wider front, Community Land Scotland is now seeking to negotiate with private landed interests, and from a position of having achieved greater community land rights, as to how more voluntary transfers of land could be made to happen more often. The debate about land reform and community land rights in Scotland is at a higher level than for many, many years and land reform as a means to the progressive realisation of human rights is something that now features more in debate than at any other time. Government has established a short life working group with community interests to plan the way forward to doubling the amount of land in community ownership by 2020. That plan will include how best to further support communities in their quest to take back ownership of their land. Within the debate in Scotland the Call to Action on community land rights is helpful in making clear that Scotland’s need for land reform measures is something that is shared across the globe. Our circumstances may differ in many ways, but fundamentally why land reform is needed and what might help it happen is an agenda shared.  Our task in Community Land Scotland is to keep those wheels of progress turning and moving in the right direction.

The Policy Memorandum for the new Land Reform (Scotland) Bill can be found here: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_Bills/Land%20Reform%20(Scotland)%20Bill/b76s4-introd-pm.pdf

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill as passed can be found here: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_Bills/Community%20Empowerment%20(Scotland)%20Bill/b52bs4-aspassed.pdf

By: Peter Peacock, Policy Director, Community Land Scotland