Friday, 20 November 2015

Scottish land up for reform

The following article was left out of the current issue (Autumn 2015) of Landworker due to a lack of space and a delay in the magazine's publishing date.  

The comments by David Cameron's landowning father-in-law Lord Astor that proposed Scottish land reforms are "a Mugabe-style land grab" have been condemned by long standing Scottish Labour MSP Sarah Boyack.

"They are alarmist and exaggerated. Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 we have had an ongoing debate about how use land to create economic opportunities and regenerate, in particular, some of our most fragile rural communities. Land reform is popular." 

Boyack was Minister for the Environment, Planning and Transport in the first year of the Scottish Parliament, subsequently served as Transport Minister, where she introduced free bus travel for over 60s and disabled people, and is now in her sixteenth year as an MSP. 

Sarah was a member of the Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish coalition government that ended the historic legacy of feudal law in Scotland with the passing of the radical 2003 Land Reform Act. This provided unhindered access to open countryside and established for small communities a Community Right to Buy when a landowner put land up for sale. Crofting communities were also given the right to buy their land even without the consent of the landowner.

Crossgates Community Woodland became the first Scottish community to buy land through the first Scottish Land Fund in May 2005. Thousands of trees, a play park, pathways and tracks followed with plenty of local people using it. 

"There’s a long list of community buyouts including some that cost millions. I'm proud that Scottish Labour played a big part in this and the results have been successful with new economic opportunities and jobs being created in areas that had been starved of economic investment because they were owned by one person who perhaps didn't even live in Scotland" said Sarah.

People, of course, such as Oxfordshire's Lord Astor, a Tory Lord since 1973, who, through a Bahamas registered company, owns the 20,000-acre Tarbert Estate on the island of Jura. Astor is amongst the 432 families that own half of Scotland and although the Scots last year voted against independence that does not mean there is no appetite for continuing political reform, especially on land issues. 

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill was passed on 17 June by the Scottish Parliament. It enables certain bodies to buy abandoned buildings or neglected land. Key amendments from Labour's Alex Rowley, which were supported by organisations such as OXFAM and Barnardo's,  ensured a right of appeal for communities refused the opportunity to participate in efforts to improve public services. 

"This was a massive step forward," said Boyack, "and one Labour strongly supports. It will be important in rural communities but it also applies to urban locations. It will mean there can be action in cases where privately owned buildings, such as cinema's, have been unoccupied for over a decade and act as a blockage to community regeneration." 

In June last year the Scottish government-commissioned Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) made 62 recommendations on land ownership. Following which the SNP Government revealed plans for a Land Reform Bill that is to be debated, and almost certainly agreed as only the Tories are opposed, in Holyrood this autumn. Councils should have powers to force the sale of land and there will be an upper limit to how much land one person can own. There are also moves to scrap rates exemptions on shooting estates.  

Yet whilst Nicola Sturgeon's statement that she wants to see a "million acres of land in community ownership by 2020" is welcomed by Boyack, the Labour MSP, is concerned that proposed UK Government reductions in Scotland's budget may hit the Land Fund. "If we are going to pass legalisation then communities must be able to use it as we would not have seen the very big community purchases in Scotland without Holyrood funding. 

"I also hope we will see legislation on the position of tenants farmers (30% of Scotland remains occupied by tenants farmers; whereas most of their European counterparts are owner-occupiers of the land they farmed) as many are living in properties that would be condemned as unfit for purpose if they were in urban areas.

It is clear that we can make much better use of Scotland's land so that it benefits many more people."

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