Essential truths in land reform
26 June 2023
Today we publish ‘Essential truths in land reform’, an opinion piece written by Peter Peacock, a former Leader of Highland Council, MSP and Cabinet Secretary.
Peter Peacock is a long-standing advocate of greater land reform and in this paper he gives a fascinating perspective on the need for robust land reform. This is a timely intervention to an important contemporary debate as the Land Reform Bill is prepared for parliament.
The paper sets out a discussion on what he believes is the need for the Scottish Government to be more radical in the forthcoming draft Land Reform Bill. He convincingly sets out a central challenge to all of us: “Is Scotland to finally act or eternally air our shared national grievance that so few own so much land?”
In his article, Peter Peacock, says:
“The Scottish land question remains unanswered – how can it possibly be just that the equivalent of 0.025% of Scotland’s population own 67% of its private rural land” and describes this as “a shaming symbol of national inequality”. He points out what he sees as an essential truth that “If there is ever going to be a fairer distribution of land in Scotland, some who currently own a great deal will have to do with less.”
He goes on explain how “our highly unusual patterns of landownership hardly alter as the decades pass…. The same land stays in the same few hands or passes to another in the rich elite that alone can now participate in a land market increasingly beyond the reach of ordinary Scots and its communities.” He rightly notes that “at the current rate of progress, a century from now probably less than a further 3% of Scotland’s land will have moved away from the established patterns of large-scale private ownership and the power and wealth it bestows on the few.”
Peter is concerned that “the Scottish Government’s current modest proposals will not deliver any significant change in landownership patterns”. However, he also acknowledges the Scottish Government proposes worthwhile ideas to be built on, and the recent Land Reform Bill consultation analysis suggests there is considerable appetite for more radical reform, with over 70% of respondents supporting Public Interest Tests, placing the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement on a statutory footing and compulsory Land Management Plans for large-scale landholdings. There was also widespread support for a lower ‘large-scale landholding’ threshold with both 1,000ha and 500ha being the suggested alternative to 3,000ha. These results give the Scottish Government a strong and clear mandate to deliver on the ambitious land reform Peter calls for in this paper.
Peter’s insights as a former member of Government lead him to suggest that the Cabinet Secretary will be in receipt of legal advice urging caution. “The Cabinet Secretary’s internal legal advice if it is true to form will be extremely cautious. The spectre of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) will be to the fore, with warnings of court challenges and all sorts of dire consequences to be visited upon a government interfering with private property rights.” However, the proposed Public Interest Test on landholdings of significance, as well as the potential enshrinement of economic, social and cultural rights to sit alongside property rights in next year’s Human Rights Bill, means we have an opportunity to overcome this consistent stumbling block to transformational reform.
But he also signals the opportunity if land reformers work together and support the Cabinet Secretary to make the most ambitious choices, stating; “we have viewed land for too long as an immutable private commodity held within an unregulated private market.”
Our Policy Manager, Dr Josh Doble says “In this paper Peter Peacock addresses the fundamental and enduring issues which have restrained the robust land reform Scotland so urgently needs. It is time to consider specific targets for diversification of ownership to drive change. The Government already has ambitious targets associated with the climate and biodiversity crises. We want to see similarly bold targets applied to the crisis of land inequality in Scotland.”
Dr Josh Doble continues “Yet Peter’s paper also gives us hope. We have a real opportunity in 2023 to push forward land reform which could make Scotland a wealthier and fairer nation. We welcome the chance to help shape the forthcoming legislation to make sure it delivers on this opportunity.”
Essential truths in land is a paper by Peter Peacock, a former Highland Council Leader, MSP and Cabinet Secretary and Community Land Scotland’s first Policy Director. The paper was published today 26th June 2023 [on the Community Land Scotland website as part of an ongoing series of papers by independent writers, academics and commentators to promote understanding and stimulate debate on issues relevant to the land debate in Scotland.]
The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone and cannot be taken to represent the views of Community Land Scotland.
For further information contact Dr Josh Doble, Community Land Scotland