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INSIDE TRACK: A body that could set the tone for future land reform

The Scottish Government's Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) is expected to publish its report soon.

It is rumoured to be 150,000 words long.

In 1917, Lenin required only eight to make his reform recommendations: "Landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without any compensation." Of course, the father of the Russian Revolution didn't have the issues of tenant farmers' right to buy, the Crown Estate, common good land, taxation and succession to wrestle with. However the LRRG's much criticised interim report last year had little to say on the subjects anyway.

But the establishment of a Scottish Land Agency might yet define the future direction of land reform. The idea was proposed by Community Land Scotland (CLS), the umbrella body for the community owners of the likes of Assynt, Eigg and Gigha.

In its submission to the LRRG, CLS argued that such an agency should have compulsory purchase powers to secure greater community ownership. It visualised a Competition Commission-type role in respect of Scottish land.

However, with purchase powers as a backstop, voluntary agreements between communities and landowners should be at the heart of the agency's work, not hostile buyouts, according to CLS.

The body would hold land for onward transfer to communities and/or to create new agricultural holdings for lease or purchase. LRRG is interested. We wait to see if it will outrage landowners by recommending compulsory purchase.

But others have long since established a right for the local public interest to be represented in the rural property market. The French have Safer (Société d'aménagement foncier et d'établissement rural), the "land development and rural establishment society" created after pressure from the young farmer's union. A government agency, it has the right of first purchase on most rural property.

According to the French agency's English language paper, The Connexion, around 200,000 acres a year are bought by Safer and "sold to whoever is judged to have a project in the public interest". This can be a farmer or wine-maker, a local authority or a body such as a national park or coastal protection agency. Ironically Safer's powers are not totally unlike the previously unlimited feudal right of pre-emption private landowners enjoyed for centuries in Scotland until reformed by Holyrood.

But Safer's powers don't extend to compulsory purchase. It can only pre-empt at the sale price. But if that is deemed too high, Safer can go to court for a judge to decide the price.

With this body, a principle has been established that the local impact of any sale is first assessed before it can proceed. According to the website French-Property.com, "this really gives carte blanche to use it when they wish, provided the purchase is in the interests of the maintenance and development of the farming fraternity or the local environment".

The model might not suit Scotland, but there are plenty who believe the principle would be appropriate, given that 50% of private land is still in the hands of around 430 owners.

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Agriculture

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