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Mapping out a fairer model of land ownership

A year ago, the Scottish Government's advisory Land Reform Review Group was criticised after publishing what many regarded as a timorous interim report on how land ownership in Scotland might be changed.

Now with its final report, the mouse has roared.

The group, set up to advise ministers on how to ensure more people have a stake in the ownership of land and to assist the acquisition of land by communities, has put forward some radical proposals to support those aims, several of which are common- sense measures which could assist the best use of land in the public interest.

It wants to limit the amount of land any individual or company can own. While this proposal has upset landowners, it echoes the Scottish Government's strongly stated desire to bring about a fairer distribution of land ownership and give as many Scots as possible a say over how land is managed.

The First Minister has said he wants to double the amount of land under community ownership to one million acres by 2020, while Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse has said he would not have designed a system whereby only 432 owners have half the private land in Scotland. How radical such a move would be in practice would really depend on where ministers set that upper limit.

There has also long been disquiet about the constraints facing local authorities where a landowner leaves derelict land vacant and neglected in urban locations, hindering regeneration efforts. The creation of a compulsory sale order for local authorities should therefore be given serious consideration by ministers.

Meanwhile, improving the recording and transparency of land ownership is long overdue and the powers of the Crown Estate Commissioners in managing Scottish land are an anachronism. Either under independence in the event of a Yes vote in September or as part of a further devolution settlement following a No vote, transferring the commissioners' powers to Holyrood should be a priority for all parties.

Landowners and their supporters have responded to the report as if it were a fundamental attack on their rights. They have expressed some anger at a failure to spell out their positive social, economic and environmental contribution, and oppose both the suggestion that communities could enforce the sale of land against owners' wishes and the furthering of right to buy for tenant farmers. Certainly, ministers should consult widely before implementing the measures but' in reality, it is not only large private estates that would be affected; it would also be institutional landowners such as the National Trust or RSPB, and even smaller property holders.

All would have to adapt. Progress cannot be made towards fairer land distribution and management in the public interest otherwise.

The Scottish Government's will to diversify land ownership could not be more clear and its hand is strengthened by this report. The question now is whether ministers will be bold enough to follow through.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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