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Our communities and the ownership of land

It will come as no great shock to anyone who is following the debate on land reform in Scotland that property consultants have voiced concerns about Scottish Government proposals to change the law around land ownership.

While observers might doubt these companies' objectivity (they market Scottish estates), that does not invalidate their points. These deserve to be taken on board as proposals take shape on making it easier for communities to acquire land.

John Bound, partner and head of CKD Galbraith's estates division in the Highlands, suggests an impression has been created "for political purposes" that "people willing to invest are somehow considered undesirable". Ministers might object to that characterisation, arguing that their intention has always been to promote community ownership, not monster private landowners, but it is not altogether surprising that their approach and that of land reform campaigners is being thus interpreted.

There ought to be acknowledgment of the good work of those landlords who bring investment and steward the Scottish countryside in a responsible manner.

CKD Galbraith say Scotland desperately needs successful entrepreneurs who can invest in the Scottish land and its people, amid fears that investors could be put off by the talk of potentially far-reaching reforms. These reforms are still under discussion, but the Scottish Government has set up a Land Reform Review Group to consider how to promote greater diversity of land ownership in Scotland. A separate proposal under consideration is to give tenant farmers an absolute right to buy.

Scotland does, indeed, benefit from having responsible landlords but there is also an important principle at stake. A great deal of private land remains in the hands of relatively few individuals.

First Minister Alex Salmond has announced he wants to double the amount of land under community ownership to one million acres by 2020. Meanwhile, Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse has said he would not have designed a system whereby only 432 owners have half the private land in Scotland.

Nor would most voters. There is strong backing for the notion that land should be owned by the ordinary people who live and work on it; how responsible and involved landowners happen to be is not the key point.

Scottish ministers are right to challenge the status quo in the interests of ensuring a greater proportion of Scotland's privately held land is community owned, though setting targets in this area is of questionable value.

Ministers can ease the process of buying land for communities but they may struggle to create demand by communities where it does not exist. A true transformation of the pattern of land ownership in Scotland is likely to take many years.

Further land reform is necessary, but voters will be best served by a calm and reasoned debate, one in which the positive aspects of the status quo are given due consideration.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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