LANDOWNERS who fail to sign up to a new public register declaring what they own have been given a further year to do before facing a fine.

The extension has prompted the Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba to accuse ministers of "backtracking" on a commitment to deliver more transparency over land ownership.

The register was designed to enable communities and individuals to have access to information enabling them to find out who has a controlling interest in land and was promised as part of an aim by ministers to improve transparency of land ownership

It launched last Spring and provides key information about those who ultimately make decisions about the management or use of land, even if they are not necessarily registered as the owner, including overseas entities and trusts.

Landowners were required to register from 1 April 2022 but a one year 'transition period' to April this year was given before fines of between £200 to £5000 - would be handed out if they hadn't signed up.

However, the transition period has now been extended for a further 12 months.

A policy note published by the Scottish Government states: "The register requires the registration of the owners and tenants of land (known as recorded persons), and persons or entities who have control over how the recorded person uses the land (known as associates).

"The register came into force on 1 April 2022. However, there is a transitional period in respect of the offence provisions. This transitional period is due to come to an end on 1 April 2023.

"This instrument amends the 2021 regulations to extend the transitional period by 12 months to 1 April 2024."

Ms Villalba said the hold up showed ministers were not serious about delivering greater transparency.

"In Scotland there is appalling inequality in land ownership, yet ministers are backtracking on their very timid proposals," she told the Herald on Sunday.

"The Scottish Government's plans would leave the bulk of land in the hands of a tiny number of extremely wealthy individuals. But now the government has even watered down these plans which it promised would deliver much greater accountability and transparency. There is no convincing excuse from the government for this delay.

The MSP is now working on a consultation to bring forward her own bill which would see a limit placed on how much land someone is allowed to own. She has previously suggested the limit could be set at 1500 to 2000 acres and is calling for Holyrood cross party support.

"A small number of wealthy individuals and companies own most of Scotland's land, and it's unacceptable that the public will be denied the right to know who they are for two years. I am determined to press ahead with a consultation on a land justice bill to introduce a cap on ownership to ensure land is managed for the benefit of all Scots.

"However, the SNP and Greens at Holyrood must work with Labour MSPs to end this hugely symbolic inequality, as well as ending secrecy about who owns Scotland's land," she said.

The proposals have also been criticised by church leaders who say they will place “unmanageable administrative burdens” on local congregations with the legislation covering church property such as churches, halls, manses and glebes.

Church leaders say that while are not opposed to the principle of the register the way the new register has been designed will will it difficult for  them to comply.

They are concerned that members of a church, who may not realise they have to provide information to the register, will face fines for not providing details of what land that church owns.

They also say it is likely to cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal and administrative costs and require additional support from volunteers.

They want ministers to adopt alternative arrangements to ensure that the policy aim of achieving transparency in this area is met while also recognising the legal structure of congregations and take account of their reliance on volunteers.

Church leaders say the Scottish Government have failed to recognise their concerns and have not responded to the their suggestions.

The register will particularly affect the Church of Scotland, Scottish Episcopal Church, United Reformed Church due to the way their internal structure.

Ms Villalba said: "Meanwhile, ministers must address concerns from church leaders, some of who have criticised the government's proposals as flawed and overly bureurcatic.  

"Scotland needs legislation to deliver genuine land justice and tackle the entrenched inequality in land ownership, rather than timid plans that create administrative burdens for the faith community."

The provision for the register was included in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 which contained reforms such as a community's right to buy land for sustainable development.

It also established the Scottish Land Commission whose aim is 'to provide direction, leadership and strategic thought to land reform in Scotland', and to ensure ownership and management 'contributes to the collective benefit'.

Stephen Young, Head of Policy at Scottish Land & Estates, said: “We are fully supportive and committed to transparency of landownership and have been working with landowners to fulfil their obligations under the controlling interests register and also completion of the Land Register by 2024.

“It is a complex and time-consuming process for all, including private owners and charities, and also for Registers of Scotland who are overseeing the register. We believe allowing additional time for the register to be completed is the correct approach.”

The Scottish Government plans to introduce a new land reform bill later this year in a bid to better regulate land ownership.

Among the proposals are a public interest test for transfers of large landholdings, and making sure owners give community bodies notice if they intend to sell.

The new measures would also ensure those applying for land based subsidies have their property properly registered to help improve transparency.

Launching a consultation on the plan last year land reform minister Mairi McAllan said that if action is not taken "we risk international corporations and individuals buying up swathes of land for their benefit.

"That risks communities being left behind and would be tantamount to a second clearance. That is exactly what we need to avoid."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land (RCI) was introduced on 1 April 2022, with unanimous cross-party support. Key stakeholders, including religious bodies, were involved in developing these regulations.

“Bodies within the scope of RCI can and should continue to register. However being mindful of challenges faced by religious and third sector organisations, including the impact of Brexit, the pandemic, and the ongoing cost crisis, we propose to extend the transitional period by 12 months, easing the burden on those in scope of the RCI by giving them more time to prepare their submissions before offence provisions take effect. Officials have written to key stakeholders to make them aware of our intention to introduce legislation to provide this extension.

“The remit of the RCI has not changed and those in scope must continue to register, however in recognition of ongoing pressures on religious bodies, charities and other third sector organisations, these provisions simply afford more time to register before it is an offence not to do so.

“Subject to Parliament’s approval, offence provisions will take effect from 1 April 2024, and all those in scope of the RCI are still expected to comply with the requirement to register.

“The Scottish Government and Registers of Scotland will work together to deliver an engagement plan to support stakeholders through the process. We would encourage everyone who is eligible, to engage with the process as early as possible, and give themselves plenty of time to register before the 1 April 2024 deadline.”

The Land Reform Minister met the Church of Scotland and other churches in September last year and Scottish Government officials continue to engage with them on this issue.