Fri 05 May 2023

Further Scottish Land Reform on the horizon

Scotland is home to beautiful natural landscapes, from the rugged mountains and dramatic glens in the Highlands, to the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders.

And the way that land can be used is an important feature of our lives - it seems that every Scottish person in their late 20s fills their Instagram feed with photos of Munro-bagging conquests. 

So it's no surprise that land reform has consistently been a key policy of the Scottish Government, with its core aims being to:-

  • increase diversity of landownership;
  • bring about changes in land use; and
  • create more opportunities for communities to engage in decision making about land.

Scottish legislators have already implemented a number of land reform measures, and the next big push is the Scottish Government's commitment to bring forward a new Land Reform Bill (the Bill) by the end of 2023, which will make important changes to the framework of law and policy that govern the system of ownership, management and use of land in Scotland.

The Scottish Government's consultation 'Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation' (the Consultation) outlines their proposals for the Bill.

What is proposed for the Bill in the Consultation?

One of the aims of the Bill is to address the Scottish Government's concerns about the highly concentrated pattern of land ownership in rural areas.

The first three proposals contained in the Consultation are aimed at tackling this issue by:-

  • strengthening the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement;
  • introducing Compulsory Land Management Plans; and
  • introducing measures to regulate the market in large-scale land holdings.

The intention is that these proposals would only apply to "large-scale" landholdings (what is proposed to constitute "large-scale" is outlined within the Consultation) and so in general, the proposals would not apply to smaller landholdings and family farms.

The first proposal: strengthening the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement

The Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement (the LRRS), first published in 2017 and updated in 2022, lays out a vision and seven principles on land rights and responsibility in Scotland.

The LRRS and associated protocols set out practical advice on how landowners, land managers and communities can work together to make better and fairer decisions about land use. The LRRS is currently voluntary and relies on landowners and land managers engaging with it.

The proposal is that measures are introduced which would place a legal duty on owners of large-scale landholdings to comply with the LRRS. This would be accompanied by a statutory process to adjudicate on complaints about non-compliance and responses to breaches.

The second proposal: introducing Compulsory Land Management Plans

There is currently no legal requirement on landowners to make information on their management plans for their land publicly available.

It is proposed that any large-scale landholding owner will be required to publish a management plan. The Scottish Government believes that requiring such owners to make public their plans for land management encourages transparency and a recognition that land needs to be managed for public interest, as well as private objectives. It would provide a basis for local community engagement and enable the public to understand how land is being used.

The third proposal: introducing measures to regulate the market in large-scale land holdings

There are two strands to the Scottish Government's proposals for regulating the market in large-scale land transfers:

  • a public interest test; and
  • a requirement to notify community bodies of an intention to sell.

The purpose of the public interest test would be to assess whether, at the point of transfer, a risk would arise from the creation or continuation of a situation in which excessive power acts against the public interest. The test would apply (to both sellers and purchasers) to transactions involving existing large-scale landholdings and also where a large-scale land holding would be created.

The requirement of prior notification to sell builds on existing community rights to buy. The proposal is that landowners selling large-scale landholdings should give notice to community bodies that they intend to sell, affording them the opportunity to inform the landowner whether they are interested in purchasing and, if they are, allowing them time to negotiate the terms of the purchase and secure funding.

The Consultation contains a number of other proposals for inclusion in the Bill and can be viewed in full here. The responses to the Consultation (which closed on 30 October 2022) are being analysed by the Scottish Government and a report will be published in due course.

This blog provides a snippet of the Scottish Government's direction of travel. The Bill is expected to be introduced to the Scottish Parliament by the end of 2023 and it will be interesting to see how the proposals are implemented and the practical impact that they may have on landowners in Scotland.

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