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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Consulting on the land reform Bill 2014-15

The big asks – diversity, transparency and supportive land tax

Scottish Government consultation (2 December 2014 – 10 February 2015) results.

Which topics from the LRRG Final Report would the Scottish Government choose to include in its draft Land Reform Bill? When an independent analysis was conducted, after the required consultation that closed in February 2015, and a creditable 1,165 responses were sifted: 82% of these were by individuals while the remaining 18% were from organisations. The LRRG Final Report had made 62 recommendations. The scale of their survey could potentially take several parliamentary sessions, each of five years duration, to make the required laws. As it was, 11 topics were chosen in December 2014’s consultative document.

Following an opening question concerning the value of a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, a clear pattern emerged. Out of those who responded, 87% agreed with the need for such a vision statement. Those objecting felt it was unnecessary, or likely to delay business decisions or be another bureaucratic hurdle to business and interfere with the free market. These would be recurring themes.

Respondents indicated three clear priorities:

a) transparency of ownership and control;

b) diversity of land ownership; and

c) a supportive land tax regime.

Thereafter various topics obtained majority support in varying degrees. Of those responding:

• 75% were for establishing a Land Commission;

• 79% were for a limiting legal entities which could own land;

• 88% saw the need for clear up-to-date and accessible land information;

• 72% were in favour of public interest powers to apply tests to overcome barriers to

sustainable development;

• 79% wanted a more proactive role for public land management;

• 76% agreed that land owning charities must engage with communities affected by their


• 64% wanted proposals from the Agricultural Holdings Legislative Reform Group (AHLRG)

included in the Land Reform Bill;

• 71% wanted an end to the exemption from deer shooting rates;

• 71% saw a new legal definition of common good land as essential;

• 69% wanted more regulation of wild deer;

• and finally, most agreed that core path planning required simpler, more direct revision.1

On the other hand:

1 Scottish Government consultation, 2 December 2014 – 10 February 2015,

• 93% of landlords and their organisations opposed sustainable development tests and

suggested legal challenges would be likely;

• 50 out of 51 organisations were opposed the return of shooting rates while 52% of

organisations disagreed with tougher deer management;

• And 65% of organisations responding to the question disagreed that AHLRG

recommendations had any place in the proposed Land Reform Bill.

The cleavage between pro and anti-land reform sentiments was stark. What would the Scottish Government include in a draft bill?

Orkney opinions sampled on the bill consultation

Hearing the views of tenant farmers in Orkney, Islay, Dumfries and the Scottish Borders prepared RACCE members for tenancy questions ahead of other sessions with owner occupiers and landlords, which were organised in Orkney, Jura and Islay, Dumfries and on Roxburghe Estate in the Scottish Borders. Our committee programme of evidence taking on the Land Reform Bill process transported us on 7 June 2015 to a hearing as part of a Parliament Day event in Kirkwall, the Orkney county capital. RACCE members made several visits around the isles ahead of the formal roundtable hearing, which had been timed to precede the conclusion of the Scottish Government consultation. By and large, Orkney is farmed by owner occupiers who may, additionally, rent or own crofts. Only one landlord who had tenants was drawn to our attention and some committee members visited one of those tenants that day. It reinforced for us that tenancy relationships can be very strained and take years to work out changes as simple as building a modern dwelling.

The formal committee meeting that evening, in the ambiance of Kirkwall Grammar School, brought forth hostile views from Paul Ross, the NFUS Orkney branch chairman, that land reform was irrelevant to Orkney practices. However, the committee was determined to sample a wide range of views on the likely contents of the bill and decided to seek written submissions from interested parties with an early August deadline.2

Return to Skara Brae

The Parliament Day in Orkney allowed RACCE committee members to survey island and farming issues. Then they held land reform discussions with local representatives later that day. MSPs split up into groups to cover various topics. In fine, dry weather, only slightly chilled by the ever-present Atlantic wind, we arranged a guided tour of the ancient village at Skara Brae. It is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, a UNESCO World Heritage site hidden by the swirling sands of time for millennia till a storm in the Bay of Skaill blew away its earthen duvet in 1850. Historic Environment Scotland (HES) are its current custodians, fearful that climate change accompanied by rising sea levels could obliterate the ancient homesteads for good. Our visit flagged up rising sea levels, higher wave action and threats to such low-lying places.

Some years previously, as a Regional MSP, I had been asked by Orkney tour guide Bob Miller, an old friend of my partner Eleanor, to help him lift a veto by HES on altering their timeline interpretation on the path to Skara Brae. Bob had been guiding a Russian journalist, Alexander Korobko, who was to make a film of his visit to Orkney in search of one strand of his DNA that included elements from the Donbass and Rumania as well as far-flung Orkney. The travels of northern Europeans as far back as the Neolithic is well documented. Bob and Alexander visited Skara Brae in their research where they saw the series of sandstone blocks placed by the path from the visitor centre that takes you back in time from the present to 3,000 years BC. Mr Korobko was puzzled why the first block announced, ‘man lands on the moon’. The next, the ‘invention of the telephone’ and so on. Hadn’t the Russians been first in space? Why was there no acknowledgement of that pioneering epic journey beyond the Earth’s atmosphere by dogs and later Yuri Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts?

HES bosses in Edinburgh were unmoved by a request from the tour guide to remedy this. What if a case was made for a whole lot of other prominent world events to feature on their tablets of stone? So, Miller asked me to weigh in, which I did. Brushing off HES’s initial rebuff, I warned them I’d be visiting Orkney in the summer recess tour in 2008 and would make a very public call for a change of heart, even if embarrassing the heritage body was entailed. Surprisingly, HES agreed! A new block would be fashioned, local primary school children and a Russian cosmonaut would unveil the new tablet and I would join them on a blustery and showery morning on 10 April 2008.

HES insisted on running the show. In attendance were several Russian TV teams that filmed the scene. The HES organiser refused to change the timetable to avoid an incoming shower and so, along with Georgi Grechko and local children, Alexander Korobko and the Russian consul general in Scotland, I played my part in the plinth’s unveiling. Grechko recited part of Robert Burns’ universal anthem ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ That’ to honour Scottish and Russian friendship after the Saltire and Russian flags were pulled away to reveal the missing tribute to man’s first orbit of the Earth.3

I was delighted to return to the Skara Brae path in 2015 with other MSPs and point to its special stone. My colleague, Jim Hume MSP, kindly took my picture at the plinth and I regaled colleagues with a quiet conversation I had back in April 2008. I had asked one of the local guides,

'Did they forget any other significant stone on the path?’ ‘Yes,’ replied my informant, ‘the birth of Christ.’

Critics round on ‘modest Land Reform Bill’

After the publication of the draft Land Reform Bill, the BBC reported on opposition to the proposals: David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, which speaks for private landowners, had previously said that sporting estates were ‘too readily singled out in a negative light’, when in fact ‘they were businesses that made a key contribution to rural tourism, local employment and the environment.’ 4

And the Scottish Conservatives had criticised the government's proposed reforms as ‘a Big Brother style land grab’. Landowners underlined these views ahead of the Stage 1 hearings at Holyrood of our first evidence session on 2 September 2015.

From the opposite standpoint, Lesley Riddoch laid out her critique of the draft bill for radical reform. Her remarks were couched in deeply pessimistic terms. To her thinking, the Scottish Government seemed to find the business of reforming the ‘most concentrated, most inequitable and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world’ to quote Professor Jim Hunter in 2013 – fiendishly difficult.5

She went on to deplore the hysterical accusations of a Mugabe-style land raid and assertions that change is too complex, risky and unnecessary, which was the landlord position. It bore echoes of scaremongering against a Yes vote in 2014, she opined, while

for the majority (of voters) the debate will likely go right over their heads – couched as it is

in language that is now as remote as the prospect of ever owning a tiny bit of Scottish land.6

Following her call to end a tax exemption on non-domestic rates for derelict and vacant land, Riddoch excoriated the

nervous Scottish Government lawyers [who] blocked the even more modest proposal to all landowning trusts and companies to register in member states of the EU.

She claimed this would have stopped landowners from using offshore tax havens to avoid their details of ownership becoming public. If, Riddoch stated, this measure was not reinstated,

the public will conclude that ministers and MSPs are running scared of lawyers who in turn are running scared of landowner pressure.7

Transparency of ownership would lead our committee deliberations towards a radical set of proposals that Riddoch hadn’t dreamed possible when she posed her article’s concluding question – how much land reform is enough? That would be one trigger for an outburst of debate at the SNP Annual Conference held in Aberdeen six weeks later.8

In scrutinising the bill, the committee had continued to hear from, and engage with, as many people as possible across the country, and embarked on an extensive evidence-gathering and engagement exercise.


1 Scottish Government consultation, 2 December 2014 – 10 February 2015,

2 RACCE visit to Orkney, June 2015

3 Return to Skara Brae - ferries from Scrabster and Gills Bay and me at SB timeline insert

4 David Johnstone, BBC News, 23 June 2015

5 Riddoch, The Scotsman, 30 August 2015

6 ibid.

7 ibid.

8 RACCE, ‘Stage 1 Report’, December 2016

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