Holyrood’s Land Reform Bill proposals spark rural debate

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An argument has broken out over Scottish Government proposals in its Land Reform Bill which was published this week.

Local Conservative MSP John Lamont has described the bill as a cynical “land grab”, while Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead, said it was a way of preventing poor land management affecting economic development.

Land reform was set out by Nicola Sturgeon shortly after she became First Minister late last year, when she said that land “must be an asset that benefits the many, not the few”.

It has been claimed that more than half of Scotland’s privately-owned land belongs to fewer than 450 people, making it, in the eye of some, the most unequal country in Europe.

Among the most contentious proposals are the end of tax relief for shooting estates and the forced sale of land if owners are deemed to be blocking economic development.

Sporting estates have not had to pay business rates since 1994 after they were granted an exemption from them by John Major’s Conservative government.

Now the Scottish Government is proposing to use monies raised by ending that exemption to treble the Scottish Land Fund, which helps support community buy-outs of land.

The Fund’s coffers could swell from £3 million this year to £10 million a year from 2016.

Holyrood has a target of doubling the amount of land held in community ownership to one million acres by 2020.

However, landowners claim that reintroducing business rates could make some sporting estates unprofitable and thus force rural employees out of work.

David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, which represents private landowners, has 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”.

John Lamont said the proposals did not address peoples’ concerns: “People in the Borders want to see a strong rural economy, more local jobs, better broadband and an improvement in local services.

“These proposals won’t deliver any of this. Instead, they represent a huge increase in government interference in land ownership and a £7m tax bill for estates which employ hundreds of people.”

The Scottish Conservatives published their own alternative land reform proposals as part of a rural action plan earlier this year. These included extending rural broadband, boosting affordable housing and working with owners to ensure land was best used for the local community.

Mr Lamont continued: “It beggars belief that the SNP believe it is acceptable in modern Scotland to allow the Government to force private landowners to sell just because they don’t like what they are doing with their own land.

“This Scottish Government needs to see landowners as part of the solution, not part of the problem, and must recognise the contribution estates make to rural economies and rural jobs in the Borders.”

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead countered that the proposals worked in the interests of the Scottish public.

Speaking at Holyrood last week ahead of the Bill’s publication, he said: “This is not about land grabs.

“This is about sorting out those areas where quite clearly economic development in this country, which is after all in the public interest, is being hampered by who owns the land and how it’s managed.”

He added that ministers “should have the tools to intervene” on behalf of the people of Scotland to “make sure that communities are able to have much more say over their own destinies, their own futures”.

Another rural viewpoint was provided by Mike Halliday, vice-chairman of the Scottish Tenant Farmer Association, who felt that the proposals could help avoid an “impasse” in which the land and people who run it suffer.

He said new land reform legislation could encourage landowners to develop a working relationship with their tenants, to everyone’s benefit.

Mr Halliday, who rents a 300 acre farm from Buccleuch Estates at Thornhill, added: “I think some of the worst examples are landowners that don’t want to invest themselves, but don’t want their tenants to invest either.

“There’s this kind of impasse where there’s nothing happening and the whole infrastructure of the farm, you can see the whole place falling apart.”