Land sale public interest test proposed in Scotland

A public interest test could be introduced ahead of land sales in Scotland as part of plans to tackle the “monopoly” of ownership and its effect on communities.

The Scottish government asked the Scottish Land Commission to examine how the concentration of social, economic and decision-making power affects communities across rural Scotland.

The commission published its report, Investigation into the issues associated with Large Scale and Concentrated Land Ownership in Scotland on Wednesday (20 March), along with recommendations to ministers.

See also: How Scotland’s land reform is affecting sales and tenant farmers

It is based on evidence provided by more than 400 people, including landowners, land managers, community representatives and individuals.  

It found that concentrated ownership hampers economic development and causes serious and long-term harm to communities.

It recommended that a public interest test for “significant land transfer” be implemented.

Scottish Land & Estates, which represents landowners and farmers, and NFU Scotland have called the report’s conclusions concerning, but it has been called a major milestone by the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association (STFA).

Findings and recommendations

The report stated that most of the disadvantages associated with Scotland’s current pattern of land ownership do not relate to the size of landholdings or any particular type of landowner.

It added that the pattern of market and social power in concentrated land ownership has parallels with monopoly power in other sectors of the economy.

In addition, there is currently little or no method of redress for communities or individuals adversely affected economically or socially.

Hamish Trench, CEO of the Scottish Land Commission, which was formed in 2016 to oversee ongoing changes implemented by the Scottish Land Reform Act, said:

“Good management can of course reduce the risks associated with the concentration of power and decision-making, but the evidence suggests that adverse impacts are causing significant detriment to the communities affected.

“The reforms we propose are a first step to address the significant issues identified in the evidence and move towards a more diverse and dynamic pattern of land ownership.”

The recommendations include the requirement for a management plan, a statutory land rights and responsibilities plan, the promotion of more diverse private ownership, and more local engagement in land use change.

See also: Scottish land reform – what farmers need to know

‘Deeply concerned’

Sarah-Jane Laing, executive director of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “We are deeply concerned that the report still sees land ownership rather than land use as the prime route to dealing with issues being faced by communities.

“Nor does the report adequately reflect the positive and substantial contribution made by rural businesses.

“We also want to see more detailed and compelling examples to support the report’s claim that concentrated landownership is damaging fragile communities.”

NFU Scotland has also long argued that land use rather than ownership should be the focus of policy direction.

It is pleased the report notes that concentration of power over decision-making is a more significant factor than scale of ownership.

NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick said: “Farmers will be concerned that the report implies that there could be even more interference in how they go about farming.

“Farming is difficult without others interfering with normal daily practices.

“We note that the Scottish Land Commission has stated its intention to work with stakeholders to develop its ideas further.

“NFUS will continue to ensure that its members are represented at the forefront of these discussions.”

See also: Scots tenants urged to complete amnesty before scheme end

Welcome recommendations

In contrast the STFA has welcomed the report and in particular its recommendation that local communities should be allowed a greater role in influencing the planning and decision-making process.

Christopher Nicholson, STFA chairman, said:

“STFA is acutely aware of the impact a monopoly of landownership can have on tenant farmers, rural communities and those who live and work on the land, and is pleased to see these concerns are a key feature of the report. 

“There are still some pockets where land ownership is concentrated in a few hands and tenant farmers have found themselves reluctant to speak out and consequently unable to take advantage of opportunities to diversify or invest in their holdings.”

The Land Commission is a government agency that describes itself as working to create a Scotland where everybody benefits from the ownership, management and use of the nation’s land and buildings.

It was established following the passage of the Land Reform Act 2016 by the Scottish parliament and incorporates the role of the tenant farming commissioner.

The commission will hold a series of events and public meetings on the report and its recommendations this year, culminating in a land reform conference in October.