Ignoring Economic Reality?
Weird Partial Land Reform Law in Scotland
Scotland has been in dire need of land reform for many years. Now it is taking steps in that direction, but the most important economic recommendations seem to have been ignored. True land reform for the benefit of the people requires tax reform, but this seems to have been overlooked. The result in Scotland is a weird shifting of special privileges, rather than an elimination of privilege.
Here are portions of an article appearing in The Scotsman.
by Hamish MacDonell
New life for communities or a curse on the landed gentry?The aim of the land reform bill has been to change a mindset, to give the public the confidence to know they can walk where they want, when they want.
The idea was to start from a presumption that all land is accessible - apart from certain specific parts which are out of bounds - rather than the traditional view that walkers could be hounded and penalised if they strayed from carefully constructed paths and routes.
This has been accepted by all parties and the measure will undoubtedly boost Scotlandís reputation as a haven for hillwalking and climbing.
But the real test of the access provisions will come over privacy. Many of Scotlandís estates rely on exclusivity to attract customers. Skibo Castle is the best-known example but there are many others that promise quiet seclusion for fishing, shooting, golf or walking and are desperate to protect their valuable niche markets.
The Executive agreed yesterday to amend the bill to give retreats such as Skibo the ability to bar the public from their grounds, if they can prove they have exceptional reasons and if this is endorsed by both their local authority and the Executive.
Another amendment passed by the parliament will open up the Queenís Balmoral estate to the public for the first time.
However, the access provisions account for only a third of the act and it is the rest that is likely to prove much more contentious - the right-to-buy proposals.
Ordinary rural communities will be able to have first refusal on their land if it is put on the market and they will be able to use public money to buy it, through the Scottish Land Fund.
Executive officials predict that between ten and 30 communities are likely to come forward in the first year and ministers are keen to make sure that there is enough money available for them to buy out their landlords.
There is also some doubt over the future of the New Opportunities Fund, which could leave the Executive picking up the bill for buy-outs in the near future.
The final section of the bill allows crofting communities to force landowners to sell their land and the sporting rights, separately if need be, even if the landlords do not consent.
It is this section that has provoked the most controversy and it is this section that is most likely to end up being dragged through the courts.
A quarter of the agricultural land in the Highlands and Islands is defined as crofting land with 12,000 crofts and 30,000 people living in crofting communities.
Two communities have already expressed an interest in forcing their landowners to sell up and more are sure to follow.
The compulsory purchase requirements will almost certainly be taken to the European Court if a landlord is forced to part with an estate against his or her will while the division of the sporting and mineral rights from the land could also be challenged under law.
The bill does represent a victory for Scotlandís urban ruling majority, forcing landowners to change access and land management practices for the first time in hundreds of years, but it represents more of a symbolic triumph than a practical one.
Scotlandís landowning interests warned that land values would drop, sporting estates would wither and investment would fall off as a result of the bill. The Executive argued that the bill would inject new life into Scotlandís rural communities, empowering local people and spreading land ownership to a much wider population.
It will take several years before the real effects are known. In the meantime, the courts will have to decide the rest.
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