Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (Countryside Access)

Environment and Rural Development – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 15 March 2007.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 2:15, 15 March 2007

To ask the Scottish Executive whether it is satisfied with the implementation of the provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 in respect of access to the countryside. (S2O-12342)

I declare an interest as president of the Ramblers Association Scotland.


Hear, hear.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I am satisfied with the progress that has been achieved in implementing the access provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. However, there will be scope within the wider review of the act, which we have indicated will be undertaken during 2007, to consider any matters relating to the access provisions.

I welcome the appointment of Dennis Canavan to the post that he mentioned. Future ministers will have to listen carefully to his representations.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

Is the minister aware of the complaints that have been made about the diversion of access funding, given that local authorities received £29.2 million in access funding up to March last year but spent only £17.4 million on access-related activities? Is she also aware of complaints that have been made that the access code is being breached in some areas, including on Balmoral estate, and that some landowners are challenging the 2003 act in the courts? Will she investigate those complaints and remind local authorities that they have a statutory duty to uphold and facilitate access? Will she remind them that selfish landowners must not be allowed to undermine one of the most radical and progressive pieces of legislation that the Parliament has passed?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Further funding of £8.1 million for 2006-07 and 2007-08 for access-related activity has been made available to local authorities across Scotland in the grant-aided expenditure assessment. That money is not ring fenced, but I hope that local authorities will take seriously their responsibilities to implement the provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

The principles of the act were widely supported, and its provisions have secured wide acceptance in practice. However, I am interested in Dennis Canavan's concerns. I would be concerned if people believe that landowners are ignoring or deliberately breaching the access code. Obviously, I do not want to comment on any court cases, but I point out that the access code was subjected to wide consultation and a lot of discussion and negotiation. The final wording was not reached easily, but local authorities, landowners and groups representing those interested in securing wider access were involved in putting it together. I would be grateful if Dennis Canavan would write to me about any particular examples that I need to be made aware of.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

Will the minister provide an update on the latest situation with the Pairc court case, which involves crofters from the Lochs area of Lewis? Those crofters are trying to secure the land that they live on, in spite of the best efforts of an absentee landowner, who is trying to thwart the crofters' legitimate aspirations. That landowner is similar to the landowners to whom President Canavan referred. Furthermore, will the minister outline what the Executive is doing to help to ease the problems that are posed by interposed leases?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

The minister must be careful, as sub judice considerations may be involved.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

The Scottish Land Court is now considering the Pairc case. A contribution of £16,000 has been received from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It is expected that the first substantive hearing will take place in June. Matters are therefore progressing.

On interposed leases, section 35 of the Crofting Reform etc Act 2007 will enable community bodies to purchase any lease with a commercial value over croft land that they wish to purchase under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. The provisions of the 2007 act will come into effect in June—I recently announced that crofters will be able to take advantage of the provisions from June. The two acts will work together from that point.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I return to the issue of access. There appeared to be difficulties with the definition of "curtilage" in relation to access. I was among the majority who agreed that "curtilage" should not be defined in the act. In the light of the legal actions that have been taken, is it time for us to reconsider the difficulties that might arise as a result of the lack of a formal legal definition of that word?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

As I said, we intend to carry out a wide review of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 in 2007. I do not want to comment on any court cases. If members who were on the committee that examined the 2003 act have specific concerns—I know, from questions that Pauline McNeill has asked me, that concerns exist—we would be keen to hear from them.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Does the minister agree that the Scottish outdoor access code was intended to be a guide to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 for all matters within that act and that it was not meant to deal with responsible access only, but was meant to deal with what land was accessible? Does she further agree that the spirit of the act was to provide no less access than was previously enjoyed and that there is a danger that Parliament's will when it passed the 2003 act, which was to give wide access, might be undermined by some local authorities and court decisions? Can the minister reassure me that, when the act was passed, it was compliant with the European convention on human rights and that it is still compliant? If she has any concerns about the act not being compliant, will she advise members of that?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

The Executive certainly has no concern about the 2003 act not being compliant with the European convention on human rights.

I would be concerned if Pauline McNeill took the view that we are getting less access. That was absolutely not the intention of the act. Again, I say to members that we will review the issue during 2007. It is difficult to discuss this in the chamber, although I know that the bill was debated line by line in detail by the committee. A review is the proper way of assessing the issues.

If members have concerns in the meantime, it would be appropriate for them to contact ministers.