Land Reform

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at on 21 March 2019.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on land reform. It is still a source of pride for me that the Scottish Liberal Democrats put land reform right at the heart of the legislative programme in the early years of the Parliament, promoting rights of access and delivering the community right to buy and the crofting community right to buy through the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

That was always envisaged to be a first step, in the recognition that an incremental approach would be necessary in taking forward a genuinely ambitious land reform agenda. It began the process of addressing a policy area that had been ignored for far too long, and it signalled powerfully the positive difference that a devolved Parliament could and should make.

As the SPICe Spotlight blog highlights,

“Prior to devolution, Government policy on land reform was widely considered to be conspicuous by its absence.”

The blog concludes that

“the development of land reform as a distinctive policy area, centred on communities and sustainable development, is perhaps one of Parliament’s more noteworthy actions.”

Of course, Conservative MSPs in successive parliamentary sessions have for whatever reason felt the need to oppose almost every phase of the land reform agenda. I even recall some members referring to Mugabe-style power grabs. I agree that the case for an absolute right to buy has still not been made, but I do not accept that there is not more that we can and should do to reform how land is owned and managed, how decisions about its use are taken and how the benefits of one of Scotland’s most important assets are felt.

Edward Mountain’s earlier comments were characteristically considered but, sadly, his amendment gives the impression that, even now, Tory members do not accept the need for further reform. After they have been dragged kicking and screaming to this point, the remainder of the journey seems likely to follow a similar pattern. That is unfortunate, not least because Mr Mountain and a number of his colleagues have a great deal to contribute to the debate.

Underlying the case for reform is the Scottish land rights and responsibilities statement from 2017, which refers to a Scotland

“where all land contributes to a modern and successful country, and where rights and responsibilities in relation to land are fully recognised and fulfilled.”

It would be difficult for anyone to disagree with that sentiment, although I recognise that people will come to different conclusions in response.

The Scottish Land Commission has done excellent work in pulling together key themes as well as offering a number of recommendations for the way forward. Edward Mountain is right to say that it will take a little time to digest the detail—indeed, the commission accepts that it will need to consult extensively on its proposals before coming to a final view.

Given the proposals’ significance, it seems inevitable that there will be a lively debate about them, and that is to be welcomed and encouraged. However, it would be premature at this stage for the Parliament to call on the Government to accept all the recommendations, so I do not support the amendment in Claudia Beamish’s name. By contrast, Andy Wightman calls on us to accept the findings of the commission’s report, and I have less difficulty with that. The commission has taken extensive evidence so far, and the analysis appears to be reasonably balanced and to take account of the wide range of arguments on the issue.

The decisions that the Government and the Parliament should take on the back of the commission’s findings are for another day, but Scottish Liberal Democrats are certainly happy to support the findings. In particular, I recognise the pressing need to bring more transparency to who owns land. That is critical, whatever decisions or approach we take. If nothing else, clarity over ownership is fundamental to accountability and to equity when it comes to paying taxes.

However, it is clear that such clarity and transparency are some way off. Andy Wightman recently described the Scottish land information system as “next to useless” and, to her great credit, Kate Forbes did not entirely dispute that view, although she used rather more ministerial language.

It is clear that there are many aspects to the issue that are worthy of debate, but I will use the remainder of my time to focus on the valuable contribution that the Scottish land fund makes. That collaborative initiative between the Scottish Government, the Big Lottery Fund and Highlands and Islands Enterprise awarded more than £500 million in 2017-18, which made a significant contribution to communities across the country.

In my Orkney constituency, sizeable awards were made last November to three development trusts. More than £147,000 was awarded to Westray Development Trust for the purchase of the former harbour master’s house in Pierowall, which will be transformed into four apartments for affordable rent that will help to respond to the acute shortage of accommodation on the island.

Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Development Trust was granted £260,000 for the purchase of the Trumland estate on Rousay, which took 15 per cent of the island into community hands. Community ownership will create part-time employment opportunities for a project manager and a ranger, as well as allowing the trust to explore improvements to broadband and mobile connectivity. Finally, Papay Development Trust received £187,000 to purchase a four-bedroom detached house that will help to meet the urgent need for long-stay affordable family homes for rent on the island.

The land fund was set up to help to build resilience in communities across the country, and there is no question but that those three projects will do exactly that.

From my regular visits to the isles in recent years—and having been brought up on Sanday, one of the north isles—I know how much of a priority the availability of housing has been. Without suitable accommodation, it becomes impossible to create and sustain jobs in the isles. Ultimately, giving communities the tools that they need to address the specific challenges that they face and take advantage of the opportunities that they have is absolutely the right approach.

That, in a sense, encapsulates for me what land reform should be about. On that basis, we in the Scottish Liberal Democrats are committed to playing our full part in taking forward the next phase of this important agenda.