Rob Gibson MSP: Amending stage of the Land Reform Bill – a time for sustainable development

19/01/2016
CommonWeal

SNP MSP Rob Gibson writes for CommonSpace on the Land Reform Bill ahead of the next stage of the process this week

I READ the press and pressure group comments about how amending the Land Reform Bill is down to hardy campaigners . Yes, but many of these operate inside Holyrood and indeed inside the RACCE committee charged with the Bill’s scrutiny and development .

You would think that the oft repeated tale of grassroots SNP members demanding a more radical Land Reform Bill was like a cattle prod to the Scottish Government to apply the Land Reform Review Group report to the letter.

In fact, the quiet work of dialogue and debate inside the parliament has focused minds on ways to enhance the original proposals. Giving them a cutting edge that campaigners outside Holyrood would wish also requires knowledge of various lobbyists’ perspectives and of MSPs’ own engagement to influence the Bill team’s response.

You would think that the oft repeated tale of grassroots SNP members demanding a more radical Land Reform Bill was like a cattle prod to the Scottish Government to apply the Land Reform Review Group report to the letter.

Happily, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and specific human rights lawyers along with Community Land Scotland have engaged in the substance of evolving the aims of particular sections of the Bill. A variety of MSP- and Land Reform Minister-proposed amendments have appeared for the first six parts of the Bill. More amendments will follow for parts seven to 10.

I can see that the land owners and their organisations have been hyperactive, applying various tactics. I have never heard from so many Lords, Earls and Dukes in my life. Take the Earl of Seafield, who wrote in the P&J Farming section on 16 January.

Discussing a proposed government amendment said to allow secure 1991 tenant farmers to assign their tenancy to new secure tenants, Lord Seafield says this “will clearly impact on the property rights of landlords…”.

That view has been echoed by other noble lords as proprietors of agricultural tenanted estates. Yet no heed is paid by SL&E and its members to the shrinking of tenants’ rights since the 1948 Act.

In the contrary, SL&E’s spokesperson, Stuart Young from Dunecht Estates, warned RACCE last March that their senior counsel’s opinion saw an ECHR breach on open assignation proposals that could “ultimately leave the government with the prospect of a hefty PS600m for paying compensation to landlords”. So no pressure then?

I can see that the land owners and their organisations have been hyperactive, applying various tactics. I have never heard from so many Lords, Earls and Dukes in my life.

Peter Hetherington in his recent book, Whose Land Is Our Land, interviewed the Duke of Northumberland and his cousin the Duke of Buccleuch , who with many of their noble friends he dubs “property developers”.

Their interests are in letting land to maximise income while allegedly offering minimum security for their tenants. Feeding the nation appears to be a poor second, argues Hetherington, to keeping a grasp of every acre of Scotland’s soil where so very few own so very much.

While these tenancy matters will come at the end of this five week cycle of amendments to the Bill , the landed interest is getting in a polite lather. Alex Fergusson MSP speaking for them called the Bill “rushed”. According to their logic it should be a separate Bill in the next parliament, not now – not ever?

Clearly the lobbying gets intense as the Committee reaches stage two. I welcome the arguments and the government’s responses. Press comments have rarely analysed the detail but merely cut and pasted the various press releases. Pressure from commentators should not be mistaken for radical opinions that have grasped the complexities of making ECHR compliance work for the common good.

However, the general thrust of serious and often collaborative amendments will show that an overwhelming majority of MSPs support the radical thrust of the Land Reform Bill that puts human rights, rather than solely property rights, as the driving force of the public interest.

However, the general thrust of serious and often collaborative amendments will show that an overwhelming majority of MSPs support the radical thrust of the Land Reform Bill that puts human rights as the driving force of the public interest.

Richard Lochhead and Aileen McLeod wrote to the RACCE committee in early January: “In light of the stage one report, and the stage one debate, the Scottish Government will work to strengthen the Bill where possible to ensure that it will contribute to our core objectives for land reform:-

– Encourage and support responsible and diverse land ownership;
– Increase transparency of land ownership in Scotland;
– Help ensure communities have a say in how land in their area is used;
– Address issues of fairness, equality and social justice connected to the ownership of, access to and use of land in Scotland; and
– Help to underpin a thriving tenant farming sector in Scotland.



I believe the Scottish Parliament will see this Bill gets to be as sustainably radical as humanly possible at this time.

(Note: I write this as an individual but conscious of my role as RACCE convener for this crucial stage in the land reform journey.)

Picture courtesy of Scott Davies