Land Reform for the 21st Century
RT HON Donald Dewar MP
This speech was delivered in late 1998 and things have changed since then. For an update on what has happened since devolution please refer to the Scottish Executive Website at www.scotland.gov.uk and the land reform section in particular at www.scotland.gov.uk/landreform
This article is reproduced with permission.
It is a great pleasure to be here today to add my contribution to this series of lectures on the topic of land tenure. The original invitation, as many of you will know, was to Brian Wilson. I know that, given his long commitment to land reform, Brian particularly regretted having to pass on this engagement when he moved to other duties at the Department of Trade and Industry in July. I am delighted that as a result I was invited and am able to give this Lecture.
The previous lecturers in this series have all been academics: Bryan MacGregor, Jim Hunter, John Bryden and, last year, David McCrone. Why then did the Friends of John McEwen this year turn for the first time to a Government Minister?
The rubric for the Lecture series says :
"The role of the Lectures is to provide well reasoned, authoritative and ground breaking presentations by distinguished Lecturers on the subject of Land Tenure in Scotland. "
It is not, I think, that they have run out of academics. The key is in the words "ground breaking". For at long last, with the election of this Labour Government on 1 May 1997, we can move forward from talking about land reform to doing something about it. At last it is time for action not just words.
So what I hope that I can add to the portfolio of McEwen Lectures is the political perspective, to set that alongside the previous economic, historical, human geography and sociological perspectives of my distinguished predecessors.
Politics - it has famously been said - is the art of the possible. But it would be even truer to say that every time the Government changes as a result of the way people vote in a General Election, what was impossible yesterday becomes possible tomorrow.
But it would be wrong to see political reality being shaped only by the electoral process, or by elected politicians. The formal processes of government provide the means of change; but it is the informal processes of discussion and argument and consensus-building which matter most.
Nothing could demonstrate this more clearly than the way in which some political changes - like the Poll Tax for example - are here today and gone tomorrow. There was a majority in Parliament to vote the Poll Tax into law; but not a majority in the country at large to make it stick. It is an iron law of politics that changes which do not command the support of the people - as the Poll Tax clearly did not - do not prove lasting changes. In the end, it is the people and not the politicians who have the last word.
So, in the same way, any Government with enough of a majority can legislate for land reform. But unless that reform has enough popular support it will not last. What I want to explore today in this Lecture is how best the politics of land reform can deliver lasting change. Change that will command the support of the people throughout Scotland and that will meet the needs of the 21st century.
I propose to explore in turn 2 aspects of this:
|first I want to look at the political processes involved in creating the opportunity for land reform and then in ensuring that such opportunity is fully exploited; and then|
|I want to focus on what can be done as regards land reform for the twenty-first century.|
The General Election of May 1, 1997 provided Scotland for the first time in 18 years with the opportunity for action rather than words on land reform. And unprecedentedly we included in our Manifesto the specific commitment to:
"initiate a study into the system of land ownership and management in Scotland which will look, for example, at measures to encourage crofting as well as options for removing the rights of feudal superiority."
Accordingly, last October we set up the Land Reform Policy Group, chaired by John Sewel personally. Its remit is
"to identify and assess proposals for land reform in rural Scotland, taking account of their cost, legislative and administrative implications and their likely impact on the social and economic development of rural communities and on the natural heritage."
Why was the Manifesto commitment only to initiate a study, not to take action?
Well, of course a major reason for that was purely practical. Our overriding commitment to establish the Scottish Parliament was, we knew, inevitably going to consume a vast amount of legislative time at Westminster. And so indeed it has proved. There has been very little time for other Scottish legislation, nor will there be until the Scottish Parliament is up and running next year.
But there was the further reason that to secure lasting change we need legislation based both on substantive analysis of what is needed and what is practicable; and on widespread public consent. Our first task therefore has had to be to study what is required and to ensure that consensus was there.
And finally of course, there is undoubtedly a powerful symbolism - which attracts me greatly - of land reform being amongst the first actions of our new Scottish Parliament.
But even in advance of land reform legislation, we have been able - and very willing - to take action. A good deal is already being achieved within current legislation, given the political will which this Government has brought to the issue.
We have set up Highlands and Islands Enterprise's Community Land Unit. Its role is to give advice and support for community land purchases and other ways to increase community involvement. The Unit is working closely with a number of communities such as those at Assynt and Eigg to help them assess and then exploit suitable development opportunities.
Before the take-over, Eigg was a high-profile example of the wrongs that land reform in Scotland needs to right: a series of absentee landlords who did little or nothing to benefit - and much to mar - the lives of the people who lived there. Since the take-over, it has been synonymous with the opportunities that can flow from self-determination and the removal of barriers to development.
Secondly, Orbost. The aim of SALE's purchase of Orbost is to respond to need by providing a base for a wide range of housing and economic activity; and so enable a greater number of families to live and work in and contribute to the economy of the Dunvegan area than could have been possible otherwise. So far, the signs are very encouraging that Jim Hunter's vision is being borne out. I hope that we can build on the lessons of Orbost and apply them in other suitable locations.
Then there is the Initiative At the Edge. It is aimed at small fragile communities, particularly on the islands and on the west coast, where population is falling and where economic growth seems to have passed them by. It brings together action by Government agencies - Highlands and Islands Enterprise and its network of local enterprise companies, Scottish Homes and the Crofters Commission - and local government in an integrated approach to removing the constraints which stifle opportunities for growth and development. The key factor - because all the evidence is that this makes all the difference between success and failure - is that the communities themselves choose to participate. It is not driven by any sort of nostalgia for the past, but by our conviction that all our communities however small or remote can make a vital contribution to Scotland's development in the 21st century, and that, where there is continuing decline, it represents a loss to the fabric of Scotland as a whole.
And most recently, the Government has asked HIE to establish a Land Purchase Fund, and provided resources for that Fund. This Fund has a distinguished precedent. Back in the 1940s, Hugh Dalton established the National Land Fund (NLF) in his post war Budget. Many of the properties throughout the United Kingdom to which public access is enjoyed today were obtained for the social interest during the brief operation of the National Land Fund. The land acquired under the fund was not for the state to own. The state was the conduit through which the land was passed to organisations such as the National Trust, the Youth Hostels Association and the Ramblers Association. The purpose of our new Land Fund, comprising an extra quarter of a million pounds initially with a further million pounds annually for the next three years, is to provide a dedicated source of funds to support community-based land purchases or purchases by the HIE network itself.
None of this has required new legislation. It is about using existing machinery and existing resources in new and more appropriate ways to make a real difference for the people of Scotland. It is a practical demonstration of this Government's commitment to land reform, a payment on account if you like.
But all of this is just a beginning.
We are now close to having our own Parliament in Scotland again. Nearly a year ago now, on 11 September last year, the voters of Scotland massively endorsed the Governments proposals to establish a new Parliament for Scotland. The Scotland Bill is now making excellent progress through Parliament, and we are on track to hold the first elections in Spring next year, and have the Parliament up and running soon after.
Would John McEwen have voted No/No? Maybe. He was undoubtedly a lifelong anti-devolutionist. He favoured a strong central State, and saw anything else as a diversionary tactic. But I like to think that even he would have been persuaded - as were others who had been sceptical about previous devolution proposals - that this time we had got it right. That these proposals will give us a Scottish Parliament worth having, which will enable us to take decisions in Scotland about issues that matter most to Scots.
As I said in my foreword to the Scotland White Paper:
"This reform will not in itself solve the problem of resources or banish the dilemmas of government. What it can do is connect and involve people with the decisions that matter to them. It can bring a sense of ownership to political debate and a new confidence to our affairs."
The momentum behind Scottish devolution is overwhelming. It is an idea whose time has come. There can be no better example of what I was talking about earlier: a change which self-evidently commands public support.
The creation of the Scottish Parliament is a huge step forward for Scotland. But it is in itself only a means to an end; and it is what the Parliament will do rather than what it will be that matters. I personally cannot wait to get past the stage of putting the Parliament into place and to start using the Parliament to benefit Scotland.
With the advent of the Scottish Parliament, there will be for the first time a real sustained opportunity to debate at Parliamentary level the policies which are right for Scotland. And because the Scottish Parliament will be drawn from all parts of Scottish life it should be able appropriately to reflect the diversity of Scottish interests and concerns. A significant factor not perhaps widely appreciated as yet is that the new voting system will enhance the influence of rural voters. All in all, the Scottish Parliament is the right forum for land reform.
It is clear that we need an integrated programme of land reform legislation - sweeping away outdated land laws, properly securing the public interest in land use and land ownership, increasing local involvement and accountability - to fit Scotland for the 21st century. Such a programme needs to deal, not just with the highly publicised circumstances of the big Highland estates, but with land-related problems in all their diversity throughout Scotland. There are problems in the urban areas too. One currently notorious example of this is the situation of the Carbeth Hutters. Another is leasehold casualties, which have blighted the lives and properties of residents of such non-rural areas as Boghead and Lesmahagow. It is simply unacceptable that clauses in archaic titles deeds can be picked up and enforced by unscrupulous landlords, so that the residents find themselves facing large and completely unforeseen bills. There can be no place for this in modern society. More generally, reform of the feudal system will also benefit all parts of Scotland. Many aspects are onerous, outdated and oppressive. The trick will be to keep the beneficial parts while getting rid of those which are old-fashioned and harsh.
I don't know yet how many pieces of legislation all of this will require. What I do know is that, with the advent of the Scottish Parliament, we shall have at last the means to legislate in Scotland for Scottish land reform, without risk of our concerns being squeezed out at Westminster.
Scotland has had to wait a long time for the formal political processes to provide the opportunity for land reform; but that opportunity is now about to arrive.
I pay tribute to the role that these John McEwen Lectures have played in raising the profile of land tenure issues as important; and in developing intellectually credible ways forward. The Lectures were first set up at a time when change seemed a pretty remote possibility. The political context in which change could be taken forward was not yet in place. The then Government could see no need for change. Nor was it for the most part a high priority on the popular agenda. The Lectures have in their various ways focused on getting across the message not just that change is possible; not just that change is necessary; but also that change is inevitable.
I believe that we have gained immeasurably from this. Any process which helps to build a consensus is valuable: just as the work carried out within the Scottish Constitutional Convention made it easier for the Government to hit the ground running as regards proposals for the Scottish Parliament, so the McEwen Lecture series, and the events that happened around and about it, have been part of an invaluable process of preparation for action.
A second strand of the consensus-building process is of course the continuing work of the Land Reform Policy Group. Its first consultation paper, published in February, was deliberately aimed at explaining to as wide an audience as possible why we need land reform:
"Land reform is needed on grounds of fairness, and to secure the public good. The Groups initial review of the evidence indicates that present systems of land ownership and management in rural Scotland still serve to inhibit opportunities for local enterprise."
The Group then went on to set out what the Government sees as the basis for land reform:
|that the key objective is to free up the land resource, and remove the land-related barriers (well illustrated for example by the history of Raasay and more recently Eigg) to the sustainable development of rural communities; and|
|that it is crucial that sustainable development should take a integrated approach to the key areas of economic, social and environmental policy.|
There is no doubt that this first consultation paper reached a far broader audience than most previous writing and debate on land reform. We were all delighted at the strong response: in all over 360 written responses from right across the country. This clearly demonstrates the way interest in these matters is growing. The Group has analysed carefully all responses to the questions raised in its consultation, and the issues raised by respondents. These have informed and enriched the Groups second consultation paper which we are issuing today. This second consultation paper sets out an emerging vision of land ownership and land use for the future; and seeks to identify the best ways of achieving this.
The Group's target is to issue its final report by the end of 1998, in time for its conclusions to inform the elections to the Scottish Parliament. It is possible that some action can be taken sooner. But the main purpose is that its work should provide the Scottish Parliament with an agenda for early action on land reform. It is clear is that the Group has been able to identify a large number of plausible options which are both attractive and feasible. Deciding on an initial programme of action will of course mean selecting from these options, but even if, after consultation, the list for immediate action is cut down by half or even more, there will still be a sizeable agenda for the Scottish Parliament to pick up.
The Parliament will also inherit the work undertaken by others, including the group commissioned by the Scottish National Party to study land reform issues, under the chairmanship of Professor Allan Macinnes. I very much welcome this as a contribution to the process of developing a common agenda for action. A remarkable degree of agreement is now developing about what needs to change and about the broad approach which should be adopted. It is for example striking how closely the emerging vision of the Land Reform Policy Group is complemented by what the Macinnes group have to say about their key aims.
So I believe a clear consensus is emerging about how we should be taking land reform forward. There is still a good deal of work to do to translate that vision into detailed proposals. But the mutual good will on all sides to be part of that development process is now very evident.
It is common ground right across the political spectrum that the status quo cannot last. It is common ground also that new legislation should look forward to the needs of the 21st century rather than backwards to punish the sins of the 18th and 19th centuries.
So all the signs are that the Scottish Parliament will inherit a well-founded, well-supported and extensive basis for early action. Then it will be up to the MSPs to deliver.
How the Scottish Parliament goes about its business will of course be a matter for the MSPs themselves. But all the signs are that the public will want them to operate in as open and as inclusive a way as possible. Public expectation - and I hope the preferences of the MSPs themselves - should lead to the development of arrangements that involve a wide range of civic society in the evidence-collecting and decision-making processes. Let me quote from the White Paper again:
"The Government expect that the Scottish Parliament will adopt modern methods of working; that it will be accessible, open and responsive to the needs of the public; that participation by organisations and individuals in decision-making will be encouraged; and that views and advice from specialists will be sought as appropriate."
I hope that this will apply as fully as possible to how that Parliament takes forward action on land reform. In taking forward legislation on land reform, for example, I hope that the Parliament will take ideas from all quarters. And I hope that it will at least consider holding some sessions away from Holyrood, so that people who will be most directly affected by land reform can be fully involved in the process of building a better Scotland.
It is important that we see land reform as an ongoing process, not just a matter for a quick fix once and for all. I hope that there will be early legislation; and I hope that such legislation will be extensive. But inevitably there are going to be aspects which will require further work, whether to sort out the technical implications or indeed to explore whether or not some ideas are worth doing at all. The Land Reform Policy Group makes this point in the second consultation paper, and I find that a particularly encouraging signal to the Parliament.
And there are bound also to be new ideas emerging all the time. New challenges, new opportunities, new problems, new solutions.
So we must assume that there should also be a longer-term agenda for study and development of further options for later legislation. Some of that will need to take place within Government: it is pretty difficult for example to get fully to grips with land taxation issues without access to the Government machine. Some of it undoubtedly will benefit from being put in the hands of the Scottish Law Commission. But a great deal of the thinking up until now has been done outwith Government, and it is clearly sensible to continue to tap into that, for example through commissioning development work from universities and other consultancy sources.
All of this so far has been essentially about the machinery of change:
|for creating the climate and preparing the ground;|
|for creating an agenda for early legislation; and|
|for further development in the longer term.|
Now let's turn to the content of that change.
We start from the view - amply supported by the vast bulk of the responses - that reform is needed. A very few argued otherwise, but the rest amply demonstrated the need for change. To take one typical example
"We think that it is great to be given the opportunity to put forward our problems with the strangle hold that the present feudal system has on this island."
"The Scottish Crofters Union welcomes this land reform initiative and the consultation process now established to elicit views on how this should be brought about. The SCU has been a consistent campaigner for land reform within the Highlands and Islands, with particular relevance to crofting and its role within the economic and social development of many rural areas. We consider this an opportune time to make legislative advances that will secure much wider involvement in the control of land within the country."
John McEwen would certainly have agreed with that sentiment. His book "Who Owns Scotland?" changed Scottish consciousness forever. Its origins lay in his anger about the inequity of power which flowed from the inequity of control of the land. He summed his attitude up as follows:
"All my life I have been close to the land. There is, however, nothing soft or sentimental in my attitude towards it. Rather a deep growing concern over the past 60 years for the way in which it has been managed, which has led to its present degraded, underdeveloped condition. In the main, this is due to its ownership by powerful, selfish, anti-social landlords."
That is still essentially true. The landlords of today may be - as the Scottish Landowners Federation claim - much less selfish, much less anti-social. Many private landowners are the mainstays of local communities - and local economies - and are clearly part of the solution, and not part of the problem. But there are still instances where lack of investment and long-term neglect are blighting people's lives today just as much if not more than in the past. So the issue today - as it was in John McEwen's day - is still power: power to control the lives of others.
Power is still the issue. But how that power is exercised is different. The persons and bodies exercising the power can be different also - some public bodies nowadays come in for just as much stick as do some private landowners.
The kinds of solutions that John McEwen advocated so forcefully - solutions in which extensive land nationalisation figured prominently - are not plausible today, nor for the 21st century. John Bryden put his finger on it:
"Ownership of land by abstract but powerful entities like the State was felt by many as just as likely to create new forms of oppression as to remove the old ones."
The solutions for the future need to be about something other than simply substituting one sort of external authority for another.
And the context - the framework of central and local government powers, not to mention the ever-developing role of the European Union - is very different today, and will be different again in the future. So what we need are solutions tailored to the circumstances of the future, not to the circumstances of the past.
This point is made over and over again in the responses to the consultation paper. Let this one quotation represent the rest:
"It is easy to become very emotional when seeking ways of putting right the injustices imposed on the Scottish people over the last few hundred years. I believe that there is no room for such feeling when reforming our land policies as only solutions reasonably fair to all parties represented will stand the test of time."
It is precisely because that we need solutions which will stand the test of time that we cannot afford to be vindictive. We must not use land reform to settle old scores. We must let the past go, and look to the future.
And we cannot afford, either, to be other than realistic about what sort of future we want to create. Time and time again, the responses from people with close personal experience of the problems forcefully reject any sort of romantic view of what is needed:
"Our forefathers adopted a low input, varied system, accounting for cows, sheep, root-stock, some little oats, barley and wheat, and forage for the winter: a few hens and ducks. It was generally self sufficient on a small acreage, sometimes barely exceeding one or two acres. A man strove to support himself and his family. Anything left over would be given, or exchanged with his neighbours.
Now lets nail one myth. Nowadays, very few people could, or would want to survive like this. The work was too hard and not very remunerative."
I should acknowledge that a couple of the responses appear to hanker after the creation of an Arcadian peasant economy, turning our back on the industrialised world and providing each family with a couple of acres on which to grow cabbages and potatoes. Well, that may be their idea of Shangri La, but it certainly isnt mine. And it is very noticeable that those with first hand experience of rural life are the hardest-nosed about what is needed. They want the continuation of a rural way of life, and the quality of life that goes with it. But they dont see - and I dont see - why that should mean living in the Middle Ages when the rest of Scotland is entering the 21st century.
I have no time for those who seek to present the rural as a world apart, a cosy backwater somehow detached from the rest of society. Rural Scotland is made up of real communities with real needs and real concerns. These cannot be addressed by a sentimental attachment to what once might have been. They must be addressed by practical policies with practical outcomes.
Rural Scotland is not immune to the pressures which are bringing change to the rest of Scotland. The key drivers in our economy and society are as evident in rural Scotland as anywhere. The changes can be enormously beneficial - for example, IT which brings the possibility of high quality jobs into the remotest areas. One example of this was seen last week when the Prime Minister Tony Blair launched the National Grid for Learning from the school in Scalpay.
And there are also changes which have a particular bearing on rural Scotland. The whole way we think about land and the uses of land is shifting. The focus of the Northfield Report of 1979 purely on agricultural land acquisition and occupancy seems now remarkably out of date. What was once mainly simply a resource for food must now sustain other functions. The product of the land is now as much the tourist who comes to enjoy the landscape and its ecology as the piece of beef which lands on the supermarket shelf. Rural development is now as much about encouraging incoming economic activity on the back of quality of life as it is about realising the potential of the natural resource.
These changes are feeding through all the policy mechanisms which have helped to sustain rural Scotland. Gradually, we are even seeing a shift in the emphasis of the greatest mammoth of them all, the Common Agricultural Policy, away from production for production's sake to a wider focus on the whole needs of rural communities. The Agenda 2000 process will take some modest steps down that road. But Agenda 2000 will by no means be the last word in reform of the CAP or of the other instruments of support for rural areas which derive from European programmes. The implications for all rural areas of Europe over the coming decades are profound.
We need solutions that allow everyone in Scotland, no matter where they live, access to the fullest possible range of opportunities. We have just published our Rural Strategy which puts people and their communities at the heart of rural development, emphasises community empowerment and sustainable land development. Land reform is one means - and in many rural areas the key means - of achieving our rural development objectives by removing the barriers which prevent access to opportunity. To quote one respondent on this point:
"Scotland must take an important part in this new "Industrial Revolution" or be left behind. Land Reform plays a large part in this revolution. It can give the population of Scotland huge benefits if the infrastructure is put in place to help Scotland make a positive contribution. Rural economies can also benefit as there are no rules governing where you can operate from. The resource is the people. Rural population decline can be reversed, and the need for people to travel reduced. Information technology can unlock the door to this world, and Land Reform can encourage rural participation."
So what are some of these barriers to opportunity? Let me quote you some typical examples from the responses to the consultation paper. (I should say that the Group have access to some far more disturbing case-histories, but for entirely understandable reasons the respondents have asked for confidentiality and so I am not able to quote from them.) Here, for example, a tenant farmer tells of her situation:
"I deplore the fact that we are not free to diversify as we please to improve our income. I resent the fact that our home needs major repairs and our farm buildings, like others on the Estate, are falling down......It is my opinion that such estates have strangled the life out of Scotland, stifling progress for their own means and preventing people living on the land from having control over their own lives so that they, the landowners, can have a shooting estate to entertain their friends for a few weeks of the year."
There are many that are similar. The words "stifling" and "stultifying" recur again and again in these case histories. These are not people looking for an easy life; quite the reverse. These are people keen to make the best of the opportunities which should be available to them, keen to build a better life for themselves and their families and communities, but held in check by the action or often inaction of external powers.
I have to say that just occasionally these "external powers" are not rapacious private landlords: non-Governmental organisations, public bodies and indeed local authorities come in for a share of the blame, though I am glad that it is a pretty small share. But it concerns me that such organisations are to any extent part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We must put that right.
What sort of opportunities are being blighted? Put simply, anything and everything that can generate sustainable economic activity in rural areas. Heres one view:
"Nature study habitats, walks, picnic areas, wetlands all should be actively encouraged with bunkhouse accommodation. Cycle hire, mini-bus trips, jaunting car pony outings. The Irish are doing it very well. Anything done there could be done on the croft lands. Small business financed especially for the crofting lands highlighting the use of Gaelic our lovely language."
"...the sensible approach for the future growth of people and employment in the Highlands should be based on the long term viability of "quality, sustainable tourism" and the food industry. Additionally the growth of IT and tele-cottaging will enable more people to live on the "periphery of Europe"."
People have ideas. Not all of them will work. But, if the chance was there, some of them undoubtedly would. Land reform will help us put those ideas into practice.
So what needs to be done?
The Land Reform Policy Groups second consultation paper sets out a detailed vision of what a better future for Scotland in land terms might be. That detailed vision flows from two broad principles:
|that there should be increased diversity both across Scotland as a whole and at local level in the way land is owned and used; and|
|that there should be increased community involvement in the way land is owned and used.|
These are two straightforward, tremendously powerful, ideas, which the Group go on to turn into a series of options for action. Let me explore a little further these two overarching principles: of increasing diversity; and increasing community involvement.
First diversity. Some respondents to the first consultation paper felt strongly that there should be uniform solutions: nothing but private ownership (yes, a couple of landowners did actually say that); or nothing but smallholdings; or nothing but community ownership.
But others took the view that diversity is the better answer. One respondent put it particularly succinctly:
"Much of the land reform debate is suggestive of a holy grail of land ownership, an optimal model of tenure which should be replicated as widely as possible in the public interest. Such a model does not exist. A diversity of tenurial options is desirable, including community, voluntary, private and public. Only a pluralistic solution can engage the interest and benefit from the talents of the maximum number of people."
I agree with that. A mixed economy self-evidently works best, for example in business and in housing. It is the right answer also for land. That is why we need the contribution of the private landowner who manages his land effectively and considerately. The problems of the past, and the problems of the present, arise from too much control in too few hands, that is from the lack of diversity. We need to get more variety into the system. We need arrangements which allow the many and not just the few to have the future they want for their families.
Secondly, let me turn to the principle of local involvement in decision-making. Let me spell it out: we believe that people have a right to be involved in decisions about their lives, and we are intent on creating the means for people to be involved in such decisions.
At one end of the spectrum, that means making it possible for communities to own as well as manage their own land, as we have done for the people of Eigg and Assynt. But by and large communities opt for community ownership only when they see no other alternative. It is not an easy solution for communities, quite the reverse:
"Community land ownership brings with it responsibilities as well as challenges and opportunities. The burden of administration is heavy if the venture is to be a success and the compromise of ones own aspirations is almost inevitable..."
Mostly what communities want - and what we have to deliver for them - is an appropriate degree of control over local land. That does not necessarily mean ownership. It does mean recognising that the people who live there have a right to be involved in decisions about what happens. And its not just private landowners who need to recognise this: public sector landowners must be models of best practice.
We need to find ways of making sure that local people are brought into the decision-making process. To give them the right - and the responsibility - to contribute to decisions about how the land which they know better than anyone else should be used. They will not always be right. No-one is always right. But they are likely to make a useful contribution, and that must be worth securing.
But it is not just a matter of making sure that local communities have an opportunity to contribute. We must also make sure that they have the means to contribute. That means providing the resources to enable them to play their part, not just paying lip-service to the idea of community input.
Now I am not naive about this. I fully understand that making it possible for local communities to have a say in the decision making process affecting the land on which they live and work does not always mean that they will become actively involved in that process. It is obvious from experience over the years of the operation of school boards and community councils that when things are going well people are often happy to stay uninvolved. This will no doubt be the case when a landlord manages his property in a manner which is in tune with the views and wishes of the local community. Indeed we have all seen instances of local communities rallying to the cause of the landlord against external threats (often nowadays urban based environmental or recreational interests). The point is that we need to have mechanisms in place so that when things are not perfect and the local community is concerned it will have the means to make its views known and a real prospect that these views will be heeded.
So we need solutions which give local communities the means as well as the scope to contribute actively to decisions about local land issues. Otherwise we shall have the shadow but not the substance of real change. And in part that means that we have to tackle head on the issue of community right to buy.
I am aware that any proposal would have to take into account the formidable difficulties that this would present. The right sort of mechanism needs careful study. The mechanism might either kick in as soon as a property came on the market (in other words a pre-emptive right to buy), or be one that operated after the open market sale - somewhat akin to the art sale, where sales which would take a major work of art overseas can be stopped to see if the successful bid can be equalled within the UK. Either approach would provide for a community right to buy if within a given period they could match the market price, either the price set by the District Valuer or the price offered by the highest bidder. If they came up with the cash in time, they could acquire the estate; if they couldn't meet the deadline, the open market sale would go ahead.
We would need to define the legal entity which has the right to buy.
We would need to be sure that we were not infringing rights enshrined in the ECHR.
We would have to agree and define an acceptable level of local commitment to the purchase. Some form of ballot would be required, and a minimum level of support required to trigger the process.
We would need to allow for the involvement of parties other than local residents. This might include the local authority, quangos such as SNH, NGOs like the John Muir Trust, and in some instances neighbouring landowners. Where to draw the line without unduly limiting future action will be a big headache.
And to be blunt, we would have to close down as many routes as we can for landowners, who will of course have access to specialist advice, to circumvent or abuse the system.
Finally we would need to ensure that the wishes of the community did not automatically lead to a demand on the Government for funds - we cannot be the provider of all resources for this project.
Of course there would be problems and difficulties in the way of creating such a right. But I wish to be absolutely clear that I regard this right as an essential prerequisite of land reform. The problems must be overcome and the right must be established. I am determined to find the most effective way of giving communities a right to buy the land where they live, and time to put together the necessary bid. It would go further than any other step to change the whole atmosphere surrounding the land ownership argument, it would provide the essential backdrop against which the other changes would be seen, and it would do much to empower the people who work on and live on the land, giving them real rights, and a real say over their own destiny.
There is still a long way to go before we end up with final recommendations. The Group will want to take full account of all responses to this second consultation phase. But nonetheless let me summarise what I see as the most promising policy proposals emerging.
|The central need emerging is for the integrated forward planning of rural land use, involving all relevant interests including the local community. I am inclined to see this as part of - indeed at the heart of - the community planning process, rather than a separate function delivered by separate specialist local land councils.|
|To underpin these plans, there might be increased support for use of compulsory purchase powers for circumstances where such intervention seems necessary to help deliver these plans.|
|Also, where these local plans identify an estate as of key significance, new powers might be taken to allow time to assess the public interest in purchase if such an estate comes on the market.|
|And of course, as I have already signalled, community purchase, giving communities a right to buy where a sale is underway and where they can match the price the market sets.|
|Both private and public landowners could be encouraged (perhaps by means of a code of practice rather than legislation) to involve the local community in decision-making and to maximise so far as practicable their employment of local people.|
|So far as practicable, provision of public funds might be conditional on compliance with the relevant local plan and the code of practice.|
|In due course there may be a case for some changes in local land taxation, but further study is needed.|
|Public sources of information about land ownership and use could be pulled together and published to provide more readily available information. So far as possible, information about who receives public funding in relation to land might also be published.|
|There could be action to encourage - but not impose - greater diversity in agricultural tenancy arrangements and to simplify resolution of disputes on agricultural tenancies; and we are also asking for views on whether a limited right to buy for tenant farmers might be justified in certain circumstances.|
|New powers to create new crofts might be justified in certain circumstances where this would help sustain fragile rural communities.|
|There may be more that we can do to provide greater protection for people like Carbeth Hutters who own property built on leased land.|
|And finally I very much look forward to receiving from Scottish Natural Heritage options for reforming access legislation, another area where action is required.|
Let me by way of conclusion summarise the argument that I have set out for you today.
My theme has been the politics of land reform. The political process. And also the political content.
Firstly, in terms of process, I have reviewed what has happened to get us where we are today: the change of Government in 1997; followed by the creation of the Scottish Parliament. That has given us the opportunity for change.
Then over the past year the need to develop land reform from being a special interest topic to generating a popular groundswell in favour of change. That process of popularisation has led to a broad consensus both that change is required and about the main elements of what that change should be. That will give us the agenda for change.
By this time next year, that process of consensus-building should deliver us early legislation by the new Scottish Parliament on land reform.
Thereafter, we need to put in place arrangements so that further changes can be worked through and worked up. So that we can ensure that such legislation is not a one-off, but a down-payment.
Secondly, in terms of content, I have suggested that the key features of the right solutions are:
|that they are aimed at the future, not the past;|
|that they remove barriers to opportunity;|
|that they increase diversity; and|
|that they increase local involvement in decision-making.|
And finally I have given some suggestions of what I see emerging as the most promising solutions.
I am conscious - as I am sure that you are - of the momentousness of where we are now. Land reform is finally within our grasp. Every one of us has a part in making sure that it happens. I promise to play my part. I know that I can count on you to do yours.
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