Having recently submitted Bidwells’ consultation response on the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, our overriding advice to land owners or potential land owners is to ensure that a solid business plan for the land in question is in place which covers any eventuality.
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which the Scottish Government passed last year, is wide reaching in its effect, so you can be forgiven for losing track of exactly the changes it has brought in.
The Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement is an outcome of the recently passed Act. This Statement lays out six draft principles to guide policy relating to land reform and will eventually be used as the basis for the work of the new Scottish Land Commission which will review relevant law and policy and make recommendations to the Scottish Government. Of course, the draft principles may be subject to change once the consultation responses have been analysed, but the raison d’ètre will ultimately remain the same – to create a consistent vision running through Government policy and the work of the new Scottish Land Commission. This ‘statement of intent’ will be relevant to all land in Scotland both rural and urban, owner occupied and tenanted, agricultural and commercial. When preparing the Statement, Scottish Ministers were to take into account factors including promotion of human rights, supporting and facilitating community empowerment and increasing the diversity of land ownership.
There is no doubt that land reform has been a topic of debate for many years and there have been numerous proposals, objections and campaigns during this time. However, now the legislation is real and this Statement will set the tone for future debates and policy. If you have any interest in land, now is the time to start thinking about how it might affect you. All landowners need to engage with the process and make decisions as to how their property is managed, let or sold.
Land reform in Scotland has considerable focus on community ownership and encourages a shift in how Scotland is owned, with a presumption running through the Statement that communities are best served if they own the assets they use. A concern I have is that whilst this may be the best model in certain circumstances there are many cases where funding for maintenance of community buildings and land is not possible in the long-term without significant public subsidy. I have known many circumstances where communities have use of buildings, such as a village hall, where the ownership remains private and the owner heavily subsidises the necessary costs, thus allowing long term use of the building rather than having financially unsustainable community ownership of the same. It would seem that such landowners have gone unrecognised in this debate, despite their ongoing support for their communities. But it is true now, more than ever, that owners of land must accept the responsibility that comes with ownership and be open to collaborations with community groups.
In working for clients ranging from private individuals and companies, tenants and community groups, we can see the challenges faced on all sides. With so much uncertainty at present with Brexit and possible Indy Ref 2 it might be tempting to forget about the impact of Land Reform while you consider the effects these political moves may bring. However, do not bury your head in the sand, it is essential to consider all of these matters together and their impact on any interests in land you have.