This week I took part in the Stage One debate on the Government’s Land Reform Bill. I would have liked to have seen the Government’s response to the stage 1 report before the debate. The Bill as it stands needs serious improvements.
Read on for the full text of my speech.
Land is limited. It is also emotional and personal. Our homes are on land, we live off the land and nations are defined by their land. We all need land, but access to and ownership of it are unequal. The land inequity in Scotland today is vast and totally out of step with the situation for many of our European neighbours. Patterns of land ownership in our neighbouring nations are typically 1,000 times less concentrated than in Scotland. Not only do relatively few people own most of Scotland but around a quarter of all estates over 1,000 acres have been held by the same families for more than 400 years.
That is the history that we live with today and which the Parliament is slowly beginning to overcome. As we have heard, land reform is a broad topic that covers rural and urban areas as well as the marine environment. The issue is inextricably linked to local democracy, fiscal policy, land prices and human rights. Scottish Greens have always seen radical land reform as a vital element of the journey towards a more sustainable, equal and prosperous Scotland. I hope that the bill is the start of the Scottish Parliament taking a renewed and sustained interest in the issue, whether that is through greater devolution, empowering local authorities through tax reform or community empowerment.
The provisions on transparency are important. The question of who owns and benefits from land is a key one, and I believe that the electorate are entitled to full transparency about who really owns Scotland. There is no simple way to deliver complete transparency but, unfortunately, the Government’s proposal is unworkable. Section 35 limits those who can make requests for information and section 36 contains no measures to compel any company in, for example, Grand Cayman to reveal anything at all about who is in control of it. The proposal is unenforceable and will continue to allow Scottish landowners to be involved in complex schemes of tax avoidance and evasion and secrecy. The best option on the table by far is to allow only EU-registered companies to own land. We welcome the committee’s recommendations on that point.
Fiscal reform is also a core part of land reform. I fully support bringing shootings and deer forests back on to the valuation roll. Of course no one likes to pay tax, especially if it is a tax from which they have had an exemption, but there is more than enough evidence that that should happen. As the land reform expert Andy Wightman puts it,
“Why should caravan sites, pubs and local shops subsidise those who occupy shootings and deer forests?”
He says that
“the hair salon, village shop, pub and garage are subject to rating”,
“deer forests and shootings pay nothing.”
As the land reform review group made clear:
“there is no clear public interest case in maintaining the current universal exemption of agriculture, forestry and other land based businesses from non-domestic rates.”
The conclusions of a House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee report this year raised similar concerns that the exemptions are not having the desired impact, that they should be open to the same level of scrutiny as other Government spending and that they could in fact be pushing up land prices and undermining the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the amount of land in community ownership.
Bold land reform is needed for Scotland, and it could help to deliver more affordable homes. Current rates exemptions for vacant and derelict land and for empty industrial buildings incentivise people to keep land in urban areas vacant. All of that land could be used for homes for people. There is almost 11,000 hectares of vacant or derelict urban land in Scotland and a massive demand for affordable homes. We heard earlier today that 54,000 households in Scotland are homeless.
What about the appalling situation in which Andrew Stoddart and his family found themselves? It brought tenant farming rights up the agenda again, and rightly so. Poor housing issues jumped out during the RACCE Committee’s evidence gathering, and I learned that homes under agricultural tenancies are exempt from the minimum standard. Clearly, there are improvements to be made in that area, and I support the calls for a tenant’s right to buy in specific circumstances.
I will flag up a couple of things that Scottish Greens think should be included in the bill. There are numerous examples of common land that is not on the register passing quietly into public ownership. We should create a new protective order for land without an identifiable owner, which should require the keeper to conduct a public consultation, to help to ascertain the true legal status of the land well before any title is registered. Finally, we have left on the statute book a piece of legislation called the Division of Commonties Act 1695. It was one of the legal tools that were used to privatise vast tracts of common land. The 1695 act should be repealed to protect the few patches of common land that remain and to signal our break from the land grabs of the past.
We will support the bill today, but there is much to be done before stage 2.