In marked contrast to the Highland clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries, which followed enclosure of agricultural land in England, last March the Scottish parliament passed sweeping land reform legislation intended to increase transparency, boost community ownership, end a twenty-year-old exemption from business rates granted to shooting and deerstalking estates and strengthen the rights of tenant farmers. The bill was passed by a majority of 102 to 14.
Regulation and implementation guidelines will be decided after parliamentary elections in May. Lawyers warn that more clarity is needed on provisions that give community groups the right to purchase privately held land if the government agrees that doing so will promote “sustainable development”.
A strengthening of the rights of tenant farmers, including the creation of a new form of limited duration lease, has been one of the law’s contested elements. Tenants will be able to assign or bequeath their leases to a wider range of people, a change that will encourage transfers to a new generation of farmers.
Some hope for further advances, addressing the over-concentrated pattern of ownership, where it is estimated that 432 owners account for 50% of the nation’s privately held land. A list of the top 20 Scots and foreign landowners was placed on the Highland Clearances website – now shut down. Another list has been found in the Sunday Post.
However, landowners have warned that the changes could be subject to expensive legal challenge, citing the experience of a previous round of Scottish land reform pushed by Scottish Labour. In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the 2003 law strengthening the position of tenant farmers violated a landowner’s right to protection of his property under the European Convention on Human Rights.
On 16 March 2016, following a final debate, the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill was passed but will not become an Act of the Scottish Parliament until it can be submitted for Royal Assent by the Presiding Officer. This means that the bill could receive the Royal Assent in mid-April, at the earliest.
The law aims to increase transparency of land ownership and control through a public register and was described as a major step towards a fairer and more open model of land ownership by Megan MacInnes – Community Land Scotland.