Home Opinion & Columnist Andy Wightman: Why I am not Robert Mugabe

Andy Wightman: Why I am not Robert Mugabe

by reporter263

One of the more tiresome and ill-informed memes that arises whenever land reform is discussed in Scotland is the allegation that it is some sort of “Mugabe-style land grab”.

On any fair-minded assessment, the legislation that has been passed by the Scottish Parliament this week bears no relation whatsoever to events in Zimbabwe over the past fifteen years.

Land is a finite resource. Access to land is therefore governed by the willingness of those who own it to transfer it to others who may wish to buy it. In a developed market economy like Scotland this can work perfectly well but the nature of a finite resource means that there is inevitable market failure.

WITH one week to go until the fourth session of the Scottish Parliament ends, the Land Reform Bill was agreed to yesterday. This Bill is important and marks a watershed in land relations in Scotland. Although no one measure is of itself very radical, taken together, this is a significant piece of legislation.

The commitment to establishing a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and a Scottish Land Commission will do nothing directly to change the pattern of landownership. But it is an important move to ensure that land reform remains on the political agenda in future. This in itself may well turn out to be the most enduring legacy of the Bill. One of the reasons this legislation has taken so long to arrive is because the Scottish Government abandoned land reform in 2007 and didn’t get going on the topic again until 2012. Land reform will not happen without sustained, determined and vigorous effort.

Other measures in the Bill, such as bringing shooting estates and deer forests back in to the non-domestic rating system are welcome, but only serve to highlight the fact that amendments to do the same for vacant and derelict land were defeated. Transparency has been one of the topics in the Bill that has attracted greatest public attention. Again, proposals to bar ownership of land by companies registered in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies were defeated and, instead, regulations are to be introduced in the next Parliament.

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Tenant farmers emerge as one group who can sleep easier at night, thanks to a substantial strengthening of their rights and the Scottish Government is to be commended on the manner in which it stood up to sustained lobbying from landed interests. Smallholders, however remain the poor relation of the tenanted class, with none of the rights that have been granted to crofters and tenants since 1999.

Communities, too, have a new suite of rights to acquire land that they need for sustainable development.

Adding to a growing body of rights, the legislative landscape is now rather complicated for voluntary community groups to navigate and ensuring that people have the knowledge and capacity to exercise these new rights remains a significant challenge.

Altogether, this is a historic piece of legislation.

Land reform is back and the opportunities and challenges for the next Parliament are to enact the voluminous secondary legislation to make the Bill work and to bring forward further reform on the wide range of land reform topics not captured in this Bill such as inheritance law land taxation, land information, housing, compulsory purchase and Crown land governance.

The level of engagement with the legislative process has been encouraging and MSPs such as Sarah Boyack, Patrick Harvie and Mike Russell have all worked hard to strengthen what started as a much-less-ambitious Bill. Land reform is a generational project.

Much remains to be done over the next 20 years, but this is as good a start as could have been hoped for.

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