Attitudes to land reform: research

This report outlines the main findings from research exploring public attitudes to land reform.

1. Introduction

The Scottish Government aims to improve "Scotland's system of land ownership, use, rights and responsibilities, so that our land may contribute to a fair and just society while balancing public and private interests"[2].

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 provide substantial new powers for local communities. This includes the extension of community right-to-buy (CRtB) into urban areas, the introduction of a new CRtB for abandoned, neglected and detrimental land and an additional CRtB to further sustainable development. The 2016 Act created the Scottish Land Commission, and the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement was published in 2017 as a requirement of the Act.

Building on existing legislation, these measures provide a range of opportunities for communities across Scotland to take ownership of land and land assets, as well as providing a strong conceptual framework for land reform aspirations. However, since the legislation of 2015 and 2016 there has been no in-depth research on what the public's understanding of land reform is. This meant a significant evidence gap existed around how much public awareness there is of land reform generally, particularly beyond those communities who have obvious or deep-seated ties to the land.

To inform priorities for the Scottish Land Commission in the run up to the five-year evaluation of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, the Scottish Government commissioned research to investigate the public's understanding, attitudes and priorities for land reform. The research was undertaken by Ipsos MORI Scotland and Scotland's Rural College (SRUC). This report sets out the findings.

The remainder of this section provides some background on land reform and policy developments in recent years. The next section outlines the aims of the research and the methods used. Section 3 places the findings in context by setting out the public's prior views on the perceived benefits of Scotland's land and the biggest challenges for the future. Sections 4 to 9 discuss the findings on specific aspects of land reform. Conclusions and recommendations are provided in Section 10.

Land reform in Scotland – background and policy context

It is widely accepted that Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in Europe (see, for example, Lorimer, 2000; Wightman, 2013) because of several historic factors, such as feudalism, succession laws, fiscal policies and agricultural support (Thomson et al., 2016).

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 introduced measures aimed at making greater diversity in ownership possible, through the establishment of a community and a crofting 'right to buy' and the establishment of responsible access rights (see Box 1).

Box 1 The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 contains three main legislative measures:

1. statutory non-motorised rights of responsible access over most land (and inland water) for all (Part 1)

2. a community (pre-emptive) 'right to buy' which gave eligible community bodies the right to register an interest in rural (settlements of less than 10,000 people) land and the opportunity to buy that land when it comes up for sale (Part 2)

3. the crofting community (absolute) right to buy, whereby bodies representing crofting communities may register an interest in land and purchase that land (regardless of whether the owner wishes to sell) subject to the approval of their application by Scottish Ministers (Part 3)

Uptake of the CRtB measures and conversion of initial applications into full community land/asset acquisitions has been limited. By the end of 2018 there were 236 registrations of interest recorded on the Register of Community Interests in Land[3] from 120 distinct groups - just twenty four of which have been activated (resulting in communities successfully acquiring the land/asset of interest using the full extent of the legislative process), with the remainder either deleted or remaining on the register as active registrations. It should be noted, however, that some of the deleted registrations relate to community groups which have successfully acquired land/other assets, but did so without using the full extent of the Act's legislative measures. The rate of community registrations slowed from 2008 onwards - the first 100 registrations took just over four years and the second 100 nearly eight years – although the number of applications has increased since 2015. This is, perhaps, influenced by increased funding availability and greater public awareness of land reform generally.

The Crofting Community Right to Buy (Part 3 of 2003 Act), which provided crofting communities with an absolute right to purchase land and other assets (that is, a potentially forced sale), fundamentally shifted the balance of power between crofting communities and landowners (Macleod et al., 2010). However, uptake has been limited, with only two crofting communities having submitted applications.

Despite this relatively low uptake of the CRtB measures, the 2003 Act is recognised as having had additional indirect effects, motivating buyouts which occurred through negotiation (as opposed to legislative routes) and instigating a power shift away from private landowners towards communities (Macleod et al., 2010; McKee and Warren, 2011).

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 sets out a range of measures designed to help community bodies through the ownership or control of land and buildings (Asset Transfer), and by ensuring their voices are heard in decisions about public services[4]. Part 4 of the 2015 Act contained a series of specific amendments to the community right to buy (established under the Land Reform Act 2003), intended to improve and simplify the process.

The Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in2016. The Act represented a substantial step in the development of land reform in Scotland and the culmination of decades of debate and inquiry. The 2016 Actincludes a range of measures designed to respond to the recommendations of the Land Reform Review Group from 2014[5] (see Box 2).

Box 2 The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 incorporates a range of inter-related provisions with the aim of progressing land reform and prompting change in how Scotland's land is owned and managed. Specific provisions under the Act include:

  • A requirement for development of a Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement[6](Part 1). Subsequently published in 2017, this aims to support the development of a strong relationship between the land and people of Scotland, where rights and responsibilities in relation to land are fully recognised and fulfilled.
  • Establishment of the Scottish Land Commission (Part 2) (subsequently established in 2017) with a remit to review the effectiveness of laws and policies relating to land (including future options for land reform), and to make recommendations to Scottish Ministers.
  • New powers for Scottish Ministers to provide for the disclosure and publication of information about controlling interests of land owners and tenants across Scotland and the establishment of a public Register of Controlling Interests inland(Part 3).In addition to this, but not directly related to the provisions of the 2016 Act , Registers of Scotland launched ScotLIS (Scotland's Land Information Service) in 2017 – a new map-based, online land information service on land ownership, with Registers of Scotland set to complete the Land Register by 2024.
  • Development of Guidance on Engaging Communities in Decisions relating to Land (Part 4). Published in 2018, this expects land owners and those with control over land to engage constructively with communities in rural and urban Scotland.
  • A new Right to Buy to Further Sustainable Development (Part 5) which follows the new Right to Buy Abandoned, Neglected and Detrimental Land (see Box 3 below).
  • A range of additional measures relating to sporting land management, access and agricultural holdings including: entry into the valuation roll of shooting and deer stalking (Part 6); changes in use of 'common good' land (Part 7); specific measures relating to deer management (Part 8); access rights measures (Part 9); and a range of measures relating to agricultural holdings (Part 10); and small landholdings (Part 11).

Box 3 Summary points from land reform expert interviews

Between March and May 2020, eight in-depth interviews were carried out with a range of land reform experts. The aims of these interviews were to inform the evidence review (Annex 1) and the development of the main questionnaire for this study. A full summary of these interviews is presented in Annex 1, with the main themes summarised below:

Public awareness of land reform policy

  • The Scottish public were perceived as having limited awareness of the effects of land reform, with the majority not directly involved in land reform debates. Interviewees noted that while the public may often perceive land reform as not affecting them, they may be more interested in, and affected by, issues relating to land reform than they realise.
  • Interviewees were in broad agreement that the public perceive land reform favourably for different reasons, with the caveat that this is the case for those who are aware of and have some understanding of the topic. Additionally, interviewees noted that once people are aware of the issues related to land reform, they often perceive some form of change as being required.
  • Interviewees agreed that public awareness of land reform should be increased, including in relation to awareness of the role of land and the current and potential effects of land reform on society. This was perceived as requiring a range of methods to open up the debate beyond those who already have vested interests in land reform, including social media, infographics, short films and case studies.
  • Several interviewees agreed that public awareness of land reform is increasing, noting that "land reform is becoming less polarised".Interviewees agreed that the public are most likely to be aware of land reform in relation to responsible access and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) and community land buyouts.

Perceived effects of land reform policy

  • The majority of interviewees noted that there is a perception among the general public that land reform mainly effects and is only relevant to communities in rural areas. Nevertheless, this urban-rural separation was said to be undergoing a shift, with land reform perceived as increasingly relevant to urban contexts, such as in relation to abandoned/derelict land and communities aiming to purchase land in the South of Scotland or the Central Belt.
  • Several interviewees discussed the Scottish Land Commission as important for increasing awareness of land reform, including through: i) providing new information and statements; ii) helping to redefine the land reform agenda through raising awareness of the benefits to Scottish society; iii) researching areas that are less obvious in their link to land reform; and iv) increasing awareness among young people.
  • There were some differences between the views of interviewees on the effect of land reform on the general public. This was mainly due to a perceived lack of clarity on what constitutes land reform and the view among some interviewees that certain specific groups were more directly affected by land reform. Specific important current and potential future effects of land reform recognised by interviewees included increasing access to land for housing, bringing derelict land into use for community benefit and addressing underlying issues of rural depopulation(for example, housing affordability and youth out-migration).

Main challenges relating to public awareness and understanding of land reform

  • Three main challenges were raised in relation to increasing public awareness, understanding and engagement with land reform: i) the complexity of the planning system, which is perceived as inaccessible, requiring specialist knowledge, and off-putting; ii) clarity of land reform policy with the cross-sectoral and multi-faceted nature of land reform resulting in confusion as to what it is in practice; iii) the effect of community capacity on outcomes, with well-resourced communities often better positioned to take advantages of the opportunities of land reform legislation.

Re-engaging the public in land use decision making and land reform

  • The majority of interviewees agreed that the current levels of community engagement in land use-decision making are not sufficient.
  • Several interviewees noted that to engage people effectively and increase wider societal awareness required a reframing of land reform discourse. This should move beyond existing terminology and stereotypes, towards clear identification of specific measures and outcomes, the beneficiaries, and the relevance of the concept to all (rural and urban) Scottish people.
  • Effective capacity buildingwas widely recognised ascritical to ensuring informed and inclusive community engagement across all communities (including disadvantaged communities) and avoidance of volunteer fatigue.

Future thoughts

  • Community ownership was recognised by interviewees as being in a relatively early stage of development as a sector, with the fulloutcomes likely to be better understood over the longer term.
  • Most interviewees agreed that the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement is improving societal engagement with the land and improving relations between landowners and the general public.



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