The land of Scotland and the common good: report

The final report of the Land Reform Review Group.

Section 23 - Rural Land Use

4 The relationship between land ownership and land use is straightforward at a basic level. As stated earlier in the Report, the ownership of land or land rights in Scotland conveys the right to use the land or rights as the owner chooses, subject to the legal terms of their title and the laws and regulations governing the use of land (see Part 2). Land use can therefore be said to flow from land ownership.

5 The choices of land owners over developments and changes of land use on their land which are covered by the statutory planning system are restricted by that system. There are also statutory controls over a wide range of aspects of rural land use including, for example, those relating to freshwater use and nature conservation. However, rural land owners can still be described as having considerable flexibility in how they choose to use their land. As the Scottish Government's Land Use Strategy comments " It is true that land owners and managers make most direct decisions about land use", before adding " but public influence strongly affects their decisions". [1] The examples given of how that public influence might be expressed are " through the market, the policies of elected representatives or wider community opinion."

6 An example of the flexibility of land owners' choices which was discussed by the Review Group is the many thousands of hectares of heather moorland in the Eastern and Central Highlands which are managed principally for grouse shooting and which could alternatively grow forests. It is an owner's choice whether they manage such areas, for example, for grouse shooting, commercial forestry, native woodland restoration, wild land to be left to develop naturally or a combination of these or other land use options. There is also generally considerable flexibility in how an owner might undertake one of these land uses, unless they are applying for a public sector grant and therefore need to conform to its standards and conditions.

Land Use Strategy

7 The Scottish Government's Land Use Strategy ( LUS) is a major development in the context of the current flexibility, as it provides a new public policy framework for decisions by land owners and managers about land use. The LUS, which was published in 2011, has the title 'Getting the best from our land' and starts from the point that " there is a wide consensus that we are not getting the best from our land". [2]

8 The LUS recognises Scotland's land as a finite resource and a fundamental asset which is subject to increasing demands and expectations, and that " the ways in which we use Scotland's land resources in the future will be critical to our economic performance, to our environment, to our sense of place and community, and to our quality of life". The Strategy " represents the Government's statement of policy on land use". [3]

9 The aim of the LUS is to promote land use decisions by owners and occupiers that are in accordance with the public interest, and this ambition is reflected in the Strategy's vision statement of " A Scotland where we fully recognise, understand and value the importance of our land resources, and where our plans and decisions about land use deliver improved and enduring benefits, enhancing the wellbeing of our nation". [4]

10 The LUS also has three objectives (economic, environmental and community) and ten Principles for Sustainable Land Use, which conform to the principles of sustainable development, and " also reflect the Government's policies on the priorities which should inform land use choices across Scotland". [5] The LUS brings a new integrated, public interest approach across different land use interests and reflects the increased importance in public policy of ecosystem services. This includes, for example, the new emphasis on public interest purposes such as flood control, water catchment management and carbon storage as primary land uses.

11 While the LUS is a policy statement, its development and implementation is an ongoing process involving many different 'stakeholders'. At present, the Scottish Government is carrying out pilot projects with two local authorities (Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire) " to give spatial expression to the high level principles and objectives in the Land Use Strategy and to explore the issues associated with the preparation of land use mapping / guidance in regional level frameworks". [6] This focusing down from national to regional levels is then expected to continue, in order to " provide guidance on what particular land uses might be most suitable in particular locations". [7]

12 The Review Group recognises that the Scottish Government's Land Use Strategy is an important development to encourage the use of Scotland's rural land in ways which contribute more to the public interest. The Group recommends that the Government should make rapid progress in implementing the Strategy across the rest of Scotland beyond the two pilot areas.

Mapping of Land Ownership

13 The ongoing LUS process will provide increasingly focused guidance on the most appropriate types of land use in the public interest in different locations. The Scottish Government has said this guidance will be followed by public bodies and that the Government will " strongly encourage" land owners and managers to operate in accordance with them, using incentives and other mechanisms.

14 The Review Group anticipated that indicative mapping of the pattern of land ownership would be a part of the extensive mapping work being undertaken in the pilot areas. This was on the basis that information on the pattern of land ownership is an important part of identifying those with a direct interest as part of stakeholder engagement over the LUS, and then also as part of encouraging the owners of land to act in accordance with the LUS. However, a decision was taken by the Scottish Government's LUS Steering Group and the two local authorities involved, that there would be no indicative mapping of the pattern of land ownership as part of the LUS pilot projects. This was because the Government and local authorities were concerned that to undertake such mapping would " risk losing the support of some key stakeholder groups who would perceive this as an indication that the LUS workstream is simply a stalking horse for a land reform agenda". [8]

15 The Group's view is that information on the pattern of land ownership should be a straightforward part of the LUS as it develops. If the Scottish Government is going to " strongly encourage" the owners of land in a locality to make land use decisions in accordance with the LUS, then information is needed on land ownership in that locality. This should be both as part of promoting appropriate land use decisions amongst the owners of land and as part of the practical requirements of implementing some land use policies. An example discussed in Section 32 of this report is the management of Scotland's populations of wild deer. These populations move across property boundaries and, as is recognised by the Scottish Government and land owners, information on land ownership is needed to know who is responsible for controlling deer numbers, as part of ensuring that the local deer populations are managed sustainably in the public interest. As a result, an existing example of the indicative mapping of land ownership is the maps that most Deer Management Groups produce of the property boundaries of their members, as illustrated by the map of property boundaries in the Cairngorms National Park in Fig. 22.

16 The Review Group considers that indicative maps of the pattern of land ownership above a size threshold such as 100-200 hectares, could be produced relatively straightforwardly in most parts of rural Scotland. One factor that helps this is the concentrated pattern of land ownership in rural Scotland, with a high proportion of the land owned by a relatively small number of large scale private estates (see Section 24). Maps could be built up from a range of sources, including the Land Register and the extensive information held already held by the Scottish Government on the owners and occupiers of land in Scotland. The Government's IACS (Integrated Administration and Control System) Field Boundary Dataset comprises of field boundaries covering 6.3 million hectares of land. [9] This is equivalent to 80% of Scotland's land area and information on the ownership and occupation of this land could be requested from those with agricultural and forestry land mapped as part of the dataset. A further 11-12% of Scotland's land area is owned by Scottish Ministers and other public bodies, while another 3% or more of Scotland's area is urban land.

Fig. 22 Land Ownership Pattern in the Cairngorms National Park

17 The Review Group considers that information on the pattern of land ownership should be an integral component of developing and implementing the Scottish Government's Land Use Strategy. The Group recommends that the Scottish Government should produce indicative maps of the patterns of land ownership in the Land Use Strategy's current two pilot areas, and in other areas as the implementation of the Strategy develops.

Reducing Flexibility

18 The LUS will be based on the large amount of information that Scotland has about the nature of its land resources and their main uses, which has been built up by many years research. This includes consideration of the suitability of different types of land for different types of land uses. An example is the map of Land Capability for Agriculture in Scotland in Fig. 23.

Fig. 23 Land Capability for Agriculture in Scotland

19 The LUS process will integrate these types of information to provide increasingly focused guidance on the most appropriate land uses in line with the public interest objectives and principles of the LUS. The Scottish Government will then, as stated earlier, " strongly encourage" private land owners and occupiers to make their land use decisions in the accordance with this guidance, by using incentives and other mechanisms.

20 The clear implication of the LUS process is that the general degree of flexibility that land owners currently have over how they use rural land that they own is going to reduce over time as part of the LUS's aim of ensuring the appropriate types of land use in the public interest in different localities.

21 In considering this context, the James Hutton Institute has described Scotland in terms of three land zones, identifying the middle one as the Squeezed Middle " which exists between quality farmland and high mountains, in which it is especially challenging to plan the right blend of land uses to best meeting policy objectives and societal demands". [10]

22 This middle zone is represented by land classes 3.2 - 6.1 on the map of Land Capability for Agriculture in Scotland ( Fig. 23). In Scotland's higher land class farmland, agriculture is the key public interest land use, while there are few land use options in the land classes of the higher and more exposed moorlands, hills and mountains, where environmental considerations should be dominant. In the middle zone by contrast, as the Institutes paper describes, " Those who own and manage it face multiple choices - it can support relatively intensive livestock farming and limited arable cropping: it often has high potential for tree growth, especially conifers; it contains some relatively intensively managed sport shooting land, especially grouse moors; and increasingly, some areas are managed for conservation or landscape protection. This area is also the living space for diverse rural communities". [11]

23 In the middle zone, as the Hutton Institute paper observes, " land use decisions are made not to optimise national outcomes but to satisfy land owners' predilections". [12] A key challenge for the Scottish Government in implementing the LUS will be resolving circumstances where private interest land use choices are not considered the most appropriate use of the land in the public interest. One of the key topics identified by the Institute is the management of better quality uplands, particularly in eastern Scotland, as moorland for grouse shooting. The Review Group anticipates that, in considering the balance between private and public interests in the ways Scotland's land resources are used, the management of these areas as grouse moor will become an increasing focus of attention as the LUS develops.

24 The management of moorland for grouse shooting is an extensive land use in Scotland, in that the estimated land area involved is over 1.5 million hectares. [13] Commercial grouse shooting can also be a significant economic activity in the parts of Scotland where it takes place and an activity which can be very important to those involved. Some grouse moors are owned as sporting estates, where it is the dominant land use and potentially the reason why the owner owns the land. Other grouse moors are part of mixed estates with other land uses including agriculture and forestry, and the grouse moors are managed as part of the wider estate economy.

25 The Review Group considers the question will become the extent to which the choice to continue managing some of these better upland areas as grouse moor, is judged the most appropriate option in accordance with the LUS as it develops. The Group's view is that the LUS has, as a public policy statement, changed the context from that in which grouse moor management has traditionally taken place.

26 A central aspect of this change is that the LUS has been produced as a result of Scotland's climate change legislation and reflects the new public interest agenda centred on ecosystem services, including water catchment management, flood control and carbon storage. [14] Within the changed context of this agenda, it seems likely that there will be increasing questions about the sustainability of relatively intensive grouse moor management, because of the degree of its reliance on muirburn and its potential environmental impacts. [15] This muirburn involves burning off the heather on grouse moors on a 10-25 year rotation to create a mosaic of areas of heather of different ages, as this potentially increases the number of grouse that a moor can support for shooting. However, this regular burning off of the biomass across a significant proportion of Scotland's upland environment also produces smoke into the atmosphere and an increased risk of siltation of water courses, as well as potential impacts on soils and increased rates of run-off from catchments maintained as open grouse moor, with the potential of increasing downstream flooding problems. [16]

27 Another aspect of this changed context provided by the LUS is the importance of a significant expansion of Scotland's forest area as part of the public interest agenda. This priority is reflected in Scottish Government policies to increase tree cover from the current 17% to 25% by 2050, because of the multiple public interest benefits that forests can bring. [17] However, the scope for this expansion is constrained by the extensive areas of land highly suitable for forests, which are managed as moorland for grouse shooting. Grouse moors are estimated only to account for 50-60% of Scotland's heather moorland. However, the implication is that there could be an increasing 'tension' in public and private interest land use decisions between forest expansion and grouse shooting on the lower lying grouse moors in eastern Scotland with high potential for forests. [18]

28 The Scottish Government already offers strong financial incentives to encourage land owners to create new woodlands and forests. However, there are a number of reasons why private estate owners with grouse moors might choose to retain them as that. One aspect of this is the high commercial value of the international demand for grouse shooting in Scotland. While this demand can produce good revenues from letting grouse shooting, it also results in grouse moors having a high capital value. This capital value, currently considered to be £4,500-£5,500 per brace of grouse shot on average, comes from the recreational and sporting value attributed by some to grouse shooting. [19] This tends to make the price of buying a grouse moor significantly more expensive per hectare, than would normally be considered when buying land for forestry. For a grouse moor owner, this high capital value can provide a strong disincentive to converting some or all of their moor into forestry, despite the public incentives to do that.

29 At present, the development of the LUS is still at an early stage. It therefore remains to be seen how readily land owners' land use choices will move in accordance with the LUS as it becomes more detailed. The Scottish Government is committed to taking forward the implementation of the LUS as a consensual process, while using " regulations and incentives and other mechanisms for encouraging land managers to act in accordance" [20] with the LUS. The Review considers that it is implicit in the LUS process that there will be reductions over time in the current degree of discretion which land owners, and particularly larger scale land owners, have over how they use the rural land that they own.

30 The Review Group anticipates that the implementation of the Scottish Government's Land Use Strategy process will lead to reductions in the current flexibility in rural land owners' choices over how they use their land. The Group recommends that the Government ensures that the necessary mechanisms are in place for the successful implementation of the Land Use Strategy in the public interest.

Community Objective

31 The LUS has three objectives, relating to economic prosperity, environmental quality and communities. The third objective, relating to communities is described as: " urban and rural communities better connected to the land, with more people enjoying the land and positively influencing land use". [21]

32 This objective then translates into three proposals:

  • Develop the land use aspects of our Climate Change Adaptation Framework to support communities as they adapt to change
  • Identify and publicise effective ways for communities to contribute to land use debates and decision-making
  • Provide a Land Use Information Hub on the Scottish Government website.

33 The strategy recognises that ownership is an important influence on land use and on the ways that people think about the land but it does not elaborate on how this relationship operates nor on why it is important. The social or community element in the strategy is mainly restricted to ensuring that people have the information to enjoy the land responsibly and to participate in decisions when that is thought to be important. As noted previously, this information does not include information about ownership. Yet ownership does impact on use.

34 The Scottish Government's view has been that, if the appropriate public interest land use takes place, then the pattern of land ownership does not matter. [22] Thus, for example, if there are well grown fields of barley on suitable land as the appropriate use, it does not matter what type or scale of ownership or tenure is involved as tenant farmers, owner-occupiers, large agricultural businesses and other types of farmers can all grow barley.

35 The Review Group considers that the pattern of ownership and control of the land uses is a social factor that needs to be considered in the LUS. If there are for example, 500 hectares suitable for growing arable crops that are owned by five farmers, and the incentives provided by the government to encourage those crops to be grown result over time in all the farms becoming owned by one farmer, then that has a social impact on the local community involved. The crops will look the same, but for that to be judged sustainable land use, consideration needs to be given to how such a change impacts on communities, in accordance with the Scottish Government's other related public policies for rural Scotland. [23]

36 The type of increasing concentration in the ownership of farms suggested in the example above has been and continues to be the trend in Scotland. The nature of the current incentives for farmers in terms of tax exemptions and direct payments, mean that the ownership of good farmland is becoming progressively more concentrated under fewer owners (see Section 25). For example, in 2013, around 75% of the sales of good farmland in Scotland were to other farmers. [24] This increasing concentration might be seen as a continuation of Scotland's history of farm amalgamations, aimed at achieving economies of scale and improved viability. However, the Review considers that the LUS should have an interest in monitoring this growing concentration in the ownership of Scotland's limited resources of better land, and its implications for the interests of the agricultural sector and rural communities.

37 This monitoring is important for several reasons. The Group's own remit, which is a reflection of Scottish Government policy, makes the link between the diversity of ownership in rural Scotland and stronger and more resilient communities. Ownership gives a degree of control over the use of land and its benefits and so monitoring the pattern of ownership is important. And the pattern of ownership gives an indication of how public finances are being distributed, through the system of tax exemptions and land use payments.

38 The Review Group considers that the patterns of land ownership in rural Scotland are an important factor in delivering the Land Use Strategy's community objective, because of the control that ownership gives over land use decisions and benefits. The Group recommends that the Scottish Government should map and monitor the patterns of land ownership in rural Scotland as part of implementing its Land Use Strategy.


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