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Human Rights and Land Reform: A springboard for future resilience

Megan MacInnes

Scotland's Land & Economy

As part of the ‘Scotland’s Land & Economy’ series exploring the fundamental role of land in achieving Scotland’s post-pandemic recovery and renewal, Scottish Land Commissioner Megan MacInnes explores the relationship between land reform and the delivery of our broader human rights, health and place-based ambitions.

An earlier blog in this series by our Chief Executive Hamish Trench and Dr Katherine Trebeck from the Wellbeing Economy Alliance outlined the influence our systems of land ownership and use have on our collective wellbeing. “The pattern of ownership and access to use of land” they wrote, “sets conditions that determine the distribution of wealth, decision making and everyday wellbeing that flow through many parts of our lives”. In delivering these changes to our underlying structures of power and value, land reform reflects much bigger societal changes underway in Scotland in terms of the relationship between our rights as individual citizens and our civic responsibilities.

The balance between rights and responsibilities has been enshrined in international law since 1948 and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Until recently, Scotland was unique, in terms of the human rights framework holding back rather than promoting land reform. This was due to an interpretation by some of the rights to privacy and property (in the European Convention of Human Rights) as being untouchable. But they are not and through the Community Empowerment Act of 2015 and the Land Reform Act of 2016, our Parliament has gained the confidence to balance these rights with the wider public interest, in particular what’s known as ‘economic, social and cultural rights’. This rebalancing and how it relates to land reform is most clearly outlined in the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement which has been supplemented by our own practical steps to help all types of landowners integrate this policy into their everyday operations.

But why does this change of approach to human rights matter? Firstly, privacy and property rights are no longer perceived to be a barrier to land reform. Secondly, it brings Scotland in line with the rest of the world in recognising that human rights can be a springboard for progressing land reform and that land reform itself can help fulfil our human rights obligations. Although human rights conversations can often be quite abstract, I think this has hugely important practical implications on the ground. For example, addressing inequality through tackling the blight of vacant and derelict land on some of our most disadvantaged communities, addressing imbalances of power through tackling concentrated monopoly land ownership, and addressing unfairness through removing land as a barrier to the provision of affordable housing.

Furthermore, research suggests that it’s not just the use, but the ownership model of land that is important for delivering these ambitions. In “Built-In Resilience,” Community Land Scotland and Community Woodlands Association highlight how community owners of land and assets were at the vanguard of the immediate response to the Covid-19 pandemic, delivering services that enabled everyone to ‘stay at home’ but still ensured those most vulnerable had access to food, medicine, money and human contact. Meanwhile research by Dr Bobby Macaulay at Glasgow Caledonian University broadens our understanding of the impact of land reform even further by investigating the connections between community land ownership and rural health.

From my perspective, lockdown and the restrictions we still face have brought even closer to home the importance of our local area, environment, and community. Whether it is the importance of green spaces in cities, the value of access rights in rural areas, or the benefit of local food growing, we have a greater appreciation of the best and the worst of our own ‘place’.

We are not the only country recognising these connections; the role of land reform in our recovery and renewal is an international conversation. There is a global focus on the need to improve resilience at every level of society; to shore up our ability to handle future pandemics and our response to the climate emergency. It is recognised that the communities best placed to be resilient are those with control; including control over the land and assets they depend on, control over decisions that will affect them, and fundamentally control over their own future. Control to determine their own place in this complex world.

Enabling this to happen is no mean feat. Although most communities in Scotland don’t face the fundamental challenges to their land tenure security experienced in other countries, a lot is still needed to be done in fragile areas like mine to help strengthen resilience. Part of the picture is communities having the confidence, time, and capacity to organise, and an equal part is about policies and support being accessible and barriers to local control being removed. And this, for me, is why the rebalancing of property and privacy rights with wider human rights is so important and why the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement rightly forms the fundamental basis of the Land Commission’s work.