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Land & Scotland's Big Ambitions - Harnessing the potential of our land

Hamish Trench

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Land ownership and use are changing all the time. The world around us is changing even faster. In the first of our new series of ‘Land &’ blogs, Chief Executive of the Scottish Land Commission Hamish Trench looks at the connections between land and some of Scotland’s big ambitions for the economy, climate and communities.

The ways we own and use land influence many parts of our everyday lives – from the price and availability of housing, access to greenspace, the effects of derelict sites in the heart of our communities, our ability to take climate action, or simply the means and confidence for people to build businesses and communities. Our recently launched ‘#MyLandScotland’ campaign explores the ways land impacts individuals and how people can get involved in influencing what happens to and benefitting from the land around them.

These connections are also clear in the big themes this Parliament will be dealing with – economic recovery and renewal, climate change, human rights, housing, and community wealth building are all on the agenda. These are connected missions which demand changes in the ways we own and use land.

For example, Scotland’s Climate Change Plan envisages a land use transformation during the current decade, pivotal to achieving a net zero economy and a nature-rich environment. Meeting Scotland’s housing needs means bringing forward land for housing in a more strategic and public interest-led way. Socially productive use of land and property is one of the pillars of the Community Wealth Building model being pioneered by local authorities in Scotland. The proposed human rights bill will take forward Scotland’s commitment to realising economic, social and cultural rights, part of the human rights context that frames the 2016 Land Reform Act and the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement.

Land is woven through all of these big topics that this Parliament is likely to be addressing. If we’re to harness the potential of Scotland’s land to deliver on these ambitions, we’ll need to continue to evolve and modernise the ways we own and use land, and the potential of a land reform bill brings a particular focus to this.

Our approach to land reform should help create a coherent system of land ownership and use that is fit for the challenges of this decade and those to come. It is not hard to see the shape of this system. It is one in which the public interest in land is clearly articulated and there is accountability for rights and responsibilities. It is one in which there is a dynamism in making the most of our land, unlocking new opportunities and sharing the benefits fairly and productively. Our work at the Scottish Land Commission shows how some of the building blocks can come together.

Land ownership matters because it shapes who has power and control in decision-making, and who benefits. It matters at the local scale, in building resilient communities and economies able to make things happen. It also matters at the macro scale: with over half the UK’s net worth held in land, how this wealth is used fairly and productively matters to the whole economy. Public interest regulation in other sectors of the economy offers sound principles for addressing the effects of concentrated power in the land market.

A diverse and dynamic pattern of land ownership with a vibrant mix of responsible private, public, community and voluntary sector ownership will support the resilience, innovation and productivity that Scotland needs. The well-established community land ownership sector is a proven model to unlock more, and greater, benefits. There is also big potential to develop more shared governance models, blending private, public and community interests, resources and skills. As new forms of value and investment associated with carbon and natural capital emerge, we should explore the opportunities for different governance and ownership models so that this value is shared and used productively, reinvested in the public good, communities and local economies.

Given the choices and decisions about land use change we face this decade, wide engagement in decision-making will be vital in building sustained action. There is welcome shared commitment across sectors to engaging more people in decisions about land, and Regional Land Use Partnerships are an opportunity to provide the focus that can drive action at a regional and local scale. It’s not only the ability to influence decisions, but the opportunity for local communities and economies to benefit from land use change that will be important.

There is no shortage of ways that land reform can help deliver on the big ambitions that this Parliament is likely to be considering. Legislation, of course, is one part of the picture. Law sets the framework and tells us what we can and can’t do, but not necessarily what is reasonable or right to do. The experience of the Tenant Farming Commissioner shows the positive impact of having a benchmark of what is reasonable, having shared clarity of expectations for responsible practice. The Commission’s Good Practice programme is similarly building shared expectations of responsible practice in implementing the principles of Scotland’s Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement on the ground. Over the last year we have worked with 150 landowners and communities to support improvements in practice using our suite of Protocols.

Land ownership and use are changing all the time. The world around us is changing even faster. Land reform is a continual process, and one that can help Scotland take some big steps in its ambitions over the next five years.