Calum MacLeod: Who benefits from Scotland’s natural capital?

Calum MacLeod: Who benefits from Scotland's natural capital?

Calum MacLeod

Calum MacLeod, partner at Harper Macleod LLP, looks at the future of land reform in Scotland.

Earlier this month, supporters of the Langholm Initiative, the south of Scotland’s largest community buyout, welcomed the news it had completed another successful fundraising campaign.

In raising £3.8m, the team is now in a position to start the process of purchasing around 5,300 acres of land and three properties from the current owner, the Duke of Buccleuch. Last year, the Initiative completed the purchase of more than 5,200 acres of moorland from the same owner, a transaction in which we took great pride in being involved as the solicitors acting for the Langholm Initiative.

The team behind the Langholm Initiative hopes to double the size of the current Tarras Valley Nature Reserve, aiming to confront nature and climate crises, while at the same time enhancing community regeneration.

Their efforts should be applauded.

The backdrop to the Langholm Initiative’s efforts is a review by the Scottish Government on how land, and land management, contribute to the green economy agenda and climate change goals while supporting communities.

Last month the Scottish Government opened a consultation ahead of a new Land Reform Bill to be introduced by the end of 2023. This would replace the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, and indicates the Scottish Government’s aim to introduce more regulation in large-scale land transfers.

Subject to the views expressed in response to this consultation, the proposed measures include:

  • the introduction of a public interest test for transfers of large-scale landholdings;
  • a requirement on owners of large-scale holdings to give prior notice to community bodies of their intention to sell; and
  • a requirement on those seeking land-based subsidies to have the land registered in the Land Register.

The draft legislation, which is likely to only impact larger holdings over the size of 3,000 hectares, aims to address concerns about the highly concentrated pattern of land ownership in rural areas of Scotland and ensure greater benefit to communities and the environment.

The consultation is said to be a result of the impact of natural capital on land values and the rural land market. One trend in rural Scotland is that emerging value associated with carbon and natural capital is contributing to soaring demand.

Reports suggest this sustained demand has resulted in an increase in off-market activity for forestry and plantable land, with off-market sales accounting for as much as a third of all transactions in 2020.

The consultation also seeks to capture broader views on how to ensure communities benefit from future investment in Scotland’s natural capital and how to ensure there is greater transparency around land and asset ownership.

Another specific part of the rural community who will be hoping for much needed reform during this current parliamentary term is crofters.

Whilst it may have gone off the Scottish Government’s radar during the previous parliamentary term, the issue of crofting law reform has continued to bubble away, and there are now signals that the Scottish Government is considering putting crofting reform back on the agenda.

One question is whether the crofting communities, other stakeholders and the Scottish Government, can reach an agreement on whether it is a specific package of legislative changes that are required or whether any crofting reform touches on wider policy issues surrounding crofting that are being debated in communities throughout the Highlands and Islands, such as policies to tackle depopulation.

Some stakeholders want to see the Crofting Commission have greater powers in regulating the market in selling croft tenancies. On the other hand, others argue that as a matter of policy, owner-occupier crofters should be entitled to escape the regulatory duties that go along with crofting by way of decrofting their crofts as a whole.

Scotland’s natural capital undoubtedly presents opportunities and it would be easy to dismiss these opportunities as being solely for the larger estates or landowners. Local communities should be mindful of the opportunities that may be available to them. As the Land Reform Bill consultation shows, the Scottish Government is keen to ensure that as the value of land increases, all communities can benefit, no matter how big or small.

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