Why land matters now: taking action to ensure Scotland’s land benefits everyone

Since devolution, land reform has been central to achieving greater equality and social justice for the people of Scotland.

Private ownership of land – particularly at scale – has in the past conferred significant privilege – hereditary titles, status, the ability to influence policy and law.

While many aspects of society have become more equitable, the privilege associated with the ownership of land at scale remains, and takes new forms.

We are very fortunate to have great potential within Scotland’s natural environment to sequester carbon and to support biodiversity, tackling the twin climate and nature crises that we face – for example through woodland creation, peatland restoration, energy generation, blue carbon and many other initiatives.

However, I am concerned, as many others are, that the expansion of market-based solutions to the climate emergency brings with it a risk of creating a 21st century ‘carbon rush’, where a privileged few benefit from large-scale land ownership, and rapidly rising land values.

It is exactly because we are in the midst of these climate and biodiversity crises – that we need to ensure that one of the greatest assets this country has – our land – is owned, used and managed in a way that benefits the nation as a whole, and local communities, not just the individuals or corporations who may own it.

With rights come responsibilities. This is true of land ownership and is more important than ever as we seek to tackle the nature emergency and pursue a just transition to net zero.

I also believe that it is essential that local communities are able to engage in decisions about what land is used for, and that they can benefit from investment in it.

That is why we have made firm commitments in our manifesto, in our Programme for Government, and in the Bute House agreement, to take the next steps on Scotland’s land reform journey.

This summer, we will undertake a wide-ranging consultation on a range of proposals for our new Land Reform Bill, which will be introduced by the end of 2023.

This is an ambitious new Bill that will look to address long-standing concerns about problematic patterns of concentrated land ownership in rural Scotland.

The Bill is a significant step forward in ensuring our land is owned and used in the public interest and to the benefit of the people of Scotland.

It supports and extends existing work to empower local communities, encourage responsible and diverse landownership and support communities to have a say in how land in their area is used.

Scotland has a strong record of progressive and innovative land reform – but this journey of reform is not complete.

Seven key measures are included in the consultation document, many based on recommendations from the Scottish Land Commission, established by the 2016 Land Reform Act.

I will set out more details when the consultation is published – but one of the most important of these measures is around transfers of large-scale landholdings.

We are proposing the introduction of a public interest test, as well as a requirement on owners of large-scale holdings to give prior notice to community bodies of their intention to sell.

As well as seeking to redress historical inequities we must also address the contemporary challenges we face in order to ensure fairness going forward.

So I am also asking for views on how we can ensure communities benefit from investment in natural capital, whether and how such investment should contribute to the public purse through taxation and steps we can take to increase transparency.

This has become particularly important in light of issues surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and the question of who ultimately owns and buys land in Scotland.

Through this consultation, the legislation that will follow and through our wider actions – such as our recently published Interim Principles for Responsible Investment in Natural Capital – we will continue to develop and implement land reform policy that addresses historical inequalities and rises to changing social, environmental and economic issues in contemporary Scotland.

I would like to encourage everyone with an interest to take part in the consultation, which launches on Monday 4 July.

Land reform is an issue that affects us all and I firmly believe that the people of Scotland know best what is needed in their own areas, and that is why they should have the power to decide the future of the land and buildings that matter to them.