On behalf of everyone at Scottish Land & Estates I would like to wish you a very Happy New Year!
The past year has seen a number of significant events and changes which will impact on landownership and land management in Scotland, and looking at our calendar for the year ahead, I’m sure 2017 is going to be another busy year for us all!
At this point last year we had all returned from the Christmas break and were getting settled in for an intense final three months of the Land Reform Bill – a Bill which was passed on the 16th March to become the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, one of the final acts of Parliament before it dissolved for the 2016 Holyrood elections.
Throughout the passage of the Bill as well as taking a robust stance on those provisions we opposed, we also worked hard to provide intelligent solutions and constructive amendments. This drastically increased our staff workload but in our opinion was the best way to effectively represent our members. The final Act passed by the Scottish Parliament is, however, only the ‘bones’ of the legislative changes. Over the coming years, the Scottish Government and Parliament will seek to put the ‘flesh’ on these ‘bones’, setting out exactly how they will implement the changes made in the Act. I look forward with interest to seeing how this develops, as with so many things the devil is in the detail. and we will continue to represent the interests of rural businesses and landowners in these discussions.
And then came the Holyrood elections, where the SNP remained the largest party in Scotland but this time with only 63 MSPs, two short of the 65 MSPs required for a majority. This has meant, in turn, that a single party no longer has a majority on the Parliament’s committees and therefore consensus between parties will need to be reached more often. A far more democratic process, and it’s exactly the way the unicameral Scottish Parliament was designed to work.
The Scottish Conservatives overtook Scottish Labour as the second largest party in Scotland, with 31 MSPs compared to Labour’s 23, and have therefore replaced Scottish Labour as the official opposition. A major change then, not only in moving from a majority to a minority Government, but in the whole make-up of the Parliament.
Also in May, we held our third annual Spring Conference, where our theme was Modern Landownership – The Future Challenges. I was delighted to welcome a capacity audience of members, Government agencies, conservation NGOs, academics, charities, politicians and other rural businesses to the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh as we explored what the future holds for land ownership and management in Scotland.
Newly appointed Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, addressed the conference giving her early thoughts on where land reform is going and also recognising the expertise and valuable contribution landowners and their businesses make across Scotland. We welcomed her recognition of the importance of collaboration and benefits of working together to deliver common goals.
The summer began with a wonderfully busy, and sunny, first day at the Royal Highland Show. The support and enthusiasm for Scotland’s rural sector that I continue to see at the show each year demonstrates the important role rural Scotland has to play in the success of Scotland.
The second day, however, was one of almost complete shock as the result of the EU referendum was announced, and the question of “OK, so what now?” begun to be asked. Brexit is undoubtedly going to present major challenges to our businesses, but we must also look to where the opportunities may lie. We, as an organisation, have already started to think about a post-EU future – we produced a series of briefing notes with the CLA which you can read here, and have already published several blogs to set out our early thoughts
Unsurprisingly, the discussions we had at the agricultural and rural shows throughout the remainder of summer seemed to be heavily focussed on the future of rural Scotland after Brexit.
To try and clarify where the opportunities and challenges in Brexit lay, we held a series of regional roadshows over Autumn to discuss the issue with our members. These well attended events were full of lively discussion and a willingness to consider new approaches.
As part of the Land Reform Act, shootings and deer forests will once again be liable for paying non-domestic rates (often called sporting rates). Since the Act was passed, we have been inundated with queries from members who had received a form from their local assessor but who were not aware that they would be affected by the reintroduction of non-domestic rates on sporting rights – and were concerned that they did not have all the information necessary to complete the form quickly and accurately. To help answer some of these questions we have produced a brief Q&A on Non-Domestic Rates for Shootings and Deer Forests.
Over the past year, our Helping It Happen campaign has gone from strength to strength; our website now has over 150 great examples of the fantastic contribution landowners are making to rural Scotland, and this number continues to grow each week. There are countless other examples out there that haven’t yet made it to our website, but the level of awareness of the positive contribution of landowners is testament to the good work being done out there.
We will ensure this continues to develop into 2017 with an exciting new announcement to be made very soon.
One of our biggest priorities for Scottish Land & Estates in the year ahead will be the developments from the UK’s exit from the EU and the impact this will have on rural Scotland.
We are still a long way from knowing exactly what Brexit will mean for rural Scotland, but it looks like we are heading down a route that will see us outside of the EU institutions and the single market. This means that we will have to negotiate our trading relationship with the EU, which will be critical for some of our farming businesses in particular, and we will have to set about designing our own agricultural and rural development policies and financial support regimes.
The size of this task should not be underestimated. European rules extend into every fibre of government and disentangling ourselves from the EU will be a gargantuan task and that is before we even start to think about what we might want to do in future. The coming years are therefore going to be extremely challenging and complex. Scottish Land & Estates will be seeking to play a full role in the debates about the future of rural Scotland; this is a pivotal moment in our history and we have and important role to play.
In May we’ll be holding our annual Spring Conference, once again at the magnificent Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. The theme this year will be ‘Rural Investment: Hopes and fears for a new era’.
Our members run businesses that are an important element of the rural economy. They run farms, produce timber and energy, provide housing and they run sporting and tourism enterprises, all of which are either embedded in the rural economy or support a wider supply chain. The investment decisions that they make therefore have consequences for the wider economy.
We want to use the opportunity of our Spring Conference to showcase significant investment in a number of rural businesses, to explore opportunities for future investment and to allow an opportunity for members to reflect on how they are managing the uncertainty that they face.
2017 is also the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. The vast majority of our heritage assets are owned by private individuals, communities and charitable owners, all of whom are investing vast sums of monies on both our built and environmental heritage, and continuing to grow heritage tourism.
The Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology provides limitless opportunities for our members to increase numbers of visitors to their tourism businesses, create new ventures and to get involved with local and national events taking place throughout 2017. Make sure you maximise opportunities to link your tourism offering with YHHA.
Influencing how the land reform legislation unfolds as well as monitoring the impact of the private residential changes will undoubtedly take up a significant proportion of our time in the year ahead, along with helping to shape changes in the planning system and other key policy areas.
The formal commencement of the work of the Scottish Land Commission in April will be a key step in the land reform ‘journey’ and we have already had a number of initial discussions with Commissioners – we await the publication of their work plan with interest.
We start 2017 with more Parliamentary consideration of deer management in Scotland. We find it frustrating that, despite the considerable efforts, and progress, being made within the industry to change and modernise, the pressure from Parliament is relentless. Our efforts to represent our members will remain robust as this scrutiny continues. On a more positive note, 2017 will see the development of an agreed process in Scotland for the management of beaver. The, until recently, the illegal groups of beaver in Tayside have been a problem for members in this area for a number of years. As the uncertainty of their status and future in Scotland dragged on it was apparent that any decision on the future of the Tayside beaver was better than none at all, given the negative press farmers were subjected to when they perfectly legally attempted to control problem animals. The new framework which we will be fully involved in developing will give everyone a clear understanding and a firm legal basis for management going forward.
Our discussions with Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, have revealed a perhaps welcome focus for her in 2017 on climate change issues. A new Climate Change Plan is being development and we are due to give evidence to the ECCLR committee shortly on specific aspects of it. Land and how it is management is vitally important to whether Scotland mitigates some of the more unpalatable likely outcomes of Climate Change. Contributing to delivery of Scotland’s Climate Change plan represents an opportunity for Scotland’s landowners to demonstrate they are part of the solution to environmental challenges and not part of the problem.
We are without doubt, in a new era of landownership, and indeed following the Brexit vote we are looking at a new era for land-based businesses as we consider fundamental changes to the regulatory and support frameworks we operate within. Our organisations continues to be in good shape to not only assist members in meeting the challenges of this new era but also develop and deliver opportunities which will benefit not only landowners and land-based businesses but provide substantial and tangible benefits for Scotland in general.
The work that we do would not be possible without the continued support of our members.
David Johnstone - Chairman, Scottish Land & Estates