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Making the Most of Our Land

This week’s guest blog has been written by Andrew Thin, chair of the new Scottish Land Commission.

These are testing times for a small country on the fringes of Europe. Even without the potential ramifications of Brexit we will have our work cut out if we are to maintain our relative position in the world and ensure a high standard of living for our children and grandchildren.

At the heart of this challenge lies the issue of productivity – of our businesses and public services; of our people and capital assets. Into that demanding arena steps the new Scottish Land Commission with a remit from government to help make the most of Scotland’s land, both urban and rural, for the benefit of us all.

In comparison to almost any other capital asset land is unique. It is a national resource over which exist both private and public rights. Those private rights can be traded, and many are subject to significant public regulation. They are collectively described as belonging to “land owners”, yet those who exercise the public rights often use possessive pronouns to refer to the same assets. Land is, like no other, a shared resource.

Defining productivity in relation to land is no simple matter either. Evolving international thinking has broadened the meaning of productivity in this context to encompass social and cultural outcomes as well as economic gain. The United Nations has in recent years linked these to a global human rights agenda, so that this is emphatically not just a matter of income streams and a positive bottom line.

No accident then that the emerging Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, recently out for consultation by the Scottish Government, adopts what it describes as a “human rights based approach”. If we are to maximise the productivity of Scotland’s land we will need to do so in ways that benefit many different people in many different ways. We all have rights in land, and we all have reciprocal responsibilities.

The remit of the Land Commission is broad and flexible. Our work encompasses the functions of both the Land Commissioners and the Tenant Farming Commissioner, but the organisation will operate as one collaborative team. The Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement provides important context for our work, but so too do the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy, National Performance Framework and Land Use Strategy.

Everyone that I have discussed this with has expressed a different opinion about what our early priorities should be. That is hardly surprising – there is much to be done. But we are a small organisation with limited capacity. We must prioritise. Moreover while government can change policy relatively quickly in response to our advice, anything that requires legislative change may not see the light of day for several years.

So what are the priorities? Getting derelict land back into productive use? Releasing land for housing where it is being “land banked”? Tackling underinvestment on tenanted farms? Discouraging single purpose land use where multi layered use would be more productive? Increasing diversity and competition in land ownership and related markets? Answers on a postcard please…..

And how should we progress these? Further regulation may help deal with intransigent minorities, but it may also add cost. Changes to public policy might be useful, and Brexit will create opportunities to reassess support payments and cross compliance. But what about non-statutory guidance and codes of practice? Must people always be forced to do the right thing? Can good leadership and robust peer pressure make a difference?

To get things started we have issued an Interim Corporate Plan for 2017/18. A copy can be found on our website.  As we are a new organisation this will be an establishment year, but it will also be one in which we explore the underlying issues and conduct baseline research. By the autumn we will have a clearer view of priorities, and we will have submitted to government a detailed Strategic Plan covering the next three years.

Our job will not be an easy one. We know that. We work for all of Scotland’s people, and no one interest group should expect to have disproportionate influence. We will insist on a thoroughly evidence based approach to our deliberations, and we will not hesitate to challenge presumption or prejudice. We will be an outward facing organisation that welcomes input from everybody and places a high value on innovative thinking.

That will include all the members of Scottish Land and Estates. We will be attending various agricultural shows and game fairs over the summer, and holding monthly public receptions around the country. So please come and talk with us. There will be no ivory tower.

 Andrew Thin, Scottish Land Commissioner




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