Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, June 22, 2023
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Deconcentrating Land Ownership, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Portfolio Question Time, Education Reform, Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Point of Order
- Deconcentrating Land Ownership
- Presiding Officer’s Statement
- Portfolio Question Time
- Education Reform
- Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill
- Decision Time
Deconcentrating Land Ownership
The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-09174, in the name of Mercedes Villalba, on deconcentrating land ownership. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.
That the Parliament understands that, in 2013, just 432 landowners owned 50% of all Scotland’s privately-owned rural land; notes that feudal tenure in Scotland was only formally abolished through the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act 2000; supports the expansion to community rights to buy under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015; understands that continuing concentration of ownership remains a significant barrier to communities exercising their rights; considers that land represents a huge reserve of unearned wealth in Scotland, including in the North East Scotland region; notes the view that there is a need for stronger action to disrupt the concentration of land ownership in Scotland; further notes the view that a clearly defined, legally enforced, public interest test is needed to ensure that land holdings work for the benefit of the people of Scotland, and notes the calls for Scotland’s land to be owned by, and managed for the benefit of, Scotland’s communities.12:50
I begin by thanking all the members who signed my motion, which allowed it to be debated today. It is no surprise that not a single Tory MSP signed the motion, so it will come as no surprise to them that I will not be taking interventions from the landed Tory gentry on those benches.
It could not be a more important time for Parliament to have this debate. The high concentration of so much land in the hands of so few is central to the inequality that has blighted Scotland for centuries. Land, and who owns it, are at the heart of the crises that we face. From food security and climate resilience to housing and energy, land ownership shapes modern Scotland, as it has done for centuries. To tackle those crises, we must tackle the injustice of current land ownership.
Since devolution, there has been much talk about tackling the high concentration of land ownership, but there has been far too little progress. Although Scotland officially abolished feudal tenure in 2000, the system of land tenure is still overwhelmingly feudal in nature. In many communities, the relationship of landholder and tenant remains deeply unequal.
In 2013, it was reported that just 432 landowners own half of all Scotland’s privately owned land and, since then, there has been no indication of any significant change, because Scotland’s land market is almost completely unregulated. Provided that their bank balance is big enough, anyone can buy whatever land they want with no questions asked. A multibillionaire has become Scotland’s largest landowner in around a decade, buying estate after estate with no barriers.
In fact, ownership of Scotland’s land is so concentrated that the Scottish Land Commission likens the situation to monopolies in banking, supermarkets and energy, except those industries are all subject to legal regulation to prevent monopolies, whereas land ownership is not. While many of our constituents struggle to cover the basics such as food, housing and energy, a small number of individuals are free to buy up more land than they could possibly ever need, denying the public our fair share. However, it does not have to be this way—inequality is not inevitable. Land is a public good and a precious natural resource, and it can and should serve our common interest.
That is why I am currently consulting on a proposed member’s bill to address the centuries-old concentrated pattern of land ownership in Scotland in order to strengthen the regulation of Scotland’s land market, subject large landholdings to a public-interest test and, yes, to introduce a presumed limit of 500 hectares on the amount of land that any person can own.??The 3,000 hectare limit that the Scottish Government proposes—equivalent to 30 square kilometres—is so vast and would affect so few landowners that it would do little to address the issue.
I am not alone in that view. The Scottish Government’s recent consultation analysis found that most respondents who suggested an alternative threshold called for a lower figure. I hope, therefore, that, in responding to today’s debate, the minister will update us on the Scottish Government’s thinking around that threshold.
More than 20 years after devolution, our landlords still lag far behind those of other European countries when it comes to protecting that public interest. That is why we need a community-informed public interest test—a test that would consider whether it is in the public interest for a landholding to remain at such a large scale, and a test that accounts for the public interest in sustainable food, affordable housing, climate resilience and energy security. For too long, the public interest has been ignored, communities have been sidelined and the environment has been trashed.
The issue of land reform has dogged Scottish politics for decades. We have had years of discussing and debating, of consulting and reviewing, but now is the time to act. Now is the time to redress the balance. Now is the time to put the public interest first. Now is the time for land justice. So, I urge everyone who hears this to complete the consultation, to share it as widely as possible and to join the movement for land justice. I am proud to move the motion in my name.12:56
I thank Mercedes Villalba for bringing forward this debate. I was certainly happy to support the motion and I very much agree with its direction of travel. How can it be that so few owners own so much of our land? I accept that large areas of Scotland are not that fertile and have never been great for farming or even forestry, but there are still many fertile parts that used to support people and no longer do so, and I believe that some of them could do so again.
Members might know that I enjoy visiting islands. A few years ago, I visited both Eigg and Muck. There was quite a different feel to those two neighbouring islands, and that is linked to their ownership. There was a clear feeling on Muck that people had to keep in with the landowner, who could decide whether someone lived on the island or not. By contrast, Eigg is community owned and had a much more welcoming and relaxed feel about it.
I visited Ulva about the time when community ownership was being considered. It seemed clear that the previous owner was deliberately clearing the island of people. There was accommodation in Ulva, but it was sitting empty as no one was allowed to move and live there. Thankfully, that has now changed, not least because of the Scottish land fund and ownership by the North West Mull Community Woodland Company.
I strongly believe, too, that there is a moral angle to land ownership, and I would like to refer to some of the Bible’s teaching on that, which is perhaps a slightly different angle from others that we will hear in the debate.
First, when the people of Israel entered the promised land after God had delivered them out of Egypt, the land was divided up into tribes, and then families, by Joshua and other leaders at the time. One of the main rules that God gave them in relation to the land was that it could never be permanently transferred outwith that family. Inevitably, as in all societies, some people would become richer and some would become poorer over time, and, as a result, some people might be forced to sell their land out of hardship and necessity. However, every 50 years—the year of jubilee—the land would revert back to the original family. If someone had been forced to sell their land, or had chosen to do so, that sale was effective only until the next year of jubilee, and the price reflected that, depending on how long there was to go.
Secondly, we have an example of one of the worst kings of Israel, whose name was Ahab. He wanted to get hold of land owned by a guy called Naboth, and Naboth rightly refused to sell, citing God’s law. Ahab got Naboth murdered, and then he took over the land. However, he was challenged by Elijah the prophet, and, in due course, he was punished for that, with his dynasty coming to an end.
I accept that we live in a different kind of society nowadays, with most of us in cities, and that most of us are less directly dependent on the land for our food and livelihood. A person can be wealthy nowadays without owning a lot of land. However, there is still a strong link between wealth and land. We cannot disregard lessons on that from history.
A few people owning most of the land is an economic issue, with wealth being concentrated in a few hands. It is also a housing issue if ordinary local people cannot afford a home. It is an agricultural issue if good land is lying empty instead of being used as a farm or a croft. It is also an environmental issue if deforested areas are not being replanted with trees. However, ultimately, for me, it is mainly a moral issue. If some people in our society have more and more while other people have less and less, that is wrong, and we as a Parliament have a duty to do something about it.13:00
There is a lineage that runs through the aristocracy, who own much of the land in Scotland—it is a hereditary principle—but there is a lineage, too, of land reformers. We have our own inheritance. We are the heirs of our tradition, which dates back to the Highland Land League and the Crofters Party of the 19th century; to the Scottish Labour Party, James Keir Hardie, the Independent Labour Party and Tom Johnston in the 20th century; and over the last half century to the committed socialist John McEwen and the first generation of MSPs, notably the late Donald Dewar, and, in more recent times, to Andy Wightman—all attacking the land question from a socialistic viewpoint, even when their party badge was not always red.
It is in light of all of that history of where we have come from that I believe that, Mercedes Villalba, by leading this debate in Parliament today, is reigniting the flame of that radical tradition. That is why I believe that her proposed member’s bill to cap land ownership would extend democratic principles and methods into a realm that they have been excluded from for far too long.
I always enjoy Mr Leonard’s enthusiasm on such issues. Transparency on who owns the land is really important. I am very interested to know what Labour’s position is on an amendment to the Charities (Regulation and Administration) (Scotland) Bill that Jeremy Balfour has lodged, which will be debated next week. The amendment would restrict the obligation on churches and religious groups to declare the land that they own. Will Labour support the Scottish Government in voting against that amendment, which would be a retrograde step?
Richard Leonard, I can give you the time back.
I am in favour of full transparency, and I am a long-standing supporter of a comprehensive land registry. That is really important. We need to have the facts before us.
Earth was made to be a common treasury. That is what the Levellers said. Land is our most valuable asset, but its value rests on how it is used and, in turn, who owns it and so who controls it, and in whose interests it is controlled.
I have listened to conservative voices asking of Mercedes Villalba’s proposed bill: which problem is it trying to solve? Self-evidently, it seeks to tackle the overconcentration of land ownership in the hands of the old privileged aristocracy of Scotland. That is the problem that it is trying to solve: Scotland’s hereditary curse. Other conservative voices, echoing Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, ask “How much will this cost?”, and in so doing, they betray a retreat not only from particular political principles but from the very idea that political principles exist at all.
So, of course the Parliament should be debating the land question. The pattern of land ownership tells us a lot about Scotland. It is a very painful reminder of a very different history compared even to that of our near neighbours. It points to a very different distribution of wealth that is still with us and is emblematic of the great inequality of power that persists in Scotland today: riches in abundance and idleness in luxury on the one hand, and ever-rising, wretched working poverty for the toiling millions on the other. In so doing, it points to a class-based society, to a class system that leads to the excesses of the grouse moors and the degeneracy of the shooting estates, all with the quite intentional consequence of the denial of fundamental democratic and community rights.
That is why this is no time for timidity, why this is a time for socialist courage and a time to defend and put into practice our enduring ideas and our unflinching principles that speak to us across the centuries. This is about democracy and, down the years, the fight for democracy has always been about converting privileges into rights. This is about justice, about taking on absentee landlordism and challenging local land monopolies, whether the land is owned by ancient lairds or the new offshore corporations. We cannot have a serious and meaningful agenda for social, economic and environmental reform that does not include land reform.
Finally, I tell you that the questions of power and power relations are not theoretical and abstract; they are part of the everyday experience of a people and their class. The current rigged system of land ownership in Scotland smells strongly of decay. The time has come for it to be swept away. It is time for radical, decisive change.13:06
Wow. I thank Mercedes Villalba for bringing the motion to the chamber. I would like to bring a little bit of reality to the debate.
Land reform is one of the Scottish Parliament’s favourite subjects. We only have to look at how much legislation we have passed on it in the 24 years since devolution compared to what was passed in the previous 200 or so years to know that. Most, if not all, of what we have done has been for the better, including strengthening land management regulations, protecting the environment and giving crofters, tenant farmers and communities greater rights. More recently, as Ms Villalba’s motion highlights, the focus in land reform has been shifting and I am concerned that, as that focus shifts, it also blurs the lines between evidence-based policy and policy that, as we have just heard, has as its first intention the application of a particular political ideology.
In looking at this, or at any other issue, I am first minded to ask what is the problem that we are trying to solve. Mercedes Villalba and other members might answer that by citing examples of poor environmental management by large landowners or a conflict between a large landowner and a community, and use that as justification for arguing that big landowners equal bad landowners. I disagree.
The motion that we are debating today opens with one of the selection of statistics that is often trotted out to somehow symbolise inequality:
“in 2013, just 432 landowners owned 50% of all Scotland's privately-owned rural land”.
It goes on:
“notes that feudal tenure in Scotland was only formally abolished through the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act 2000”.
I have to say that my immediate response to those points is, “So what?” I am far from convinced that most people are at all bothered by the first point, never mind perceiving it as a burning injustice. Moreover, it is a statistic of little value as I doubt that even Mercedes Villalba could tell me what number of landowners would be acceptable to her in that context.
Similarly, feudal tenure was not about knights and serfs. It was a legal means by which conditions could be attached to the sale of land and enforced, and as she points out, it was abolished more than 20 years ago.
Does the member think that land is just a commodity like milk, butter, cheese or anything else and that anyone can just buy any amount of it?
Does the member own a house? What level of land ownership are we talking about? We are talking about 500 hectares but I do not think that that is the endgame. If we all own a bit of land, how we use that land is important; I will talk about that a bit later.
Given some of the proposals in Ms Villalba’s member’s bill, I am surprised that she is not more familiar with the legislation as she is proposing to empower the Scottish Land Commission with similar powers. Why does Mercedes Villalba propose a 500-hectare limit on the ownership or transfer of land in her consultation and then, the next day, ask a parliamentary question about the number of transfers of that scale? Does she always do her research after her proposals?
I should be clear here, Deputy Presiding Officer, that I am not saying that I or the Scottish Conservatives have any fundamental opposition to giving more people in communities the opportunity to take ownership of land. Large-scale landowners can, like any landowner, fail to live up to what is expected of them.
However, what this motion and Mercedes Villalba’s bill both fail to do is to recognise the considerable efforts being made by what she would define as large-scale landowners, whether that is in agriculture, nature restoration, tree-planting or improving biodiversity. Such landowners are making a substantial contribution to both their local economies and our environment, with the added benefit that they are able to carry out these activities at scale from day 1. If the member and the Scottish Government are intent on the deconcentration of land ownership, they need to be a lot clearer on why they are doing it. If they believe that the simple act of deconcentration is the solution, they have wilfully or otherwise misunderstood the problem. Deconcentration is no guarantee of success. Community bodies regularly fail to meet the objectives; nor are they necessarily the best entity to manage land interests. What happens if they secure land and they cannot deliver on their aims? How fragmented can we make land ownership in a given area before we hold back the economy and limit the ability to implement environmental actions at scale?
Ultimately, Mercedes Villalba’s motion suffers from the same issue as her proposed bill—it fails to explain what the specific problems are and how simply breaking landholding will help.
Will the member take an intervention?
The member is just winding up.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer—and if Mercedes Villalba wanted to make an intervention, she should have allowed one from me.
If this Parliament is serious about further land reform that actually makes a difference, we should be spending far more time talking about how we improve its management, regardless of the size of ownership.
In closing, I come back to where I started: what is the problem that we are trying to solve? If the central problem is that large landowning offends certain people’s politics, it is the wrong problem.
I call Mr Sweeney.13:11
It is a pleasure to rise—[Interruption.]
Mr Sweeney, could you resume your seat for a second? Mr Whittle.
Apologies, Deputy Presiding Officer.
I call Mr Sweeney again.
It is a pleasure to rise in support of my friend Ms Villalba, who is a member for North East Scotland, and her motion for members’ business, which was a pleasure to sign, as indeed it was to support her proposed member’s bill, which challenges this persistent, invidious and pernicious problem at the heart of Scotland’s economy.
The Conservative spokesman asked why we were debating the topic and for what purpose. It actually runs as a thread through every aspect of public policy in this country. We often come here and debate the inadequacy of the public finances, our incapacity to generate sufficient public resources to address the population’s needs and to ensure that everyone can have a good, dignified quality of life.
This is a wealthy country. The question is not the extent of the wealth but its distribution, and at the heart of that is this debate, because the elephant in the room of this country’s economy is the concentration of ownership and wealth that is vested in the land of this nation. That is fundamentally at the root of it. So much of our public treasury is derived from taxes that are levied on income that is generated from waged employment and from profits that are generated from economically advantageous and productive activity. What is not levied is the unproductive rent extraction that is rampant across the Scottish economy, and that is something that must be addressed; it has never been addressed in a century, despite repeated attempts.
Indeed, we could go back to 1909, when William Bellinger Northrop drew a polemic map of London with an octopus on it, with the tentacles wrapped around all the different aspects of the land of London owned by the various aristocrats. At that time, over a century ago, the text on the map characterised the octopus as an “absorbent parasite”, leaching £20 million of rent out of the common wealth of people at that time. It has extended its grip; it has extended the rent extracted exponentially since that time. It has only ever got worse. The decoupling of the value of wealth vested in land from that in wages has been extraordinary—certainly, over the past 30 years—and it is at the heart of the problem that we face in this country today.
My friend’s motion focuses on rural land ownership concentration, but the issue is prevalent in our urban environments, too, where 91 per cent of Scotland’s people live. Urban areas account for only 2.3 per cent of Scotland’s land, but I will take Glasgow city centre as an example, as I have looked at it recently. Glasgow has 2.3 million square feet of vacant commercial floor space—that is equivalent to the space in the Empire State Building—and it is largely owned by remote owners in tax havens, whose position is opaque. Those owners pay not a penny towards the city’s improvement or maintenance, but they extract rents and free ride on business rates not being charged on buildings that are listed and of value to the city’s heritage.
Since 2005, Glasgow has pretty consistently had about 5,000 empty homes. Vast amounts of potential are locked away from people by remote ownership and uninterested owners. Since 2019, only 52 compulsory purchase orders have been issued in Glasgow. The rate of recycling of such properties is insufficient, and I hope that the minister will reflect on the state’s capacity to bring such properties back into fundamental public ownership.
On every front, we see an attack on community ownership in Scotland. Community-run housing associations are being railroaded into asset-stripping mergers with large national groups. We need to take cognisance of such things to improve justice in Scotland.
At the heart of the issue is the opportunity to unlock our economic potential by removing the parasitic extraction of wealth through rents and unleashing productive economic activity in every possible facet of human endeavour. That reality has been observed for more than a century; it is at the heart of our politics and it is the reason and the mission behind why, for the benefit of the many, we need to unlock the hoarding of land by a remote few.13:16
I congratulate Mercedes Villalba on her proposed member’s bill and on securing this important debate, which is on a subject that we share an interest in.
Land ownership matters because it is unjust for a tiny percentage of people to own the majority of Scotland’s land and unjust for that tiny percentage to derive all the benefit and power that land ownership brings. It also matters because ownership equals control. Those who own the land decide what it is used for and how it is managed. Decisions over how our land is managed are too important to leave to a tiny minority, given that those decisions affect every one of us.
In this time of climate and nature breakdown, our land—especially our rural land—is a powerful tool that can turn things around, if only we use it better and manage it for the public good, not for private interest and profit.
I welcome the principle of my colleague Mercedes Villalba’s proposal to strengthen regulation of the land market. That is urgently needed, given the rush to invest in Scotland’s natural capital and the consequential skyrocketing of land prices, which is making it harder and harder for our communities to buy local land, despite increases to the Scottish land fund.
Just days ago, I discussed with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands ways to strengthen the regulation of markets in land, carbon and nature and to widen opportunities for community benefit. It is not clear to me why Mercedes Villalba feels the need to introduce her own land reform bill when the process is well under way for a Government bill to be introduced, as set out in the Bute house agreement, which covers the substantive points that she has raised.
The proposed member’s bill uses radical language on limiting the amount of land that one person can own, but it does not propose a cap—it would simply rephrase the language on the trigger for the public interest test, which is in the Government’s proposed bill, by referring to a presumed limit. However, if large land transfers passed the public interest test, as some will, her proposal would not apply a limit—presumed or otherwise.
In truth, the proposed member’s bill would lower the threshold for the public interest test to 500 hectares. That is an absolutely admirable aim that would apply the test to more of Scotland’s land but, unfortunately, it does not appear to be backed up by data or consideration of the impacts.
In early June, my colleague lodged a series of written parliamentary questions indicating that, two days after she had lodged the proposal for her bill, she did not have the figures on the number of landholdings over 500 hectares or on the number of individuals or corporations that own them. My concern is that more groundwork is needed to determine how many additional estates would be subject to the public interest test under the lower threshold, and to weigh the benefit against the disadvantages that would be posed to smaller landholders compared with larger ones, which have more resources, as well as the additional public resource that would be required to administer the test at a lower threshold. The Greens are in discussion with the cabinet secretary on lowering the proposed threshold in the Government bill, and I would encourage the member to do likewise.
The Scottish Greens are helping develop a land reform bill that will be workable, effective and robust against any legal challenge, whether it be from large private landowners who feel a threat to their control, or from an increasingly controlling Westminster Government. We will also continue to make the case for the bill to include truly transformative mechanisms, such as those that would, for example, restore common good lands, as well as improved powers such as compulsory sales orders for public bodies.
I fully agree with the motion’s sentiment that
“be owned by, and managed for the benefit of, Scotland’s communities.”
That is what we will achieve through the upcoming Scottish Government land reform bill.13:21
I thank my comrade Mercedes Villalba for bringing this debate to the chamber. I know that it is an area of keen interest for the member, and I think that, in her opening remarks, she made an excellent case for change, as others have done. I hope that the Scottish Government will support her efforts.
For me, the final part of the motion is the simplest to understand, as perhaps the member sitting opposite will agree. It is also one of the most important parts. After all,
“be owned by ... managed for the benefit of”
and belong to
The deconcentration of land ownership and redistribution of it to our communities will put people, not profit, at the centre of land ownership.
As has been mentioned and as we know only too well, 98 per cent of Scotland’s land mass is rural, and it is a matter of concern that community land ownership accounts for only around 3 per cent of the total land area. In my South Scotland region, there are vast rural areas, and it is important that, in our efforts to deconcentrate ownership, we deliver for people and our communities. In a country where young people are not inclined to move to urban areas by default, they should be able to start a career locally, in traditional or different sectors, and make their mark in their own home town without feeling that they have to move away. This is about more than land ownership; it is about equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. It is about equality and fairness, and it is something that we in this Parliament ought to recognise.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the figures that are outlined in today’s motion and which have been quoted by others. In 2013, 50 per cent of all Scotland’s privately owned rural land was owned by just 432 landowners. We cannot accept that the outcome from such a situation will benefit our communities—it is not acceptable or sustainable. I therefore hope that the minister will be supportive of the proposal in the motion; indeed, I note that some of the comments from the Government so far have indicated that it would support moves in this direction.
I note with interest that, in its own community wealth building consultation paper, the Scottish Government has made improved community access to and ownership of land and property one of the five pillars in its efforts to make community wealth building in Scotland a success. I, of course, agree with that, and in that respect, I look to the strong Labour councils in Preston and North Ayrshire, where community wealth building has been a success. At every turn, I see investment and trust being placed in our communities and the skills that we know that we have on our doorstep, and I see action being taken that matches the population’s own ambitions. That is why it is important for land to be owned by its people and communities.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s co-operation thus far, but we are far from the finish line. Communities need more investment, and the requirement for legislation that deconcentrates land ownership to the benefit of our population has never been greater, so we need some urgency around that.
I once again thank my colleague Mercedes Villalba for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I thank other members who have spoken in support. It is a consultation, and my friend has been so open in asking for all contributions, so I ask members to please contribute to the consultation process so that we can get this right for our populations and our communities.
We know the challenges faced by our rural communities around fuel poverty, transport links and young people’s understanding of where they see themselves. There are opportunities here for rural areas in particular, so I ask members to support the members’ bill or at least participate in the consultation. I thank members for coming to the chamber.
I invite Gillian Martin to respond to the debate.13:25
I welcome the opportunity to close the debate for the Government, in my capacity as Minister for Energy and the Environment. I am deputising for the cabinet secretary, Mairi Gougeon, who has responsibility for land reform. As members will imagine, she is at the first day of the Royal Highland Show, so she cannot be here, but I am sure that she will be very interested in hearing how the debate has gone.
There is an awful lot in Miss Villalba’s motion that the Scottish Government supports, as we see community ownership at the forefront of land reform. As somebody who took forward a member’s bill in the first eight months in my tenure as an MSP, I have advice aplenty to give to anyone who is embarking on that process. They should engage fully with as many members on all sides of the chamber as they can, and they should not underestimate the amount of work that is involved.
There was a bit of a heads-up today, in some of contributions in the debate, regarding some of the questions that a bill will pose, not least in the contribution from Ariane Burgess, who was able to point out what the Government’s proposed bill might do and where that might fit in with what Miss Villalba wants to do. The contributions have also highlighted some of the challenges to the threshold that has been suggested, which might have unintended consequences. However, that is the beauty of a member’s bill: you learn, find out and adapt, you respond to the comments that your parliamentary colleagues make, and—hopefully—you get through the process.
I want to talk about to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which brought about the first community right to buy. We think that it was truly groundbreaking, and it has allowed so many communities to own land and take control of how it is used.
Brian Whittle said that we have passed an awful lot of land reform legislation in the Parliament’s history, but that is really because it has been so sorely needed. An awful lot of work had to be done.
As a constituency MSP who is involved in various campaigns in a rural constituency, one thing that has been said to me when I have been speaking to people is that we need to do more on land reform, in particular on allowing more young people to own their own land if they want to work on the land. That is something that is said to me by a lot of young farmers.
Undoubtedly, the community right to buy abandoned, neglected and detrimental land is a positive thing, but there are so many constraints around organisational capacity in communities, in particular deprived communities, where people are not necessarily able to get together because they are so busy working and trying to make ends meet. In addition, there is an issue with simply trying to raise the capital. Is there a way for us to bolster that capacity by resourcing councils, for example, to do it, with the understanding that they can build up that capacity with communities, rather than leaving it to laissez-faire self-organisation?
There are a number of things in place. The Government brought forward the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which introduced the right to buy neglected and detrimental land and extended the right to buy it in urban communities. As I have seen in my constituency, however, the wording in that act perhaps sometimes does not filter down into local authorities regarding how they approach people who want to apply to buy land and take it off the books of a local authority when it is not being used. I think that an awful lot more can be done at local level.
I highlight the land fund, which has approved more than 300 funding requests and has brought more than 300 hectares into community ownership. John Mason gave us some significant examples of community ownership on Eigg and Ulva, as well as a short divinity lesson, which I very much enjoyed. We are going to put more money into that fund, as the demand and the applications greatly outstrip what is available.
Ms Gougeon recently announced an increase in the fund by a further £100—sorry, a further £1 million; I was about to give the wrong figure there and get myself into trouble—for this year, and we are committing to doubling the fund by £20 million by 2026.
The Government readily acknowledges that there is an awful lot more to do to address the concentration and transparency aspects of land ownership. That is why we propose to introduce a new bill on land reform. I encourage Ms Villalba, and indeed every other member who has spoken in the debate, to engage in that process, notwithstanding any plans for members’ bills. Our new bill will build on existing land reform measures, complement the existing community right-to-buy mechanisms and further empower communities by providing them with more opportunities to own land and have more say in how land in their areas is used. That is not something to be feared; being able to have such conversations again should be welcomed. Everyone needs to be involved in those if we are to seek what is right, fair and just.
We seek to further improve transparency of land ownership. I intervened on Richard Leonard’s contribution because there are transparency issues regarding other bills that are perhaps being used to make land ownership more opaque. Mr Balfour’s amendment to the Charities (Regulation and Administration) (Scotland) Bill stems from good intentions, but it could result in certain organisations being exempt from declaring what they own in Scotland. Surely that is not the way that we want to go. I would welcome members reconsidering the matter and perhaps supporting the Government in opposing that amendment.
Instead of moving back, we should be trying to move forward to the next phase of land reform, as Ms Villalba’s motion largely seeks to do. I enjoyed Paul Sweeney’s contribution, in which he described the map with an octopus on it. I am sure that he will be well aware of the work done by the group Led By Donkeys, who go around showing people who owns what in central London. I see a register of controlling interests in land as being like our octopus. I want such a register to be meaningful and comprehensive, so that there will be no secrets there.
We are not content with the status quo. I know that Ms Gougeon will continue to work with stakeholders as we develop the bill. We want to ensure that we introduce a bill that is ambitious and balanced and that will perhaps fill in some of the gaps that past land reform bills did not reach.
Our long-standing land reform objectives for greater diversity of ownership are not incompatible with our net zero and environment ambitions. Carol Mochan’s points about diversity, inclusion and equality were well made, and I largely agree with what she said in that regard.
All landowners—whether they be public, private, community or charitable—are capable of working together on access to land. I do not think that anyone has anything to fear. We need to work to make such access easier, especially for local people, who have previously been at a disadvantage in securing land for their livelihoods and their communities.
I encourage all members to get behind the Government’s bill proposals, which will help to take our nation forward. I also thank Mercedes Villalba for conducting what we might call a soft launch of her member’s bill in today’s debate.13:32 Meeting suspended.
14:00 On resuming—