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Scottish Government proposes "radical rethink" on land reform

A group of property law experts and academics are to consider ways to strengthen the relationship between Scottish communities and land ownership, the Scottish Government has announced.

A research paper, published by the Scottish Government, highlights some of the issues the group will consider including access rights, the community right to buy in both crofting and non-crofting areas and other crofting measures.

Property law expert Ian Lyall of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, agreed that simplifying a "complex" area of law was a good idea, but questioned the "vague" contents of the paper.

"The paper points out that there 'remains a lack of clarity over the rationale and remit of Land Reform', but I think that clarity needs to come first," he said. "There is no sense in amending the Land Reform Act without knowing quite what you want to achieve."

However, he agreed with the Scottish Government's assessment that the Community Right to Buy and Crofting Community Right to Buy schemes, established by the Act, were not working.
"Both procedures are too complex and require community mobilisation," he said. "This favours communities which are already strong and so in all likelihood widens the divide between poorer and better-off communities."

The Community Right to Buy (CRtB) allows Scottish communities with a population of less than 10,000 to apply to register an interest in land and have the opportunity to buy that land when it comes up for sale. To take advantage of the process, communities must first register an interest in the land with the Registers of Scotland. This will be approved or rejected by the Government, following comments from the landowner, after which the community body will be given six months to conclude the purchase.

To date, 142 applications to register a community interest in land have been submitted under the provisions in the Land Reform Act, of which 95 have been approved. Of these, 33 have had the chance to go ahead and purchase land and 11 have been successful in doing so, according to Scottish Government figures.

"The evidence suggests that CRtB has the potential to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits, including the potential to make community land/assets more financially viable; improve local services; facilitate affordable housing; generate new economic activity and jobs; and enhance the environment," the research paper said. "[However] research highlights that not all communities are equally well-placed to achieve the full benefits of land and asset ownership."

Speaking at a summer cabinet meeting in Skye, First Minister Alex Salmond said that the role of land reform in Scotland's future success "could not be underestimated".

"Land reform is an important part of Scotland's story," he said. "From the Crofting Acts of the 1880s and 1890s to the more recent right-to-buy legislation and support for community land purchase, significant progress has been made. By improving the relationship between our land and people, we can create stronger communities and deliver the economic growth and fairer society that the people of Scotland quite rightly expect."

The advisory group will be chaired by Dr Alison Elliott, who will be joined by Highlands and Islands rural development experts Professor James Hunter and Dr Sarah Skerratt as vice-chairpersons. A further 10 advisers will also be appointed, with expertise in areas such as property and land issues, economics, community-led organisations, legal issues, forestry and access.

The group is expected to report to Scottish Ministers in a series of stages, with a final report on any potential legislative changes due by the end of next year.

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