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28th January 2015
Land Reform and Charities
Land Reform and Charities
The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a package of measures for inclusion in a Land Reform Bill [1]. Amongst the proposals is a specific stand-alone duty on trustees of a charity that, when considering the management, use or transfer of any land under the charity’s control, the trustees must engage with the local community and consider the potential impact on the local community before taking any decision. At first glance it may be an attractive idea, but it’s not clear which charities or what issue(s) the proposal is intended to tackle or what it is expected to achieve.

Two possible targets are the big environmental NGOs, some of which have had mixed relationships with local communities over the years; and a number of private estates that are owned and managed by charitable trusts or companies, whose profile was raised a couple of years ago by the Land Action Scotland campaign [2].

If, as has been suggested, the problem that needs fixing is that in some circumstances charity trustees are using their organisation’s charitable purposes as an excuse to inhibit or frustrate community development then any duty to merely engage or consult with the community will be a fairly futile exercise: what’s needed are genuine opportunities for local people to become involved in decision-making, e.g. through becoming members and/or Trustees of the organisation in question.

However, whilst large-scale landowning environmental NGOs and private estates represent a tiny fraction of Scotland’s 23,700 charities, imposing such a general duty runs the risk of adding another regulatory burden to thousands of small voluntary asset-owning charities whose activities pose no problem at all.

Underlying this discussion is a widespread presumption that the activities of all charities are automatically and in all circumstances in the public interest, since these have to be in furtherance of their charitable purposes, which have been determined by OSCR to be delivering public benefit.

Generally and collectively this presumption is correct: the work of Scotland’s charities in delivering the suite of 16 charitable purposes contributes greatly to the common good, but it’s also possible to see how, taken singly, the pursuit of a single charitable purpose at the expense of all other objectives could work against the public interest, particularly where a charity has an effective local monopoly over land or assets. The advancement of religion is an approved charitable purpose but surely even the most devout adherent would not imagine the public interest would be served by converting every building in a given community into a church.

The Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005 requires that charities in Scotland meet the charity test [3], as assessed by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR), which must consider how any private benefit is balanced against benefit to the public and how any disbenefit to the public is balanced against benefit to the public. If the issue is with the tiny cohort of private Scottish charities whose landholdings give them a local monopoly, then, rather than imposing general burdens on all, the smart answer is to take another look at the charitable status of these organisations. If the issue is with the tiny cohort of private Scottish charities whose landholdings give them a local monopoly, then, rather than imposing general burdens on all, the smart answer is to take another look at the charitable status of these organisations. OSCR must ensure that where the pursuit of a single charitable purpose frustrates sustainable development, the public disbenefit is fully considered, and where necessary safeguard the public interest by using its wide-ranging powers to direct charities to amend their practices.

[1] http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2014/12/9659
[2] http://www.landaction.org.uk/
[3] See http://www.oscr.org.uk/charities/becoming-a-charity/meeting-the-charity-test
 
4th June 2014
The Land of Scotland and the Common Good
The Land of Scotland and the Common Good
What a difference a year makes! If we were underwhelmed by the Land Reform Review Group’s Interim Report last May then their Final Report (1) has exceeded expectations.

There’s much in the report to applaud: not just the measures focussed on community ownership, such as the commitment to extend, improve and simplify the community right to buy, the endorsement of a land agency, and even the recognition that some absolute right to buy is necessary, but also the broad range of recommendations aimed at devolving the Crown Estate’s powers, completing the Land Register, investigating a Land Value Tax, phasing out non-domestic rates exemptions for rural landowners and even capping the size of privately owned estates.

What’s striking isn’t so much the specific recommendations, but the way that these individual points are embedded in and flow from a coherent, holistic perspective: that land is a finite and precious resource which requires to be used and owned in the public interest for the common good; defined in terms of the wellbeing of society as a whole, and incorporating concerns for social justice and inter-generational and international environmental sustainability alongside economic success.

In our submission to the LRRG consultation we argued strongly that the status quo had to be seen as neither divinely ordained nor the logical outcome of a rational market, but an as artificial construct, developed over decades, serving vested private interests, and largely sustained by public subsidy; so we are very pleased at the way the report systematically unpicks the current dispensation, and presents in some detail the extent to which reform has been frustrated, in some areas for decades.

In their report the LRRG have sketched out a comprehensive programme for land reform. Some elements can be legislated for almost immediately – and we trust the Scottish Government will use the forthcoming Community Empowerment Bill to make early progress on this - others will need further discussion and consultation before implementation. And of course it will take even longer for such action, legislative or otherwise, to bring about the transformations in land use and ownership that are required. However, whilst it may be a long term programme, as Andy Wightman has pointed out (2), 58 of the 62 recommendations are within the full devolved competence of the Scottish Parliament: this programme isn’t contingent on independence, but can (and must) be delivered whatever the outcome of September 18th – let’s get started now!


(1) http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0045/00451087.pdf (13 Mb pdf)
(2) http://www.andywightman.com/?p=3676
The reserved four relate to inheritance and capital taxation, State Aid rules and the Crown Estate – all of which are being covered by the Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry.
 
2nd May 2014
Rothiemurchus and the public purse
Rothiemurchus and the public purse
Scottish Ministers are Scotland’s largest landowners, and their portfolio is about to grow further, following the announcement that Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) is to buy 5700 acres (2300 hectares) of Upper Rothiemurchus Forest from the Grant family for £7.4M(1).

FCS has an on-going repositioning programme: selling forests and assets, often in remoter areas of Scotland, and using the proceeds to buy more land to create new forests for public recreation, habitat creation and climate change mitigation objectives(2). The programme guidance is clear that existing woodlands will only be purchased when they come as part of the land parcel acquired for planting or where there would be significant public benefits arising from their acquisition. Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of private land ownership in Scotland, there is a general consensus that Rothiemurchus has been well managed over the years - indeed it is being described as a “jewel in the crown” - which begs some serious questions about how significant the net public benefits of FES management will be.

The Minister has characterised the purchase as securing the landscape for the nation(3): but securing for whom, and saving from what? Forests aren’t artworks at risk of being exported and locked away in a Swiss bank vault. If the Grants were determined to sell then offers might well have emerged from one or more of the big environmental NGOs: NTS, RSPB, Woodland Trust, Scottish Wildlife Trust, etc., all of whom would surely have had an interest in such an opportunity. Even if had been sold within the private sector, any future owner would find that the environmental interests of the site are protected by a number of environmental designations, whilst Part 1 of the Land Reform Act guarantees our rights of responsible public access.

It’s very difficult to assess value for money even in purely cash terms. We know the prevailing tax and subsidy regimes conspire to inflate land prices way above their productive value. Nonetheless £7.4 million works out at >£3200 per hectare, which seems a lot for an essentially unproductive (in timber terms) forest, so it would be interesting to understand how the price was arrived at. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to see the District Valuer’s report. :-)

What we can do is contrast the £7.4M found for this single purchase with the £9M available over four years through the Scottish Land Fund for communities across the whole of Scotland, and to consider how thoroughly those communities are expected to demonstrate the net public benefits of and support for their proposals.

Rothiemurchus is beautiful and valuable in many ways, but it’s hard to see how it will be any more so under FES management. That £7.4M could have been spent bringing neglected and under-managed land, forests and buildings into community ownership, and delivering real economic, environmental and social benefits: blowing it on what looks suspiciously like a vanity purchase doesn’t reflect well on the Scottish Government’s commitment to Land Reform.


(1) http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/forestry-commission-buys-rothiemurchus-forest-1-3379846
(2) http://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/managing/work-on-scotlands-national-forest-estate/land-and-building-management/re-positioning-programme
(3) http://www.charteredforesters.org/news/item/251-upper-rothiemurchus-forest-sold/
 
2nd June 2013
 
Still Underwhelmed Ė a somewhat delayed response to the Land Reform Review Groupís interim report
The Land Reform Review was launched last year with bold words like” radical” and “innovative” attached and a wide ranging remit:

a. Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;
b. Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;
c. Generate, support, promote and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland.
(my emphasis)

But any expectations that it might live up to the radical, innovative tags it was given are crushed on the very first page of the Review Group Interim Report, which both repeats the above in full, and then posits a very much narrower reinterpretation, whereby the remit has contracted into reviewing the 2003 legislation and:

considering how the benefits of community ownership could be extended through the exploration of new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland.

Naturally as an organisation representing ~150 current or aspiring community land owners we think that extending community ownership is an important topic, and we’re pleased that the proposal made by ourselves and others for a Land Agency to facilitate this has been taken up for further discussion, but there is little else to cheer, not least because the language of the remit and thus the stance of the report has moved from "deliver" to "consider".

Likewise, a technical review and revision of the ridiculously over-engineered Land Reform Scotland Act is long overdue, and amending the legislation so that it actually supports the empowerment of communities rather providing a series of obstacles, will be very welcome, but there was no need to go through this pantomime just to add SCIOs to the list of approved forms for Community Bodies.

In the meantime a huge range of topics and issues have been quietly sidelined. Andy Wightman and others have highlighted a number of key omissions, of which the abandonment of the tenant farmers is the most striking. Critically, there is minimal discussion of the context and circumstances under which we are having (or not having) the debate in the first place. Whilst the report does, briefly, note that:

Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to the people who live their lives on it.

it makes no attempt to quantify Scotland’s extraordinary concentration of landownership, or to recognise that, as even the Scottish Government’s own Land Use Strategy does, the current ownership arrangements are not delivering sustainable development and the broad range of desired social, economic and environmental benefits.

Moreover, there’s no analysis at all of how this astonishing pattern of inequality arose or is perpetuated. I’m told they rarely sing the third verse of “All things bright and beautiful” in church these days, but it might yet serve as the epigraph of this report, so little does it challenge the current dispensation. Land ownership, and thus land reform, is all about power and money, but it’s clearly considered impolite to discuss such matters as the only financial references in the report are to the difficulties of funding community acquisitions. As we wrote in our submission to the call for evidence, the status quo is:

neither divinely ordained nor the logical outcome of a rational market… (but)… the product of decades of intervention … and sustained by vast public subsidy.

Unless the review is willing to tackle these difficult issues then the prospects for the Land Reform agenda, and even for extending community ownership on any meaningful scale, are bleak indeed.
 
18th May 2011
 
A very Scottish election (pt 2)
Well the campaign might have been boring, but the result was anything but...Im not sure anyone had predicted an SNP victory on that scale. As the dust settles, and the parliament works its way through a month of formalities, we can dig out those manifestos and underline those promises we want to remind new ministers of.

In its first term the SNP administration was anything but radical on Land Reform and community empowerment: whether that was a consequence of being a parliamentary minority well never know. What we do know is that the SNP manifesto took a significantly more supportive stance and contained a number of important pledges:

• a Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill, to make it easier for communities to take over underused or unused public sector assets;
• maintained funding for the Climate Challenge Fund over the next five years;
• a new Rural Innovation Fund to support new community enterprise initiatives in rural Scotland;
• a review of Scotland’s land reform legislation;
• a new Scottish Land Fund.

We look forward to all of these!
 
7th April 2011
 
A very Scottish election
My polling card arrived today, 4 weeks to go till the Scottish Parliament election and I have to say iím struggling to raise much enthusiasm. Itís not that there arenít enough issues: Scotland, despite its undoubted natural resources, is a land of great inequalities of wealth and health, where a privileged few own most of the country, and many of the rest die early. Itís also a country where the two dominant ideologies of government - municipal bureaucracy and deregulated finance - have both been unmasked as hollow and helpless to deliver a sustainable Scotland - indeed, they are the problem, not part of the solution,

So this ought to be vibrant and passionate campaign, driven by competing visions of a genuinely flourishing future ScotlandÖ but at the moment it seems to be a very small minded affair, with an apparent consensus that those who got us into the mess are beyond redress and the proper business of politicians is to offer the best package of scrimping and saving. It doesnít help that the Lib Dem vote is in apparent meltdown, leaving the two biggest parties to focus on the middle ground and in particular those disaffected by Mr Cleggís collaboration south of the border, nonetheless I canít help thinking that itís disappointing that, a scant 8 years after the rainbow election of 2003, the Scottish parliament looks like itís slumping back into a two party affair.

Still, thereís four weeks to go, plenty of time for the campaign to catch fireÖ I always vote, but it would nice to do it with hope, rather than resignation, just for once.
 
14th February 2011
 
Warrington!
A rapid blog this week as I get ready for a trip south of the border, to Warrington in fact, to give a presentation at an event entitled "Civil Society, Communities and Woodlands: Emerging Opportunities". Itís an interesting time for forestry down south, with DEFRAís consultation* on the future of Forestry Commission England stirring up huge controversy, not all of it well-informedÖ

On the surface there appear to be significant opportunities for increased community involvement, although less clarity about whether there will be any investment to support it. As with much of whatís mooted under the Big Society banner, thereís a nagging suspicion that itís all just window dressing designed to distract attention from the real business of Government. Itís certainly hard to take such public minded trifles too seriously when thereís an on-going assault on public services and behind the scenes the Treasury is busy legitimising money laundering**

Donít suppose iíll get all the answers in Warrington, but itíll be interesting listening to the discussion.
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21st January 2011
 
Local People Leading is changing.
It seems a long time ago now, but back in July 2006, when I was Chair of CWA, I met Angus Hardie (then Director of the Development Trusts Association Scotland) and Iain Gulland (then CEO of Community Recycling Network Scotland) in a cafe in Aviemore, for a chat about how our respective organisations might work closer together. We soon identified common ground: the opportunities to network, to share knowledge, experience and information, to collaborate on training programmes, and in particular the need to find a common voice for the community sector when attempting to influence policy. We also recognised that there were a number of other community intermediaries who performed parallel roles for their respective sectors: transport, food, housing, etc, and that we needed to invite them into the conversation too.

From these initial, informal gatherings emerged Local People Leading, the campaign for a strong and independent community sector in Scotland, which has grown to include 14 member networks representing well over a thousand community groups. LPL has done much to raise the profile and link the community sector together but there is more work to do particularly with respect to developing supportive policy, so Iím very pleased that the time has has now come for LPL to formally constitute itself as the Scottish Community Sector Alliance. The Alliance will continue to develop LPLís overarching theme of community empowerment, will be committed to greater devolution of resources and decision-making to all of Scotlandís communities, and will promote collaboration and mutual support across the community sector at both community and national levels.

Our key priorities will be a national development strategy for the community sector which embraces land reform, public asset transfer and community owned social enterprise, and an improved system of local democracy which enables much wider devolution of power and responsibility over services and resources from local councils to local communities. We donít imagine these will be easy or straightforward to deliver, but we do believe that in the long term they are essential components of a flourishing, sustainable, empowered Scotland.
Jon
 
17th December 2010
 
Seasonís Greetings
Have to admit i’m not feeling very festive at the moment, all this snow might look very pretty but it’s a pain in the butt if you want to get out and about, grrr…. Anyway, just for once i’m not going to have a rant, instead i’ll use the blog to make a couple of gift recommendations for anyone who (like me) hasn’t done their shopping yet… or maybe just treat yourself!

"The Poor had no Lawyers - Who Owns Scotland (and how they got it)" by Andy Wightman is an epic tale of greed, corruption and lies: the story of the centuries-long land grab by a grotesque cast of crooked and exploitative landowners (aided and abetted by the noble Scottish legal profession), which also sheds light on the ongoing struggle to protect remnants of Scotland’s commons, the muddle that is the community right to buy and why the current SNP government has done so little on land reform.

http://www.word-power.co.uk/books/the-poor-had-no-lawyers-I9781841589077/

"Woodlanders: New Life in Britain’s Forests" edited by Ian Edwards tells the story of people whose lives have been enriched by their engagement with wood and woodlands: through satisfying and valuable work in community projects; by working with wood to make useful, durable and beautiful objects, or for shelter; perhaps gathering woodland materials for craft or fuel uses or foraging for wild food from the woods; or promoting sustainable, low-energy lifestyles and preserving biodiversity. Some have created opportunities for outdoor play in magical settings or simply encouraged kids to enjoy climbing trees and running around, while others have developed creative activities like drama, art or craft projects.

http://www.saraband.net/environment-a-popular-science/212-woodlanders-life-among-the-trees

Happy reading, and enjoy your holidays!

Jon
 
11th October 2010
 
To those who have, more shall be given
Well I wasnít holding my breath for any radical thinking from the Pack Inquiry, but "The Road Ahead for Scotland"* disappoints even against my low expectations. First the good news: there is grudging acknowledgement that sooner or later there will be an end to the astonishing scam by which millions of pounds is paid annually to "slipper farmers" who have long since given up active farming, and tucked away near the the end there is a recommendation of a greater role for LEADER in distributing CAP petty cash.

Unfortunately thatís as good as it gets. You might think that the fact that "for most farm types, the subsidy support that farmers receive is greater than their farm income" would be taken as an indication that thereís something fundamentally and structurally wrong with Scottish agricultureÖbut thatís not a road Pack wants to explore. Clearly the small print remit of the Inquiry was to come up with some new and/or remodelled justifications for continued agricultural subsidy, and much of the text is a robust defence of maintaining and even increasing current entitlements. Indeed entitlement is a very apposite word here, as thatís the sense that comes across strongly from the pages of the report.

One particularly audacious argument relates to the balance between Pillars 1 & 2. (For those who donít know, Pillar 1, which contains most of the money, is direct payment to farmers - or ex-farmers - based on historic entitlement and with no direct relation to public benefit, and Pillar 2 is funding for agri-environment and rural development measures which are at least notionally tied to delivering public benefits). Most of us would, I suspect, rather see public money delivering public benefits than just given away on no stronger basis than that SGRPID gave loads of money to the same person last yearÖbut Pack has a different idea:

"A future support regime should involve minimal bureaucracy. The benefit of the current arrangement is that the majority of Pillar 1 support is distributed through a relatively simple mechanism: financial support gets to farmers without too much bureaucracy. Pillar 2 funds distributed through the SRDP are more focused and targeted at delivering specific outcomes, but the majority of these monies can only be accessed through competitive, and therefore more bureaucratic, schemes. Any transfer of support from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 is likely to be accompanied by an unwelcome increase in bureaucracy." In other words, checking that public money (and weíre talking about well over £500 million a year here) is actually spent on delivering public benefit would cost more, and therefore isnít worth it.

Also, the Inquiry specifically rules out any attempts to force a greening of the industry by tightening the pitifully weak GAEC (Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition) standards. Instead there is a recommendation that a proportion of Pillar 1 subsidies be delivered through "Top-Up Funds" ostensibly directed at tackling fossil fuel usage, carbon emissions and environmental damage (particularly water pollution). However itís clear from the recommendation for industry self-policing that this isnít intended to be onerous: "the key being light touch as regards audit requirement. In the first instance it is unlikely that specific outcomes (e.g. carbon emissions per unit) would need to be specified".

Not surprisingly, the NFUS has welcomed the report with open armsÖbut then they may as well have written it themselves. A rather different perspective comes from Norman MacAskill at SCVO: "we entirely reject the reportís conclusion that there should be no further shift in funding levels from direct support for farmers to rural development measures, including support for village halls and other community facilities, many of which can be accessed by the wider rural community." If this report really does describe the road ahead for Scotland, then it may be paved with gold for some, but itíll be a very rocky and uncertain path for the community sector to tread.
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