Land reform for thriving rural communities

Below I have reproduced the conference motion which I moved on behalf of the Highland Liberal Democrats at the 2021 Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference. It was passed unamended.

Conference notes that:

  1. Scotland still has one of the most concentrated land ownership patterns in the world, with over half of Scotland’s rural land owned by an estimated 432 landowners.
  2. Lack of land reform is frequently cited as the biggest barrier to building the housing required to address the rural housing crisis.
  3. The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the housing crisis affecting Scottish communities, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, where demand for housing has soared; and in the North East, where the oil and gas downturn has led to a significant decline in the local economy.
  4. Average Scottish house prices rose from £113,289 in 2004 to £181,339 in 2019, well above the average increase in earnings. The Highlands have seen an even sharper rise, with prices increasing from £107,639 in 2004 to £185,178 in 2019, while the Western Isles have seen a rise from £65,189 in 2004 to £123,048 in 2019.
  5. Average house prices in rural parts of Scotland have risen even higher since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, leading to fears of “economic clearances” as local residents are outbid by buyers from across the UK and beyond.

Conference recalls that the Liberal Democrat preamble states our Party’s support for “the widest possible distribution of wealth.”

Conference believes that:

  1. Reforming land ownership, usage and taxation in Scotland will contribute to a fairer society and a fairer economy.
  2. Hyper-concentrated land ownership and absentee property ownership have become corrosive problems across the entirety of Scotland.
  3. Scotland urgently requires a coherent strategy on the ownership and use of land which incorporates human rights and public interest to provide widespread opportunities for ownership of land amongst individuals, community organisations and businesses.
  4. A new land reform strategy should put communities at its heart, strengthening community rights and ensuring that the management of such assets is administered by locally based democratic governance structures.
  5. The Scottish Government’s existing land reform policies do not go far enough to ensure that young people and families are supported to remain in their communities in adulthood. The severe shortage of housing stock in rural areas of Scotland is exacerbated by the lack of available land for building new homes, and ongoing delays in acquiring such land continues to force people into relocating to urban population centres.
  6. Depopulation in the Gàidhealtachd, driven by a lack of housing and jobs for young people, has led to the near collapse of Gaelic-speaking communities. Comprehensive land reform and community-driven affordable housing initiatives are crucial to ensuring the sustainability of these communities and the broader revival of the language.
  7. Greater powers must be given to local communities to resolve their unique longstanding issues and concerns which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Conference calls on the Scottish Government to:

  1. Replace property-based council tax with a locally administered land value tax, encouraging a more proportional system of taxation and fairer use of land.
  2. Expand the Scottish Land Fund to facilitate further community ownership across Scotland, empowering sustainable communities to repopulate.
  3. Prioritise land acquisition for communities by developing a localised service to assist self-builders and communities in securing land to meet housing demand, coordinating with local authorities, landowners and housing associations.
  4. Institute a First Time Builders Fund, modelled on the Scottish Government’s First Home Fund, to support population growth in rural areas where there is no existing housing stock available for purchase.
  5. Extend and expand the Rural Housing Fund and the Islands Housing Fund, in addition to reducing barriers for communities to access the funds in a timely manner.
  6. Give the Scottish Land Commission the power to legally enforce the voluntary Rights and Responsibilities Protocols that govern the relationship between landowners and communities, similar to the mandatory Codes of Practice overseen by the Tenant Farming Commissioner.
  7. Afford rural communities enhanced consultation and consideration by public bodies by prioritising legislation similar to the Islands Act 2018, to ensure that the unique challenges facing rural communities in mainland Scotland are addressed with local input.

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