Rural Exchange

SRUC at the RHS 2024: Impressions on the Land Reform Panel

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SRUC at the RHS 2024: Impressions on the Land Reform Panel

SRUC’s Professor Andrew Barnes took part in a panel discussion on the Land Reform Bill at this year’s Royal Highland Show. Here he shares his reflections from the discussion:

This year I was invited to sit on a panel about the new Land Reform Bill alongside Andy Wightman, Sarah Jane Laing (Scottish Land and Estates), Christopher Nicholson (Scottish Tenant Farmers Association) and Hamish Lean (Shepherd and Wedderburn).  I’d like to start with the future and what do we want from our land. I would argue that we want a land use sector that:

  • -          meets and goes beyond our commitments to Net Zero and the biodiversity emergency,
  • -          is innovative, entrepreneurial and financially sustainable, for the good of the economy,
  • -          meets these targets under a Just Transition.

This essentially should mean an approach which finds a shared solution, but also demonstrates the urgency needed.

The Land Reform Bill was introduced to Scottish Parliament in March 2024. It is part of Scottish Government’s land reform agenda, which aims to “improve Scotland’s system of land ownership, use, rights and responsibilities, so that our land may contribute to a fair and just society” (further details found here).

Does the proposed Land Reform Bill provide a basis for helping to underpin these commitments?

The Bill has ambition to support these principles. But it has emerged from a noisy and often contested landscape. For me, there is concern that things will fall between the cracks, for example in the case of the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill which is introducing rationales for payment of measures which improve our natural capital.  Moreover, we need to be mindful that we are not creating thickets of bureaucracy that work against the principles of the government’s common goals around achieving Net Zero in a Just Transition and restoring biodiversity. At worst if there is disconnect between these bills this may act as a disincentive for people to make any positive change to the land they manage. 

Scotland is a nature depleted country, it is ranked 28th from bottom in world rankings according to the State of Nature Report. It has an ambitious climate agenda but has failed consistently to reach its own target annually. Some people will align that with the high degree of concentrated land ownership but that may be too simplistic a narrative and further evidence is needed on causality rather than association. SRUC has researched the effects (both positive and negative) of land ownership concentration on behalf of the Scottish Land Commission, but more work is needed.

Does the bill recognise market trends?

On first reading of the Bill, it appears more like a government intervention to correct a broken market. But I wonder how much recognition of market trends are embedded within the Bill to ensure an effective addition to our legislative arsenal. Moreover, a wider set of measures, such as our fiscal frameworks are behind some of the longer-term trends. This week, SRUC co-authored the Rural Land Markets Insight Report 2024. It is the third report in the series and provides insights on recent and emerging trends in the land market for the year 2023, based on discussions with land agents operating across Scotland in all sectors of the land market. Overall, it finds a slowdown in land trades and more complex off-market transactions. Hence, given the high prices of land and the slowdown in turnover, this may be a brake on the ambition for diversifying land ownership. Uncovering these dynamics in the land market is an important task to continue over the coming years, to build a more complete understanding of how external market forces and government policy can affect the market.

SRUC and others have worked on joining, cleaning and analysing land ownership data in order to map Scottish landownership. This arduous process is accelerating and at some point these data will be “good enough” to be accessed and used more widely. This is important, as there is not a clear picture of who owns land in Scotland. It is also highly novel research that overlays land use data and financial incentives over the base layer of land ownership. It will be a useful tool in understanding whether a recent land transaction results in a land use change (for example a Natural Capital Investor buying some marginal land for tree planting). Therefore, how this Bill accommodates the wider sphere of institutional intervention and innovation is a key question to pose here.

Is the guiding assumption of the Land Reform Bill that scale is bad?

This Bill should try to steer a course that embeds the efficiency of food production and the improvement of ecological health and biodiversity. If we want a resilient and sustainable sector, we want ‘clean growth’. Diversity in scale is also important. There is a 3,000 ha scale threshold for Land Rights and Responsibility Statements which require collaboration with local communities. But there is a diversity in what makes up the 3,000 ha. Here I’m thinking of hill farms – a land use that often require scale, that can align with the priorities highlighted above, and which require support. These are already extensive and offer some of the nature based and societal benefits the Bill is trying to achieve. Hence, some further innovation is needed to distinguish and accommodate between these different types of land owners and land use is required.

For example, as part of the Mapping Scottish Landownership report, researchers at SRUC have developed a land ownership typology to categorise individual parcels of land according to size, ownership, land use type, size descriptor, and any defining characteristics. When considering the descriptor of a parcel of land and categorising as “small”, “medium”, or “large” this typology accounts for both the quality of land (using JHI Land Capability for Agriculture classifications) and land use type (farm, estate, forest). This moves away from categorising land solely based on hectarage and can take a more nuanced account of differences in scale. This in turn could enable more nuanced policy making around scale, recognising that scale is not inherently “bad”.

The argument for more diversity of landownership is a strong one when judged against Scottish Government ambitions, but collaborative effort is needed between communities especially if we want to join up the landscape patchwork and protect habitats. Community motivations may be diverse, habitat fragmentation may occur, and we may lose ecological corridors. On top of the Nature Network and Regional Land Use Partnerships, and there may be  a role for the Government appointed Land and Communities Commissioner to oversee these efforts.  This role is not overly prescribed at this stage of the Bill’s development but must balance a regulatory role with one of consultation and we hope, would not stifle open collaboration between parties and hinder the development of a Wellbeing Economy.

Through a Just Transition lens, if the local community is involved then you can get ownership of change, empower communities and tackle inequalities. But we need to clearly articulate the routes to Community Wealth Building (CWB) in this Bill. There are five interlinked principles of CWB: progressive procurement, fair employment and just labour markets, shared ownership of the local economy, socially just use of land and property, and making financial power work for local places. However, it is important to understand how these might apply differently in rural and island contexts, and how policy and practice may need to reflect that.

Will it improve engagement in sustainable and regenerative farming?

The Bill vocalises a number of approaches that could be considered regenerative or sustainable farming practices. These measures include (among others) the laying down of permanent pasture, making water-meadows, the warping or weiring of land, or re-wetting of wetlands, creating species-rich pasture, creating silvopasture and silvoarable systems and peatland restoration. This should be welcomed in principle but needs to go further, to establish these “improvements” as other than a basis for more disputes. Additionally, some tenant farmers are already employing these or similar methods so in order to track the success of the Bill we need to understand what the baseline is.  

Moreover, these tenant improvements which “enhance or facilitate sustainable and regenerative farming” are aimed at encouraging the adoption of these wider land use measures which are otherwise restricted. One aspect that may be implied, or is missing, is the reward for protecting and building natural capital from a tenant farmer’s perspective. This is saving to “nature’s bank account” which would be of benefit to the owner of the land for generations to come. I would argue there are ways we could baseline and monitor improved ecological health that are robust, using sensing data. This could feed into the principle of long-term growth in natural capital which is included in the Bill.

More training and demonstration are needed on these “improvement” methods to support tenant farmers in making changes. This may be equally as important as the creation of markets to reward these practices. So, the reduction in institutional barriers to sustainable and regenerative farming practices is a positive step, but there is a need for more background support to achieve this aim of the Bill.

We want an innovative and entrepreneurial sector.

A healthy tenancy and letting sector is needed to break down barriers to entry, for young farmers in general as well as “new” entrants. This would help bring more diversity in the innovative and entrepreneurial skills needed to develop a sustainable Scottish land use sector. The Bill currently offers nothing on new entrants nor how we can manage their entry into this market.  Moreover, we need to be careful that we maintain a healthy tenancy ladder – small, medium and large, for those folk wanting the choice to develop their farming skills successfully and allow greater mobility. Hence, it is essential that the bill  focuses on mechanisms for building trust, or at the very least not for losing trust, which may affect the flow of land within the market.


Overall, the panel discussion brought to the surface a range of opinions around the new bill, some negative and some positive.  It was a pleasure to have been invited, and to showcase some of the research we are doing in the area of land reform and sustainable farming. 

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