Argument has broken out over Scottish Government proposals in its Land Reform Bill, which was published this week.
Borders MSP John Lamont has described the bill as a cynical “land grab”, while Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead, said it was about finding a way of preventing poor land management affecting economic development.
Land reform was set out by Nicola Sturgeon shortly after she became First Minister late last year, when she said that land “must be an asset that benefits the many, not the few”.
It has been claimed that more than half of Scotland’s privately-owned land belongs to fewer than 450 people, making it, in the eye of some, the most unequal country in Europe.
Among the most contentious proposals are the end of tax relief for shooting estates and the forced sale of land if owners are deemed to be blocking economic development.
Sporting estates have not had to pay business rates since 1994 after they were granted an exemption from them by John Major’s Conservative government.
Now the Scottish Government is proposing to use monies raised by ending that exemption to treble the Scottish Land Fund, which helps support community buy-outs of land. The fund’s coffers could swell from £3million this year to £10million a year from 2016.
Holyrood has a target of doubling the amount of land held in community ownership to one million acres by 2020.
However, landowners claim that re-introducing business rates could make some sporting estates unprofitable, and thus force rural employees out of work.
David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, which represents private landowners, has said that sporting estates were “too readily singled out in a negative light,” when in fact “they were businesses that made a key contribution to rural tourism, local employment and the environment”.
Mr Lamont said the proposals did not address peoples’ concerns: “People in the Borders want to see a strong rural economy, more local jobs, better broadband and an improvement in local services.
“These proposals won’t deliver any of this. Instead, they represent a huge increase in government interference in land ownership and a £7million tax bill for estates which employ hundreds of people.”
Mr Lamont continued: “This Scottish Government needs to see landowners as part of the solution, not part of the problem and must recognise the contribution estates make to rural economies and rural jobs in the Borders.”
Mr Lochhead countered that the proposals worked in the interests of the Scottish public.