Land reform is for all of Scotland

It’s easy as a new MSP to get caught up in the day-to-day whirl of meetings and debates (and receptions), and to take your eyes off the big picture.

That’s a mistake I’m determined to try to avoid, and that applies to blog posts as well as the day-to-day workload.

One of those big picture issues where my predecessor Robin Harper worked hard over twelve years was land and land rights, and I plan to carry on with that work. After all, the history of Scotland is largely the history of the land itself – who owns it, who lives on it, and what is it used for?

Holyrood has worked to improve many aspects of the relationship between the land of Scotland and those who live here. While other countries abolished the last vestiges of feudal tenure centuries ago, Scotland had to wait until the arrival of this Parliament in 1999, and the legislation which followed the year after.

Land reform and the rural right to buy is widely recognised as one of the most radical changes that this Parliament has made over the last twelve years. For generations, these communities on the margins had clung to their fragile right to work the land – but many of these same communities now own this same land, and are thriving and innovating in ways that should inspire us all.

Beyond that, previous sessions have passed valuable legislation to protect both land and sea, but the momentum has stalled, and there is much more that can be done. This is just one of the many areas where we will see whether Ministers plan to honour their promise listen to other parties. I will certainly be pressing them to use the existing powers of Parliament to make a number of small but influential changes to the relationship between the people and the land.

One of those changes would be to go with Scottish Wildlife Trust’s call for Ministers to look at ecosystem health indicators as part of the land use strategy required under the Climate Change Act. It sounds technical, but the advantages would be quickly apparent. A healthy environment brings wider benefits for society in terms of health, happiness and social inclusion, as well as pure economics. This applies everywhere from sites of special scientific interest through to our urban hedges and gardens.

On planning, we will continue to push a well-defined third party right of appeal. Where developments are proposed which affect the way a community uses their land, why should the developer still be the only person who can appeal a decision? The first twelve years of devolution have seen no decisive action to give proper access to environmental justice – what the wonks call the third strand of the Aarhus Convention. Where planning decisions go against local plans, it cannot be acceptable for communities to have to resort to judicial review. Whether it’s the disgraceful Trump project or the ill-conceived Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, local communities regularly get left out of the process.

It’s also time to take another look at Scotland’s Common Good assets, most of which are the legacies of the old Burghs. They do not belong to local authorities – they belong to local people – and I’ll be pressing the Scottish Government to bring in a full register of these assets and clear and simple legislation to protect them for their original purpose. The same process could define how new assets could be brought into Common Good. A poor version of the same work is underway at Westminster through the Tory Government’s localism agenda. Scotland can, of course, do better.

There are other creative uses of land which are either vulnerable, being squeezed, or being neglected at a policy level.

This month has seen the launch of the Thousand Huts campaign, which aims to promote the kind of hutting people may remember from the Carbeth case, and I’ve been working with Reforesting Scotland and others to build support for them in Parliament. Huts may seem wacky, but in the immediate post-war period in particular they provided affordable access to the countryside for a generation. Across northern Europe and Scandinavia the benefits of huts are widely recognised – for physical and mental health, for happiness and recreation – yet here they remain a minority interest. It’s not hard to see why. Land is difficult to find, under-used and unaffordable. Planning permission is hard to secure, and many landowners regularly try to demolish existing huts and clear land.

Similarly, there are long waiting lists across our towns and cities for allotments – one way to get many of the same benefits as well as supporting healthy food economies and local resilience. I know how frustrating people find this lack of access – it’s a regular source of complaints to councillors and MSPs alike.

The other way in which I hope to follow Robin’s lead is by helping to make Parliament a place where people feel they can come in and tell us what we’re doing wrong (or right, perhaps). So if any readers have views in this area, do drop me a line – alison.johnstone.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

This blog first appeared in www.productmagazine.co.uk