New land reform powers could allow Scotland's ministers to break up estates in the name of "sustainable development"

Scottish ministers will have the right to force the sale of private land through the Scottish Land Reform Bill, it emerged last week.

Among the many proposals contained within the new legislation, which includes the return of business rates for shooting estates, this is certain to be one of the most controversial.

Landowners can be stripped of property if certain conditions are met. First, a “significant number” of the local community with a connection to the land must have submitted a written request to the owner to transfer the land. After six months, if there is no assent from the owner, a petition can be made to Holyrood ministers.

For a transfer to be granted, the local community must show that transferring the land would help “sustainable development”, that it is in the public interest, will result in a “significant benefit” to local people and that “significant harm” would come to them without it.

David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, criticised the new legislation for being too vague. He said: “There desperately needs to be more clarity around the circumstances in which a Government minister thinks it right and proper for he or she to decide a landowner is a barrier to sustainable development and forcibly remove someone’s property.”

The effect on local communities

Considering the wildlife management implications of such changes in legislation, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is concerned that private landowners may be “dis-incentivised” from conservation work.

It says it is unclear if there would be sufficient public servants to fulfil this role and suggests local communities may be “challenged in the skills and motivation needed to deliver consistent and professional conservation effort.”

The bill also proposes to greatly extend the right of succession for secure tenant farmers. Under current legislation, farmers are given the right to assign their leases, which means that family members entitled to succeed to the intestate estate (spouse, civil partner, children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews) can take over before the tenant’s death. The landlord has a right to object, though there needs to be reasonable grounds. But that list has now been widened to include not only close relatives such as a parent of the tenant, but also distant ones such as the grandchild of the tenant’s spouse’s sibling.

Mr Johnstone said this was a troubling issue and suggested: “At the least, a test which demonstrates that a successor has a working connection to the farm seems a fair and sensible additional provision and would help secure the ongoing productivity of the farm.”

There are also plans for a land register, with the aim of increasing transparency over the ownership and value of land, while a new Scottish Land Reform Commission will recommend future reforms.