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Scottish estates face new land reform law threat

Holyrood has launched a consultation on the new legislation, which includes a proposed 'public interest test' for large-scale ownership

Eilean Donan castle

Eilean Donan castle in north east Scotland

Sporting estates are bracing for a fresh round of attacks as the Scottish government kicks off a consultation on a new land reform law. However, so-called ‘green lairds’ may also face challenges to their approach under the legislation.

Announcing the start of the consultation, Màiri McAllan MSP, Scotland’s Minister for Environment and Land Reform, made it clear that large estates and their owners were firmly in the government’s sights. “Private ownership of land — particularly at scale — has in the past conferred significant prestige, associated with, for example, hereditary titles, status and ability to influence policy and law. While many aspects of society have become more equitable, the privilege associated with the ownership of land at scale remains, and takes new forms.”

Land ownership in Scotland is unusually concentrated, with a relatively small number of land owners holding a large proportion of the country’s privately owned land. Debate has raged over how this situation came about and how, if at all, it should be remedied. So far the Scottish government has passed two land reform acts, neither of which have had much effect. Pushing land reform forward has been a pet cause of the left wing of the SNP and their allies in the Scottish Green Party.

The proposed new law would make a number of changes; however, the most controversial is likely to be a proposed “public interest test” for large-scale land ownership.

This could potentially give government ministers the power to block a sale where they thought “a risk would arise from the creation or continuation of a situation in which excessive power acts against the public interest”.

Commenting on the proposal, Stephen Young, head of policy at Scottish Land & Estates, said: “As regards a public interest test on large-scale transfers of ownership, this is an issue that the government itself has said is extremely complex and will need to be considered in great detail.”

Keen Scottish angler and pest shooter David Child was scathing about the whole idea. He said: “Child poverty, a failing education system, ferries that are years overdue and millions over budget, hospitals that are rammed due to COVID. Maybe the Scottish Government should be worrying about these things instead of who owns some glens in the Highlands.”