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Election thinking….

Mark Walton

Mark Walton has a look through the manifestos to see what the major parties are saying about land – and reflects on the difference between the piecemeal approach to land issues in England and the more strategic approach taken in Scotland.

You might have noticed that there is an election happening! 

Reviewing the parties’ manifestos it’s startling to see that issues relating to land have risen rapidly up the political agenda in recent years. Whilst there is the range of differences that you might expect in such a polarised election, all the major parties have some land related policies.

All make some mention or pledge with respect to:

  • the reform of farm subsidies to regard environmental stewardship and ensure that public goods are delivered in return for public funds,
  • nature restoration in the context of addressing climate change and ecosystem losses; in particular increases in tree planting and peatland restoration, 
  • the creation of new National Parks and other forms of landscape designation, and
  • access to land, ranging from new a National Trail (Conservatives) to a full ‘right to roam’ (Greens) and the consideration of a new ‘right to roam’ for waterways (Liberal Democrats). 

However there are some stark differences too:

  • Labour and the Liberal Democrats both talk about the ‘public goods’ that are created from land but only the Greens have a proposal for a Land Commission to investigate the effects of concentrated land ownership on food and farming systems, housing, local economies, cultures and livelihoods. 
  • Conservatives propose to make intentional trespass a criminal offence with potentially severe consequences for a wide range of people, including travellers and protestors. 
  • Meanwhile Labour have an explicit commitment to county farms and a review of the Allotments Act within a wider commitment to a ‘right to food’, whilst the Greens pledge to support urban food growing.

Whilst this renewed recognition of land issues is welcome the proposals for changes to land policy are notably less joined up than the approach delivered in Scotland over the past 20 years. They largely respond to a range of perceived contemporary, and primarily environmental, ills rather than see land as a more strategic issue and as a foundational component of a much broader policy agenda including both community empowerment and local economic and social regeneration. 

The proposals for changes to land policy largely respond to a range of contemporary, primarily environmental, ills rather than see land as a foundational component of a much broader policy agenda

Land reform in Scotland was initiated even before the Scottish Parliament was established; a Land Reform Policy Group was set up in the UK Government Scottish Office to develop recommendations for post devolution land reform measures that would “remove the land-based barriers to the sustainable development of rural communities”.

Since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, there has been a raft of legislation to take forward this ambition and to extend it to urban communities; including the abolition of the feudal land tenure system, two Land Reform Acts, and a Community Empowerment Act.  

This legislation has been underpinned by a Scottish Land Fund which has provided funding to communities to purchase land, by support organisations such as Highland and Island Enterprise and Community Land Scotland, and by the Scottish Land Commission which reviews the impact and effectiveness of any law or policy and recommends changes to legislation and policy based on evidence and research.

You can see a full timeline of these legislative changes here: Scottish Land Reform Timeline

So what has been the impact?

A raft of studies have demonstrated:

  • Economic benefits including; the creation of new jobs, new housebuilding and commercial development, and the creation of new crofts and allotments and the new visitor facilities and accommodation. 
  • Community development benefits including; the ability to access funding, to borrow against the value of the asset enabling more ambitious development, to retain the profits raise local incomes and employment, and promote community cohesion and pride through building confidence and a sense of self-worth through control of an asset.
  • Individual benefits including; building confidence and energy by collectively building a framework for economic development and the ability to deliberately take decisions about their future, and to be proactive and future-focused. This higher degree of participation has created a stronger sense of belonging and satisfaction in comparison with the wider populace.

 

A Land Commission for England would help us understand the impacts of the current land system, set objectives to guide how we own, manage, and make decisions about land, and recommend changes to policy

Given the failures of our current economic system to deliver for our geographically and socially marginalised communities, and the desire for communities to have more control of their own lives, resources and destinies, the lessons from Scotland are compelling.

If we had to choose one policy from all those currently on offer it would be the establishment of a Land Commission for England. This is a proposal that has appeared in the Land for the Many report commissioned by Labour, but which only currently features in the Green Party’s manifesto. 

A high level commission would help us understand the impacts of the current land system, set some social, economic and environmental objectives to guide how we own, manage and make decisions about land, and recommend changes to policy and legislation. Land is a critical resource in how we address the collective and urgent challenges we face, from climate change and ecological crisis, to marginalisation, exclusion and creating economies that deliver for everyone. We need to move away from the piecemeal and reactive approach we currently see to these issues in England.

No matter who forms a government after the 12th of December we’ll be continuing to advocate for such a Commission and for a land system that works for everyone.

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