A sustainable policy needed for our land

11 Mar 2015

OWNERSHIP is less important than stewardship, says John Thomson

In obvious respects, a nation’s land defines it, and helps to shape its culture.

So it is hardly surprising that questions relating to land have come to the fore in the continuing ferment of debate about Scotland’s future. Unsurprisingly, given the remarkable concentration of landownership in the country, much of this discussion revolves around the issue of ownership.

Far-reaching as the social and economic implications of differing patterns of ownership may be, the most fundamental question of all is surely whether it is being looked after in ways that maximise its value to the nation and the species we share the land with.

This is why Scottish Environment LINK sees it as vital that the discussions about land ownership proceed with parallel deliberations about future land use. The goal must be to strike the right balance between the public and private interests in land, taking particular care of the needs of the natural world.

The Scottish Government’s current consultation is therefore right to focus on the contribution that land reform can make to sustainable development – if this is defined in the way set out in the Shared UK Principles of Sustainable Development. These require harmonisation of social, economic and environmental objectives within environmental limits, informed by sound science and with active citizen involvement.

Equally crucial, in our view, is the responsible stewardship of land. Landholders of whatever type should be regarded as holding land “in trust” for the wider community – including both future generations and all the other species.

To have a truly sustainable future, Scotland must banish notions of exclusive possession – and of human dominion over nature. Any benefits, legal or fiscal, that society bestows upon those holding land should be conditional upon their safeguarding the public interest in its use and condition. Reciprocal rights and responsibilities are enshrined in the access provisions of the existing Land Reform Act; the time has come to extend the approach more widely.

We therefore welcome, in principle, the Scottish Government’s proposed Land Rights and Responsibilities Policy Statement. But we see it as vital that this vision and these principles are conjoined with the Land Use Strategy required by the Climate Change (Scotland) Act. Together, they should be at the top of the hierarchy, and integrate all the other relevant government strategies and plans for land.

The practical implications of all this might be best teased out in a code of responsible stewardship. Such a code might provide guidelines for the everyday management of land, taking account of the varying conditions across the country.

To be effective, a code would have to be complemented by a country-wide system of indicative land use strategies, of the kind prefigured by the pilot Regional Land Use Frameworks being prepared in Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Borders. Though not prescriptive, these documents might constitute the starting point for any attempt to identify the public interest in the management of any specific area of land.

They could also become the key to the allocation of public funds in programmes such as the Scottish Rural Development Programme and all land subsidies.

Such a regime would, of course, apply as much to communities (whether of place or of interest) as to individuals. While we enthusiastically support the goal of bringing unused physical assets into use for the benefit of local people, we have no doubt that, in their use of land, communities should be expected to meet exactly the same standards as all land managers.

Such a comprehensive and cohesive approach might go far to set Scotland’s treatment of its land on the more sustainable path that it so badly needs.

If land reform does not lead to major changes in attitude and behaviour, a unique, and possibly unrepeatable, opportunity will have been missed.

On the other hand, an ambitious, Scotland-wide effort to re-set the rules of the game could yield huge dividends, and could make Scotland the envy of much of the developed and developing world.

John Thomson is convenor of the Scottish Environment LINK Landscape Task Force

This article was first published by The Scotsman on 10th March 2015

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