Blog: Land owners have rights, how about responsibilities?

Rural housingPeter Peacock discusses how new community right to buy laws will open a new next chapter in Scotland’s land reform story.

There has been much talk of land reform in recent years, but Scotland’s highly concentrated land ownership patterns persist. There are consequences from this ownership pattern in how power and wealth are distributed in our society.

New community rights to buy land kick-in over the next two years; this year the new Land Commission starts its work to keep land policy and law under continuous review; new regulations will be enacted to set up a register of those who control land while hiding their identity behind off-shore ownership vehicles; and the idea of land responsibilities will be embedded in a newly required Scottish Government statement on ‘Land Rights and Responsibilities’. The next chapter in Scotland’s land reform story is opening.

A great deal of the debate about Scotland’s land has revolved around land rights, those of owners, of communities, of tenants, and of citizens, for example, to roam freely on Scotland’s land. All of our land rights are set down in one bit of legislation or another, but little is formally captured about land responsibilities.

Of course, all land owners have clear duties to meet the terms of the law, for planning consents, not to discharge pollutants into the environment, and so on. But is that as far as responsibilities to society go, particularly in a context where so few own so much?

If land owners do have wider responsibilities, what are the expectations we have of those responsibilities? Might they be expressed as helping to achieve greater social justice, of combating inequality, in helping the progressive realisation of peoples’ human rights to decent housing, to employment, to improved living standards and well-being? Might they further embrace a responsibility to manage land to mitigate the effects of, and reduce any contribution to, climate change?

While there may be implied responsibilities to own and manage land sustainably, and to further sustainable development, there would appear to be no explicit responsibility to do so. Do urban land speculators and the owners of derelict or vacant land owe any responsibility to the communities affected by underuse of or the dereliction of land; if so, what are those responsibilities? Do owners owe responsibility to the tenants of their land, and their human rights? Do owners have responsibilities to ensure long term sustainable use of our soils, and to manage their land in ways that don’t contribute to the flooding of not just their neighbours, but those many miles downstream from them? Or do owners of land only hold formal responsibilities to themselves, their family or shareholders; surely not?

It can surely be argued that with land come these sorts of responsibilities, that society would expect that; and the larger the land-holding, or the more strategic it may be in a town or urban context, the greater the responsibility. As yet, little of this is explicit. Even the very notion of more formal land responsibilities is novel in our national discourse about land, and there is very little internationally which suggests other societies have captured this in any detail.

The concept of the ‘Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement’ developed out of the work of the land reform review group and their recommendation on the need for a national land policy statement, built on their thinking that land is a finite and crucial resource that is required to be used and owned in the public interest and for the common good. This has helped shift the focus of debate to what is in the public interest and the common good, rather than on what are private rights by virtue of ownership. The idea of land responsibilities sits well with the idea of land ownership and use that serves the public interest and the common good.

A current Scottish Government consultation offers the opportunity to give views. That consultation is in my view tentative and could go significantly further in setting out the legitimate expectations wider society can have of land owners. We should not miss the opportunity to express views while our land ownership patterns persist as they are.

  • Peter Peacock is a former Scottish Government minister, land reform advocate, and acts as policy director for Community Land Scotland.
  • This article was first published in the Scottish Review

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