Big Scottish landowners could face fines for nature and climate failings | Land-ownership


Scotland’s largest landowners will be forced to pay fines if they fail to protect nature, local communities and the climate under new land reform proposals.

Landowners who control estates in Scotland larger than 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) will also face losing farming, forestry and conservation subsidies if they fail to meet the Scottish government’s policies on nature restoration or community empowerment.

The radical proposals were outlined in a consultation on land reform unveiled on Monday by Màiri McAllan, the environment and land reform minister, alongside swinging new controls on land sales for the largest estates.

It proposes fitness tests where the buyers of estates larger than 3,000 hectares, including charities and government agencies, must prove they would act in the public interest. Secret land transactions would be outlawed, with local communities told when a laird planned to sell an estate to allow them to consider making a bid.

Government analysis shows this would affect nearly 400 estates on the Scottish mainland, covering approximately 20% of Scotland’s landmass. Much smaller estates on Scottish islands would also be included, on a case-by-case basis depending on local factors.

Ministers will also require estates to identify their ultimate owners, to crack down on the use of offshore trusts and tax havens. They would be expected to prove they are registered for tax purposes in the EU or UK before being allowed to buy large estates.

McAllan said the case for legally enforced transparency rules on ownership was underscored by the sanctions crackdown on Russians after the invasion of Ukraine.

Owners that fail to meet the tests could have compulsory land management plans imposed on them by a government regulator that would oversee all the public policy tests proposed by McAllan, a Scottish National party minister and former property lawyer.

“We have a strong record of progressive and innovative land reform – but this journey is not complete,” she said. “We must continue to develop and implement land reform that addresses historical inequalities and rise to changing social, environmental and economic issues in contemporary Scotland.”

The proposals build on recommendations from the Scottish Land Commission, a government quango, that all estates of at least 10,000 hectares be subject to these controls. McAllan has embraced a lower threshold of 3,000 hectares, greatly increasing the number of estates involved.

Earlier this year, research for the commission found that in 2021 nearly two-thirds of land transactions, including farms and forests, were conducted privately without the land going on the open market. Its analysis shows Scotland has one of the least regulated and most concentrated land ownership systems in Europe.

McAllan said she hoped to introduce legislation in late 2023 and have the powers enacted in 2024. Ministers hope that by then all estates owned offshore will be listed by the Registers of Scotland, which still has large gaps in its public registry.

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However, there were “chunky legal issues” surrounding many proposals that could prevent them being fully enacted, she said.

They could fall foul of the right under article one of the European convention on human rights for the peaceful enjoyment of private property. Estates held by private companies and trusts could also escape sanction because companies law is reserved to Westminster. McAllan said Holyrood was seeking the UK government’s help on enabling it to include company landowners in the proposals.

Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), which represents the country’s largest landowners, suggested this was legislative overload: this was the third land reform act since the Scottish parliament was founded, and transparency rules were being implemented.

Stephen Young, SLE’s head of policy, said: “As regards a public interest test on large-scale transfers of ownership, this is an issue that government itself has said is extremely complex and will need to be considered in great detail.”



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