Scotland’s new Land Reform Bill proposes ‘lotting’ of large properties being sold, in a bid to diversify ownership and give local people more power over their communities – but is bigger better or do good things come in small packages?

Scotland has a total land area of nearly eight million hectares, but its ownership is among the most unequal in the western world.

The majority of ground is held in a small number of hands in a uniquely concentrated pattern that has continued virtually unchanged for five centuries – becoming even more extreme in the past 50 years.

Around 12.5% of the country is publicly owned, but it is estimated that just 430 or so landowners – less than 0.01% of the population – control half of all private land outside the main towns and cities.

Meanwhile, the country is facing a housing crisis, especially in rural areas, with young people and families struggling to find affordable homes or land to build them on.

Efforts to address the issue have been ongoing for the past couple of decades but it is a problem that seems hard to solve.

What has been done so far?

There has been change since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 came into play, with new right-to-buy rules, intended to increase the amount of land held by communities, and strengthening of access rights.

The independent Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) was set up by Scottish ministers in 2012 to identify how land reform might be developed and delivered.

Following the Land Reform Act 2016, the Scottish Land Commission (SLC) was established to drive a programme of reform for both urban and rural areas and create a system where land is owned and used in a fair, responsible and productive way.

It warned ultra-concentrated ownership is damaging life in some places, with a small number of powerful players able to exert high levels of control over the basic needs of local communities.

A Scottish government project which aims to map who owns every part of the country is due to be completed this year.

What’s happening next?

The new Land Reform (Scotland) Bill was introduced at Holyrood last month, with the aim of changing for the better how land is owned and managed in rural and island communities.

Proposals set out in the draft bill include measures that will mean sales of some large landholdings could be stopped until ministers can consider the impact of the transfer on the local community.

This could lead to some properties – those in excess of 1000ha, which represent more than half of Scotland’s land – being carved up, or lotted, into smaller parts if that might benefit local needs.

The ‘transfer test’ is also intended to increase opportunities for communities to own land through introducing advance notice of certain sales from large landholdings.

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Owners of the biggest properties will also face legal responsibilities to show how they use their land and how that contributes to key public policy priorities – such as addressing climate change and protecting and restoring nature.

These owners would also have to engage with local inhabiants about how the land will be used.

Introducing the bill, rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “We do not think it is right that ownership and control of much of Scotland’s land is still in the hands of relatively few people.

“We want Scotland to have a strong and dynamic relationship between its land and people.

“We want to be a nation where rights and responsibilities in relation to land and its natural capital are fully recognised and fulfilled.”

She said the bill would “allow the benefits and opportunities of Scotland’s land to be more widely shared”.

So how will new laws affect land sales and ownership?

Proposals in the Land Reform Bill have sparked mixed reactions.

Rural community groups have welcomed the lotting concept but say the trigger level for transfer tests should be much smaller than the 1000ha suggested, so that the needs of local people can be more effectively addressed.

They recommend a much lower threshold – 500ha, or even less.

But landowners disagree, warning that carving up large estates could have a detrimental impact on everything from food production to schemes aimed at tackling climate change.

Ailsa Raeburn is chair of both Community Land Scotland (CLS), which supports community land ownership, and Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, set up to run the island following a buyout by residents in 1997.

She says the Scottish bill must be strengthened if it is to help rural populations to thrive and remain viable.

“It’s great that the Land Reform Bill is being introduced,” she said, “but actually, as it stands at the moment, it will have no real impact at all.

“Lotting is welcomed, but the size thresholds need to be reduced substantially and we need to ensure when the land is lotted that whoever takes the land on afterwards does what they should do with it.”

She added: “In its current form the will not address the issues it was designed to solve.”

This is one thing landowners and community groups seem to agree on.

Director of policy at membership body Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), Stephen Young, said: “Land management requires long-term thinking and planning and we need to be crystal clear on what our collective goal is and apply legislation consistently to achieve that.

“Unfortunately, the Land Reform Bill appears to create more uncertainty and muddled thinking rather than the clarity we need.”

He insists lotting could hamper nature-restoration work, tree-planting and agriculture, and says reducing the size of lots to 500 hectares would have a particularly big impact on family farms.

“Public support is provided to support the delivery of a range of public goods,” he said.

“If support was to be withdrawn from certain landholdings then it would undoubtedly come at a cost to food production, woodland creation or peatland restoration in Scotland, as well as the jobs which go along with these crucial economic activities.”

He says the bill 'highlights the disconnect between the focus on who owns land and the desire to break up landholdings, the need to tackle fundamental issues that Scotland is facing in terms of the climate and nature emergencies, alongside the need for thriving rural economies'.

Proposals to lower lotting thresholds 'do not seem realistic', according to SLE.

“As Less Favoured Areas (LFA) designation is given to the majority of holdings and agricultural land coverage in Scotland, a 500ha threshold would have a disproportionate impact on family farms,” Stephen continued.