9 October 2003

(S2O-610) Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003

9. Mark Ballard (Lothians) (Green): To ask the Scottish Executive how much funding is being made available to local authorities to ensure that they are able to develop the core path network, as set out in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. (S2O-610)

The Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development (Allan Wilson): The local authority settlement includes £6.5 million for 2003-04, £7.4 million for 2004-05 and £8.1 million for 2005-06 to enable local authorities to prepare for and to implement the new access legislation, including planning a system of core paths.

Mark Ballard: The consultants' report indicated that, if communities are to get what they expect out of the land reform legislation, a figure nearer £340 million over 10 years will be required. How does the Executive intend to close that gap to ensure that—as Jack McConnell said this morning—speedy progress is made in that area?

Allan Wilson: Mark Ballard has certainly identified a fairly significant funding gap. I think that he perhaps misunderstood my original response. The sums of money that I explained are available are for planning a system of core paths. When we come to establish the core path network, we will have to consider the financial requirement for that.

The core path network will not be the only means by which we will provide wider access to the countryside. Many other funders are involved in providing that, including Scottish Natural Heritage. The core path network is an important means of providing access for people of differing abilities, but it is only one means by which we will provide wider access.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab): Will the minister indicate when Parliament might be able to see the final version of the access code that is so vital to the operation of the important Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003? Does he agree that it is important that the access code reflects the Parliament's intentions and that we get to debate the access code before it is finally agreed in its correct form? Does he further agree that it is important that issues that have yet to be resolved, such as passage around farmyards, are finally and properly resolved?

Allan Wilson: I agree with those points. It is important that the access code is subject to the fullest consultation. It is only recently that SNH has completed its consultation. The matter will then come to ministers for approval and from there to Parliament for its approval. I expect that some of the issues about disputes over access rights to which the member refers will be covered in the local authority access forums that will be set up and will be designed to facilitate dispute resolution.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the £22 million over three years that the minister has indicated will be available. I take it that the money applies to the consultation and the publishing of maps and so forth. Will the minister tell us how many miles of core paths the money will provide and what proportion will be existing rights of way? What further funding will be available thereafter to develop new paths?

Members: Ask the mayor of Sligo.

Allan Wilson: No, but I will get on the case right away. We will get out the maps and the cartographers to check just how many more core paths will be introduced.

I repeat the serious point that the core path network is but one means of ensuring wider and more responsible access to our countryside. We expect that in due course the entire countryside—excluding Sligo—will be opened up to wider access. I know that Stewart Stevenson will support those aims.

(S2F-268) Land Ownership

4. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the First Minister what plans the Scottish Executive has to establish a publicly accessible and complete register showing land ownership in Scotland. (S2F-268)

The First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): Scotland has had a publicly accessible register of land ownership since 1617, which is being replaced by a fully computerised and plan-based land register of Scotland. Land registration is organised by reference to the old counties of Scotland and the new land register has been operational in all those counties since April this year. Registration first takes place when ownership is transferred.

Stewart Stevenson: Is it smart that our current land register conceals beneficial ownership of a huge part of our land? Is it successful to allow that concealment to be used to avoid effective tax collection? Should Scotland's people be able to find accountable owners when they need to? Smart, successful Scotland requires transparent land ownership.

The First Minister: Stewart Stevenson raises two issues. One is about having a complete land register, towards which we are working. The register is added to when land is sold or transferred. In time, that will be a good asset for Scotland.

The second issue is beneficial ownership of land, which the land reform policy group has raised. In the previous parliamentary session, the Executive researched the subject and found that a strong case could not be made for implementing the changes that Mr Stevenson advocates. However, we will keep the matter open for consideration; I am sure that the matter will be discussed in Parliament over a long period.

Rhona Brankin (Midlothian) (Lab): Does the First Minister agree that, although compiling lists and directories of land ownership may be interesting, what really matters to people in Scotland is access to the countryside, regardless of who owns the land?

The First Minister: How the land is operated is just as important as how it is owned. It is also important that everyone in Scotland can enjoy the new rights of access that Parliament has created and of which we should be proud. One obligation that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 created was on local authorities and others to create and maintain a system of paths throughout Scotland. We want to make speedy progress on that in order to ensure that everybody, regardless of their income, background or community, has access to the countryside and the open spaces of Scotland so that they can exercise and enjoy their country.

Colin Fox (Lothians) (SSP): The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations argues that the fact that vast areas of Scotland are owned by a few wealthy individuals, many of whom live abroad as tax exiles and refuse to free up land for housing, is a substantial and serious obstacle to providing social housing in rural areas. Does the First Minister agree with the federation and, if so, what does he intend to do about the situation?

The First Minister: One of the most significant things that Parliament has achieved is a shift in the balance of power, particularly in rural communities, by giving people new rights of ownership of the land on which they live. That measure has had opponents, but I am proud of it. Those rights, which have been overdue for many decades, now exist in Scotland.

I am not in favour of the compulsory transfer of land ownership; the right time to transfer ownership is when the land has been put up for sale. However, where ownership of estates has not been transferred and is in private hands, an important part of our strategy must be to achieve access to those estates to build homes. The new money that Margaret Curran announced this week in Stornoway for rural housing developments will be part of the package that will be considered for that strategy. The money will not be used only for new housing association and local authority developments, but for new developments on private and Forestry Commission Scotland land.

Donald Gorrie (Central Scotland) (LD): In addition to compulsory registration of land when ownership changes, will the minister consider looking back? I understand that the present register is seriously defective because existing owners have not registered. Could the law be extended to make such people register their land?

The First Minister: I have no doubt that there will come a point in the process at which that measure will be required for the last few pieces of land that will not have been registered. The process of moving from the old register to the new one in Scotland has been successful. The move has been done stage by stage, county by county and property by property during the past two decades. We must now look to escalate the process and ensure that property is registered whenever it changes hands. We must also consider a medium-term voluntary agreement by which people can register land, whether or not it has changed hands. Subsequently, at the end of the process, we must consider dealing through a compulsory scheme with the few remaining individuals who have not co-operated.

Brian Adam (Aberdeen North) (SNP): Does the First Minister agree that the option to purchase land ought to be registered, so that the potential beneficial ownership of land, particularly land that might be available for development, is clear and transparent?

The First Minister: We should try to ensure that things are as clear and transparent as possible, but we also need to act in a way that is seen to be reasonable by the public and which is reasonable in relation to the rights that people have over land that they own. That is why we have taken the absolutely right and radical—but not crazy or extreme—step of ensuring that when people sell their property, in certain circumstances they must give the community the first option to buy it.

I disagree fundamentally with the Scottish nationalist party and others, who insist that there should be a compulsory purchase scheme, under which the original landowners would have no rights whatever. That policy is fundamentally wrong, whereas our policy achieves the right balance between community engagement and the rights of those who own the land in the first place.

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