Crofters' right to buy land moves a step closer

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The Independent Online

Radical legislation which would allow Scottish crofting communities to force landlords to sell them their land moved a step closer to becoming law yesterday.

Radical legislation which would allow Scottish crofting communities to force landlords to sell them their land moved a step closer to becoming law yesterday.

The long-awaited Land Reform Bill (Scotland,) which has been compared by landowners to the seizure of white farms in Zimbabwe, was yesterday presented to the Scottish parliament after a nine-month consultation period between landowners, crofters, rural communities and environmental groups.

The new Bill, the first of its kind, proposes a wide range of radical changes to the way land in Scotland is both owned and used by the public.

Among the most controversial proposals is the right for rural communities to take more control of the land on which they live and work.

The amended Bill is divided into three parts; access, community right to buy and crofting community right to buy.

Among the changes which will make it easier for communities to exercise buy-out rights is a change in the number of people needed to constitute a community body, from 30 to 20. A secondary requirement that more than 50 per cent of a crofting community must vote to support a buy-out bid has also been removed from the Bill. The outcome can now be decided by a simple majority.

In addition communities will not have to buy any other land lumped with the sale, although landowners will get more protection against locals "cherry picking" the best plots.

Iain MacAskill, chairman of the Crofters Commission, said: "Crofters increasingly see the need to have more control over their own future and to influence how their community and environment will develop.

"Legislation which allows communities the opportunity to manage and develop their assets in a sensible way is welcomed by the commission."

Jim Wallace, the deputy first minister, claimed the reforms were central to how land would be owned and used. He said: "We want to encourage diversity to make a real improvement to the sustainable development of our rural communities.

"This legislation ensures that crofting communities will be given a guaranteed opportunity to purchase their land, protecting them from the occasional rogue landlord."

However, Robert Balfour, convenor of the Scottish Landowners Federation said the Bill imposed huge penalties on landowners and, "gives the lie to Donald Dewar's vision that the good landowner has nothing to fear".

"Why don't they just be honest and say it's land nationalisation and it's a socialist agenda," said Mr Balfour.

The other main controversial aspects of the new Bill revolve around increased rights of access to privately owned land.

Initial proposals for the Bill launched in February sparked protestsfrom landowners and farmers concerned that the creation of a countryside equivalent of the Highway Code, setting out guidelines for ramblers and a right of "responsible" access to land, including water, for recreation activities, would give walkers too much freedom to roam their land. However, many outdoor enthusiasts complained that the proposals did not go far enough.

Announcing publication of the revised Bill in Edinburgh yesterday, Mr Wallace insisted that while the "main principles" of the proposed legislation remained unchanged many concerns had been addressed.

It had been feared that under the initial proposals governing access rights landowners would be able to opt out and "temporarily" suspend access to their land on grounds of possible damage or interference. That clause has now been dropped as has the introduction of a new criminal offence of trespass, following protests from the Ramblers Association and others.

"We are pretty pleased with what we have seen," said Dave Morris, director of the association in Scotland.

However, publication of the Bill, which will now undergo scrutiny by a parliamentary committee prior to the next stage, was slated by Scots Tories who vowed to fight it, "tooth and nail".

"We don't need new laws. We need less interference," said the Conservative justice spokesman, James Douglas Hamilton.

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