The Scottish Parliament's think-tank

Scotland’s Land: One resource, many uses

Monday 30 October 2023, at the Scottish Parliament

With new legislation expected on agriculture, land reform and the natural environment, there are significant questions about what land use will look like in the future.

How can we best use our land to meet our ambitions to underpin food security, maintain sustainable communities and meet our climate and biodiversity targets?

What are the tensions and trade-offs between policy options, and what does this mean for policy decisions now and in the future?


This event considered how we in Scotland can make best use of one of our most important resources: land

Chaired jointly by Edward Mountain MSP, convener of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee and Finlay Carson MSP, convener of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, the event brought together a range of people with different perspectives and backgrounds to explore the opportunities, tensions and trade-offs in the policies available to us.

The event was opened with a series of presentations, looking at land use from differing perspectives, by:

  1. Nick Halfhide, Director of Nature & Climate Change at NatureScot
  2. Dr Annie McKee, Scotland’s Land Reform Futures project lead, social scientist at the James Hutton Institute and convener of Rural Housing Scotland
  3. Professor Steven Thomson, Professor in Agricultural Economics and Policy at SRUC 


A report of the event will be available in due course.


Nick Halfhide, Director of Nature & Climate Change at NatureScot: An overview of opportunities and challenges in improving Scotland’s natural environment over the coming decade.

Vulnerable to climate chaos

As Nick emphasised, land was one of our key assets and a big player in the economy, sustaining many individuals, businesses and communities, with Scotland’s natural capital valued at £206 billion. However, our land is a finite resource, and large parts of it are degraded.

In his presentation, Nick focused on how we could make our land more resilient. As he explained, the poor condition of much of our land was closely connected with the crisis in our natural world. While increasing climate chaos was a key driver of biodiversity loss, so too was the intensification of land management that had occurred over the past few decades.

Nick pointed out that, in general, land in bad condition not only contributed to climate change through significant greenhouse emissions—for example, from degraded peatland—but made us far more vulnerable to extreme weather brought about by climate change.

Change is unavoidable

As Nick explained, our current land use and management approaches had tended to transform diverse, complex, rough-surface landscapes that hold water, into simpler, less diverse, smooth, and generally drier landscapes. This meant that an increase in severe droughts would present a challenge. More homogeneous land was also vulnerable to pests, pathogens, diseases, floods, and fires.

Nick stressed that we needed to prepare for these climate changes now—they are unavoidable and are proving more problematic than expected even in temperate latitudes, with the next degree of global warming coming three times faster than the last.

Managing for resilience

As Nick set out, we have to change the assumptions behind our land use for the past hundred years or so, such as managing land for a single crop. He argued that we needed an ambitious and risk-based approach to stewardship of our land, as that made sound economic social and environmental sense—as he put it, there was no alternative.

Current practices had to change significantly to enable us to achieve our net zero targets and to build resilience to climate change. He outlined a few key requirements in that regard:

  1. Manage land for resilience. Investing in our land to make it stronger and more reliably productive would leave us better able to cope with extreme events such as flooding and drought.
  2. Move to a biological circular economy. We needed a far more regenerative form of agriculture and better links with nature, and farm and forestry support had to be strongly linked to associated outcomes to build a resilient rural economy.
  3. Learn from and scale up regenerative practices. Such practices built resilience into the system and would cope better with climate extremes, giving more stable and predictable yields over time. Regenerative practices applied in all settings, not just farmland—for example, in peatland restoration, and in towns and cities.

Challenges and choices

Nick highlighted significant challenges and choices in four areas:

  1. Bioenergy—how much land should be used for that, and how should we do it?
  2. Food security—what did it really mean?
  3. Housing and workers—in some parts of the country, housing was the biggest constraint.
  4. Finance—how could we increase landowners’ access to private finance to enable them to make their land more resilient?

“We know how to do this”

Finally, Nick suggested that, while there were challenging times ahead for which we were not well prepared, there was also a vision of hope. Although climate change was unavoidable, we could make our land more resilient and enable its natural processes to function better.

As Nick put it, we know how to do this—we did it in the past, during wartime. We just needed to get on with it and ensure that change was quicker and more extensive.

Dr Annie McKee, Scotland’s Land Reform Futures project lead, social scientist at the James Hutton Institute and convener of Rural Housing Scotland: Exploring the key issues in relation to land reform and communities.

Annie outlined the key challenges and tensions facing policymakers, especially regarding new legislation. To begin, she highlighted a key question: how does our system of land tenure in Scotland support or inhibit the goals that we need to meet?

She defined land tenure as the terms and conditions on which land is held, used and transacted within a particular system of rights and institutions that govern access to and the use of land. As she emphasised, it was about not just laws, but our social understanding of land.

As such, there were three key challenges in respect of Scottish land tenure:

  • There was a lack of transparency and accountability in how land was owned and managed, with a lack of access to integrated, publicly accessible land data. Land management was often not transparent. Mandating the publication of land management plans for large-scale land holdings was a key proposal in the Scottish Government’s consultation on a new land reform bill. As Annie pointed out, transparency was the cornerstone of good community engagement.
  • The increasing scale and concentration of private land ownership, and rising land prices in many areas, were undermining the goal of diverse land ownership in Scotland, as new entrant farmers and community organisations were priced out of land access.
  • Power and inequality remained key characteristics of our land system, making it difficult to achieve a just transition.

Tensions and trade-offs

Annie moved on to summarise the areas that would potentially be addressed in the upcoming land reform bill.

The Scottish Government consultation proposed new duties on classified large-scale land holdings, including a legal duty on owners to comply with the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, along with a public interest test for the sale and purchase of large land holdings and pre-sale notifications for communities.

As Annie stated, there were tensions and trade-offs involved in policy making, especially where land reform policy might contradict with other Scottish Government policies and targets. She highlighted that there were outstanding questions around the scale of land ownership—for example, what did we mean by ‘large scale’? In addition, she argued that the current fiscal context in terms of markets and Government support was challenging the objectives of Scottish land reform, in particular diversity of ownership.

Lessons to learn?

Annie highlighted the New Zealand Government’s emissions trading scheme as an example of the complexities of seeking to achieve a just transition.

As she described, the scheme helped to contribute to a large-scale shift in land use to forestry, with some negative impacts on farming and rural communities. It was now under review, and considerable efforts had gone into working in partnership with farming organisations and communities. Annie identified that there may be lessons to learn from New Zealand’s experience.

Looking beyond land ownership

Annie emphasised the need to consider how best we used our land to achieve our ambitions: underpinning food security, maintaining sustainable communities and meeting our climate and biodiversity targets, along with the need to shift to a wellbeing economy, ensuring a just transition and overcoming social and economic inequalities.

As she noted, it was important that we develop land use plans according to the risks and opportunities facing Scotland. In particular, we needed to look at how land tenure interacted with the risks—for example, were short-term agricultural leases undermining efforts to increase soil carbon?

Annie argued that we needed to look beyond land ownership to achieve these ambitions, and consider what new models of land governance may be necessary. As she highlighted, there was a lot to learn from other countries. She also stressed the need for Government intervention in the land market—for example, through the community land accelerator, which was currently under development.

Rights and responsibilities

Annie asserted that we needed more democratic processes for land use decision making, with meaningful community engagement and representation, an on-going culture of dialogue and efforts to dissolve historical hierarchies. She noted that the forthcoming land reform bill would hopefully promote and support innovations in that regard.

She also argued that we needed a cultural shift in how landowners and land managers considered their rights and responsibilities around land—for instance, to promote human flourishing.

A tricky balance

In conclusion, Annie argued that we needed to have a more open conversation nationally and locally about our land use vision. How would we reconcile what might be in the national interest—for example, woodland expansion—with what was sustainable at a local level, such as sustaining land-based employment?

How would the needs and ambitions of rural communities align with the goals of those who owned and controlled the land resource? As Annie pointed out, there was a tricky balance to be struck between maintaining and enhancing public and private interests in land.

Professor Steven Thomson, Professor in Agricultural Economics and Policy at SRUC: A summary of the outlook for Scotland’s agricultural sector and rural economy.

“A cloud of uncertainty”

Steven described land managers as feeling lost in a cloud of uncertainty regarding Government policy, future climate challenges and their economic contribution to communities.

In considering those issues, he stressed the importance of first recognising what Scotland’s land mass comprised. He acknowledged that land reform was different for different people, and that an open and honest discussion was needed in that regard. For example, who was going to manage the land without large-scale landowners?

As he pointed out, land values were increasing significantly, especially with the potential for corporate insetting from peatland restoration and biodiversity gain. If money came in from outwith Scotland, was that good or bad? As he noted, we needed to seriously consider the impacts that may result from that type of land ownership.

Steven argued that, while we often talked about targets for nature or carbon reduction, we heard less about the current economic contribution of land. As he explained, the benefits of land did not accrue only to the landowner or land manager; access to land benefitted people, for example, and there was a tourism benefit from our landscape.

“Nobody seems to care about them”

Steven emphasised that land use was closely connected both upstream to its supply chain and downstream to processors and food manufacturers and retailers. As such, he argued, it was important to consider the economic consequences of change for the associated industries in our transition to net zero—as he put it, nobody seemed to care about them.

Steven stressed that land was multifunctional—as the latestScottish Land & Estates report highlighted, there were many different activities to maximise economic and environmental benefits from estates. He emphasised the need to consider the impact on small remote communities of policies involving changes to grouse moors or the role of gamekeepers.

He raised a key question: how do we support people in whatever land use transitions that we are seeking? He referred to what he described as huge resistance from the agriculture sector to woodland expansion, given the squeeze on the middle ground: the grassland where a lot of livestock are farmed to produce meat.

Green-on-green trade-offs

Steven set out the interesting economics of the monetary flows to the agricultural sector and associated industries, noting the important role of the renewable energy sector in land use just now.

He flagged up the need to better understand green-on-green issues and trade-offs, with examples such as part-year restrictions around ground-nesting birds preventing full-time jobs in peatland restoration.

In addition, Steven highlighted the issue of crofters’ rights, and contended that our agricultural policy system needed to recompense them for any changes that they had to make in order to meet the peatland restoration objectives.

On biodiversity, he noted that we needed to better understand how we drove biodiversity enhancement, and he emphasised the need to really think through our targets, especially regarding species.

Joined-up legislation and policy coherence

Steven explored the need for policy coherence, highlighting potential interactions between current legislation and plans—for example, between the cross-compliance element of the proposed land reform bill and the Agricultural and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill and its potential secondary legislation.

As Steven emphasised, when it came to land, we needed to start joining up our legislation better. On the same theme, he highlighted a real opportunity to embed the ambition and targets in the proposed Natural Environment Bill, in the Agricultural and Rural Communities Bill or in secondary legislation—for example, through a ‘farming for nature’ ambition.

“We need honest discussions”

Steven stressed that we need honest discussions about what is required to meet emission reductions targets for agriculture. As he argued, we had to keep in mind the justice element of the just transition. He noted that, while we often saw grand ambitions and bold statements, there was no transition pathway, or the pathways were unrealistic.

As he pointed out, driving change required either regulating or incentivising it. For incentivisation, however, budgets were limited and sat within certain areas, mainly agriculture and forestry. As Steven put it, “Are we going to be bold enough to change those distributions? Probably not.”

Turning to Scotland’s updated climate change plan, he stressed the need to consider the global versus local issue in order to avoid perverse incentives, and the need to look at what was happening with scope 3 carbon footprint reporting. As he described, policy needed to catch up with that fast-moving area, as the current approach to reporting could present risks to farmers.

Finally, Steven highlighted a couple of key issues arising from the Scottish Government’s forthcoming land reform bill. On its proposed new public interest test, he raised a question: which public? As he pointed out, we had to think about how we applied a collective public interest test in understanding what was best for our land.

“Can we make it simpler?”

As Steven pointed out, we currently had the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement; the agriculture bill includes a provision for a code of practice on sustainable and regenerative agriculture; and the proposed new land reform bill would introduce further statutory codes of practice.

He questioned whether a collective approach combining those things would be simpler. In particular, he highlighted the proposed natural environment bill as a huge opportunity to link up with the agriculture bill and transform agriculture for the future.

Steven concluded that the status quo no longer had any status—things had changed, and things were changing, and we needed to change our approach if we wanted to derive the desired outcomes from our land in the future.

Q&A Session

A short open Q&A session followed the presentations, with participants considering themes such as biodiversity and resilience, the need for greater regulation and the question of what it might mean to be more radical on land reform in practice.

Resilience requires diversity

As was pointed out, there has been a huge increase in land prices in Scotland, with land being bought up by investors rather than farmers or new entrants. It was suggested that, while radical change ws needed, the horse may have bolted; participants noted that radical policies took time to bed in and could not be undertaken quickly.

Although there was plenty of legislation coming forward, as the presenters outlined, it was argued that, as yet, no clear pathways, let alone policies, had been identified for radical change. A question was raised: how would the various pieces of legislation deliver radical land reform on a timescale that addresses climate change and biodiversity loss as well as ensuring food security?

It was asserted that if we wanted to be bold, we needed to address two issues: capital gains tax rollover relief and the question of who was allowed to own land. It was argued that real radical change would involve looking at fiscal policies.

The capital gains tax rollover relief was currently a major issue, as it played a big role in land value inflation in Scotland. It was also suggested that unless we restricted land ownership, practices such as corporate insetting and associated price inflation would continue. That could be done in a variety of ways, such as restrictions on corporations owning land. It was noted that other countries set tests and restrictions for who owned land, and it was argued that everyone came to Scotland to buy land because we did not impose such restrictions.

On the theme of radical reform, comments were made on biodiversity. It was argued that resilience to biodiversity impacts driven by climate change, and resilience to the climate itself, rested on fairly diverse landscapes, and that monocultures were the last thing we want for our land. It was suggested that, when it comes to landscape, we needed to hedge our bets for greater resilience.

A valuable national asset

On the role of regulation and legislation, it was noted that, as with any national asset, the state needed to make it clear to owners what they had to do, together with penalties for non-compliance and rewards for positive behaviour. Land as an asset was too valuable to be left to an unregulated market.

However, it could be tricky to tweak land regulation sufficiently and take a radical approach, as there was a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It was suggested that, given the timescale involved and the need to be radical, the Scottish Government’s principles for natural capital investment should be put on a statutory footing. A concern was raised that the legislation contained too many ‘shoulds’ in relation to community, biodiversity, land rights and responsibilities, and no ‘musts’.

The forthcoming land reform bill was identified as a huge opportunity to address that, but a lot of work would be required in a very short time to nail down what the principles would mean in practice and what people were being asked to do.

Community empowerment: a whole-population issue

Participants discussed how power differentials affected communities regarding land issues, and how we could empower communities. It was argued that we needed to integrate a vision for the people of Scotland, and participants considered how we ensured that policy always kept the reality of people and place in Scotland foremost in mind.

It was pointed out that recent research had shown that there was considerable public interest in land reform. When people were informed, they could participate and inform policy makers to make better decisions.

It was also noted that, while people often thought of land use as a rural question, it was actually a whole-population issue that brought different populations together.

Speaker Biographies

Nick Halfhide leads NatureScot’s drive to reverse the current decline in nature, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our land and sea, and help nature adapt to our changing climate.  

He is working to protect 30% of Scotland’s land and sea by 2030, restore habitats and species across Scotland, and increase the way society values nature and all the benefits it supplies.  

Nick has 30 years’ experience of working with nature in Scotland. As well as working for NatureScot for over a decade, he has held posts in the Cairngorms National Park Authority, the Deer Commission for Scotland, and South of Scotland Enterprise. 

Dr Annie McKee

Dr Annie McKee is a senior social scientist from the James Hutton Institute, based in Aberdeen. She is a rural geographer with research interests that focus on landownership, land reform, community empowerment, and achieving sustainable development in rural areas.

Annie leads the Land Reform Futures project, which contributes to the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme 2022-2027, and is currently leading a Hutton team exploring the social and economic impacts of ‘green’ land investment in rural Scotland.  

Out-with academia, Annie is currently the voluntary convenor of Rural Housing Scotland, and an active member of the community where she lives in rural Aberdeenshire.

Professor Steven Thomson is a Professor in Agricultural Economics and Policy with 30 years of applied agricultural policy analysis and rural development research. Steven is heavily involved in supporting the Scottish Government design future fit agricultural policy and build on the principles of conditional direct support. 

Steven also works with a wide range of stakeholders (including Scotland’s Farm Advisory Service), consultants, farmers, crofters and land managers on a wide range of agricultural, land use, land reform and communities policy issues through his SEFARI Gateway knowledge broker role. 

Steven is currently the lead for the Rural Futures theme within the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme 2022-2027 where he leads research on Rural Economies within SRUC and contributes to additional projects on: Land Reform; Improving Agricultural Practice; and socio-economic and greenhouse gas impacts from land use.


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