THE land reform debate is centuries old and often highly emotive, but it is one that many communities across Scotland and particularly the Highlands still bear witness to.

It was in the Highlands that the debate originated in Scotland – the late 19th century saw a series of community-driven conflicts centred on local needs. These included economic security, population retention and continued access to the land that had been managed by these very communities since time immemorial.

I always tell the same story about my own forebears – forced to leave their place of birth in droves because of lack of control over land. It wasn’t lack of enterprise, or ingenuity or even finance that ultimately proved to be fatal.

Instead, it was the inability to control a stretch of land that was required to keep the communities alive. Specifically, they were not permitted to build a road to their township – despite offering to pay for it through higher rents and with their own labour.

The landlord – no doubt living it up in London – would not agree. And so in the decades that followed, the community withered and, arguably, died.

The real shock for readers today is that the same issues about land ownership still exist to this day. We know that Scotland has one of the most unusual and highly concentrated patterns of land ownership in the developed world. That is precisely why the case for land reform is so compelling.

Ensuring that communities have access to the right land for the right purpose is the central tenet of reform. The right price is a third issue. Too often communities in both urban and rural Scotland are priced out by private investors. They are made to jump through the same hoops as major corporations and community benefit is reduced to a tokenistic payment.

As a result, these communities are locked out of their share of access to land – a resource quite literally on their doorstep.

Land reform has rightly featured heavily in the work of the Scottish Parliament and the SNP Scottish Government has a strong track record that includes the passing of the 2016 Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which led to the establishment of the Scottish Land Commission.

The Government is continuing to build on that work with ambitious proposals for a new Land Reform Bill, to be introduced over the course of this parliament.

The bill seeks to address long-standing concerns about the scale and concentration of land ownership in Scotland; to improve transparency of land ownership; and to empower local communities by creating more opportunities for community ownership and engagement.

It is imperative however that this bill is ambitious and radical, rather than tinkering around the edges. There are three ways it can capture that.

The first issue is when and how community bodies are given notice of a landlord’s intention to sell, so that they can be involved from the very outset. The bill is likely to include the introduction of a public interest test when large-scale landholdings are to be sold or transferred and a requirement on owners to give prior notice to community bodies of any intention to sell.

However, the proposed threshold at which this is initiated is 3000 hectares. Organisations such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) have suggested it should be lowered to 1000 hectares and others, including Community Land Scotland (CLS), have made the case for 500 hectares. Of course, in all of this, consideration must be given to working family farms who should not be unfairly penalised.

But if most sales are excluded from this test, then I’m not sure how meaningful it will really be – often it’s the smaller plots that make the biggest difference to a landlocked community. That is particularly the case in urban Scotland, where land reform is just as relevant.

THE second issue is how community bodies navigate engagement with private landlords, as equals at the very least, rather than poor relations of the private market.

Sale of land is about so much more than financial returns. It is also about economic prosperity, social cohesion and equal opportunities for everyone who lives on or near the land. The key is giving community groups much greater agency.

In a recently published paper, CLS put forward the idea of a Thriving Community Partnership model, a pattern of working that has been shaped by real community experiences of navigating deals between communities and private landowners. This is particularly relevant just now, with vast areas of the north under discussion for wind farms or new overhead electricity lines. For years, the engagement has boiled down to a pot of money – “community benefit”. It is increasingly seen as a “buy off”

of communities. At the heart of the CLS model is the important notion that community benefit should be far more extensive than a token payment. Thriving Community Partnership Agreements would establish communities as a core part of the consenting and funding processes, not just the recipient of funds.

Community agency – where communities have a real stake, in partnership with other stakeholders and the landowner – is central to the model and the wider aspirations of the partnership.

Each agreement could, of course, differ on the basis of various local circumstance, but all would be expected to include an agreement for community benefit that offers either a percentage share of gross profits from the asset (as opposed to a lump sum) or the transfer of land to the community in order to deliver on local aspirations such as housing and local infrastructure.

Crucially, the proposed agreement would be legally binding between the owner and the local community, with the specific built-in aim of ensuring that a thriving local community can not only develop but be sustained into the future.

From the landowner’s perspective, a healthy and sustainable community is a worthwhile investment – they provide a source of labour, skills, and innovation.

Not only that but by entering into a partnership agreement, landowners and businesses demonstrate a willingness to work with communities on an equal footing and ability to engage with a variety of different stakeholders – a significant boon to reputation.

The third issue is how land reform can address all the many and varied opportunities and challenges inherent in every community’s existence. Community ownership is not guaranteed to succeed and land reform isn’t the be all and end all.

The real question is how to revitalise the local economy, grow the population sustainably, and attract investment in infrastructure – in both urban and rural communities across Scotland today.

To that end, we must continue to support communities to realise their ambitions to deliver in those areas that will address many of these challenges head on. That is why purpose and mission for the land matters just as much as who owns the land.

Land reform absolutely needs to accelerate as a matter of social justice, and the bill is the next big opportunity to do that.

If it is timid, it won’t release the benefits to communities. If its bold and meaningful, it could be transformational. But land ownership is just the first test – the ultimate test is how communities reach wider goals of sustainability, prosperity and equality.