Johnstone’s View - Interesting proposal for rural owners

Sometimes, you can watch a Scottish Government proposal unfold in much the same way as the plot of an old ‘B’ Movie.

Imagine if you will, the events leading up to yet another Nationalist Government initiative, shown as a boxers training montage as he readies himself for a fight.

Months and months, if not years of hard work shown in just a few moments, but instead of an ‘against all odds’ victory, just as our prize-fighter steps into the ring, he slips, falls flat on his face and knocks himself unconscious.

A rather sad ending, but it’s an extraordinarily accurate analogy when it comes to SNP schemes.

The latest such scheme is the Land Register. This is described as “a map-based public register of who owns land and property across Scotland. It’s based on the Ordnance Survey map, and includes plans of registered properties.” It would, the SNP argued, help provide a clearer understanding of who owns what in Scotland.

It is an interesting proposal, especially I think, for rural landowners in the Mearns. The information on the land register is, we are told, secure, reliable, and accessible, although following the highly publicised recent hacking of a website promoting marital infidelity, I am not sure such guarantees are worth terribly much. We are further informed that ‘Every title on the register is protected by a state-backed guarantee.’, though why this is required is not fully explained.

But having got this far, it is at this point the scheme appears to fall flat on its face. The proposal was to formally register 343,000 pieces of publicly owned land by 2019. It is an ambitious target. Especially ambitious as we now know that it is laughably behind schedule. So far behind schedule in fact that only nine of these applications have been processed.

Ministers had previously demanded that all public land be entered on a register, with the scheme starting in December last year. It was estimated that the cost of the process would be between £15 and £85 million.

However, the initiative has managed just one entry a month. This means that they would need to process an additional two hundred and thirty-four each day from now on to hit the target. Looking at it another way, it would take the SNP an astonishing 28,000 years to process all public land entries at the current rate of progress.

So far, so interesting, but what about the cost of this scheme? Well, £10,000 has already been spent submitting the handful of submissions, which suggests to me that even using John Swinney’s now world famous magic calculator, the Scottish Government has, as ever, significantly underestimated the cost of this project.

If the Scottish Government continues this trend, then the total cost of the scheme would be more than £340 million. Far in excess, of the £15 -£85 million predicted at that start.

The drive to register all Scotland’s land was announced in May last year, with the Scottish Government arguing it would help provide a clearer understanding of who owns what.

I think we need to look at this in the broader context of the SNP’s Land Reform Bill which is set to have a substantial impact on the country’s land and property markets, especially in rural areas such as the Mearns because agricultural holdings account for a substantial quantity, almost half in fact, of the Land Reform Bill.

I appreciate that there is an argument for some land reform, but the problem is that the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has described the Bill as ‘vague, subjective and inconclusive’, and are urging the Scottish Government to undertake a full impact assessment before any of it is implemented. Even the National Farmers Union of Scotland, who have enjoyed a hot-line to the heart of government in recent years, are now at panic stations over some of these ludicrous proposals.

Concerns have also been widely expressed that the current timescale for implementation is too tight. Given the pantomime performance outlined above, I’d say this was a very real concern.

While the issue of land reform may well play to the SNP’s hundred thousand new members who have recently switched their alliance from Tommy Sheridan and who’s Soviet/Stalinist votes the SNP continually seeks to woo, it does nothing to instil confidence among land-owners and those employed in the sector up here.

This is not just a short term measure from which the rural economy may, or may not lose out. The proposal is also to tinker with the system every five years, thereby creating uncertainty and developing a lack of confidence in a market which really needs long term stability in which to flourish. We deserve better in the North East. Problem is however, this Scottish Government no longer governs in our interest.