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28 June 2012

S4M-03408 Long Leases (Scotland) Bill [Close]

Stewart Stevenson:
I welcome the positive contribution to the debate from members across the chamber and the indication that this highly technical bill, which has raised a significant number of issues, will be supported, unless people change their minds when we come to decision time.

I will say a little about the common good. I have been passed the Common Good Act 1491, which is a modest little act that contains two sentences. We have been having a little debate, and we believe that it was passed under James IV, but we will be certain if somebody can enlighten us. I will translate the act from Scots into English. It simply says:

“Item, it is stated and ordained that the common good of all our sovereign lord’s burghs within the realm be observed and kept to the common good of the town and to be spent in common and necessary things of the burgh by the advice of the council of the town for time and decades of crafts where they are”

in other words, for ever. That is it. That is what the approach is founded on. When such modest, little acts—it was the 19th act in 1491—are translated into the modern era, they leave certain interesting and important questions unanswered or uncertain. In talking about the common good, we must recognise that.

The consultation that is open, which includes questions on the common good, is an opportunity to start to understand the status quo and to work out what the new status of the common good might be in the future. Perhaps it is time to move away from the complexities of the past and state some simplicities that are fit for purpose for the future. However, that is for another day and, I suspect, another minister. I am taking the bill forward because the leases that are affected by it are largely rural leases, but it is perfectly fair to say that a range of ministers could have stood here to speak about this particular issue.

Alex Fergusson apologised for repetition. Obviously, he has forgotten one of the important rules of politics: a debate is not over when everything has been said; it is over only when everybody has said it. Perhaps this debate clearly illustrates that point.

Annabelle Ewing highlighted her experience as a conveyancing lawyer, and I listened carefully to what she had to say.

I am grateful to Margaret McDougall for the albeit transient promotion in the interstices of this debate. She effectively described some of the difficulties that she has experienced in local government in finding out whether something is a common good property. The reality is that a document in somebody’s file somewhere—not necessarily in the files of the council concerned, of course—that says that something is common good property may be all but impossible to find unless it is known that it exists in the first place. There are genuine and significant concerns.

Jim Hume in a sense recognised that consensus probably has been achieved. The Government has responded to the issues as they have arisen and I hope that, as he looks at Labour’s review of its position, he remembers a response given by someone else:

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

I suppose that that is a question that we might address to Mr Hume. Grown-up politics involves recognising that there is a debate, that the debate moves on, and that we take positions as it moves on, as we in the Government have done.

We will continue to work on the common good with local authorities. Local authorities were open and honest with the committees, gave it their best shot, and showed a depth of knowledge and understanding. Paragraph 55 of the Justice Committee’s stage 1 report says:

“This Bill is not about common good. It is about ultra-long leases.”

The conclusion in paragraph 61 of that report is:

“The desirability for certainty from this legislation and the provisions for compensation provided in the Bill have led the Committee to conclude that it is not persuaded, at this time, that there is a compelling case for exempting leases of common good property from this Bill.”

Paragraph 127 of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee stage 1 report says:

“The Committee is not persuaded by the arguments made thus far to exempt ultra-long leases on common good land, however, neither is the case against this exemption a clear and compelling one.”

There are a number of reasons against the exemption, as I said earlier. The bill does not take account of who the landlord and tenant are and is blind to that. Decisions on development should now be for the planning system. Alex Fergusson referred to enlightened feudal landlords who helped to build the attractive facades that we have in some of our cities. Of course, it is fair to say that not all feudal landlords were enlightened. That is why the feudal system has been addressed over recent decades.

We need to protect common good land and we will not forget about that. Indeed, our consultation document on the proposed community empowerment and renewal bill has two specific questions—25 and 26—on the issue. I draw members’ attention to the fact that that consultation does not close until 29 August, so if they are short of things to do over the summer recess they can read the consultation document and respond. I do not think that anyone should stand in this chamber or any in other forum and suggest that they have all the answers on common good—that would be specious. It is a genuine question that we should all turn our minds to. Those of us who have been involved in the debate are probably relatively well placed to understand some of the complexities and uncertainties and perhaps make a contribution to the consultation.

I confirm again that I will write to local authorities saying that any compensatory and additional payments should go to the common good fund if common good land is affected, while recognising that the amounts will be very small. We have prepared the letter and, assuming royal assent for the bill, it will go out shortly thereafter.

Land registration came up again in the debate. Our commitment to land registration is shown by the Land Registration etc (Scotland) Bill that we have just put through the Parliament. Again, that bill arose as the result of a Scottish Law Commission report. That highlights the value of having some of the best of the legal brains out there engaged in the issues of reforming Scotland’s law and identifying what needs to be done. Mr Ewing said on 31 May during stage 3 consideration of the Land Registration etc (Scotland) Bill that it

“provides the legal framework that will allow the land register to be completed.”—[Official Report, 31 May; c 9596.]

We will ensure that officials continue to work with Registers of Scotland on that.

We need to ensure that information on the provisions of the Long Leases (Scotland) Bill reaches landlords, tenants and their legal representatives. As ultra-long leases are concentrated in particular areas of the country, we can target the information at those areas. We will ensure that we have articles in relevant publications and will provide information on the Scottish Government website and the Registers of Scotland website.

Our intention is that the appointed day for the bill’s provisions will be in 2015, which should give sufficient time for parties to prepare. We will need some secondary legislation, particularly in relation to forms, and we will consult on those, in line with our best practice.

I am grateful to colleagues across the chamber for their work on the bill. It is a technical bill, but no one could accuse the process of having been dull. Indeed, there have been sparks of humour from many of those who have contributed to the debate.

The bill team had to advise a minister who usually works outside the justice area, but they were superb in their support and in ensuring that the minister was properly engaged and had a proper understanding of the complexities and the legal aspects. I have thoroughly enjoyed having their support.

The bill is an overdue bit of land reform that will reduce costs and complexities, and we have had an excellent debate on it. The common good debate that we have had will warm up the debate that will follow on the consultation that is currently on the table, as I said. I hope that members who have just joined us in the chamber will consider responding to the consultation on common good.

I commend the Long Leases (Scotland) Bill to members and I urge them to support it at decision time and to ensure that their constituents, when they meet them, are aware of the contents of the bill and the opportunities that come with it. We can all play a part in finally ending the feudal system in Scotland.

S4M-03408 Long Leases (Scotland) Bill [Open]

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-03408, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the Long Leases (Scotland) Bill.
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10:37

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Although this is quite a lengthy bill, its key principle is very simple: it converts to ownership ultra-long leases, which are defined as those that are more than 175 years long and which, in the case of residential property, have more than 100 years left to run at the appointed day or, in the case of non-residential property, more than 175 years left to run.

Under the bill, renewals that the landlord is obliged to grant are taken into account when calculating the duration of leases. Examples of that can be found in Blairgowrie. We estimate that the bill will cover around 9,000 leases, but it excludes leases in which the annual rental is more than £100 and in which, therefore, the landlord has retained a genuine interest.

The bill is a modest simplification of property law. Although ultra-long leases are akin to ownership, they are not quite ownership and that can cause problems. For a start, there may be inappropriate conditions in what are often quite old leases. Lenders might not fully understand the precise nature of the title, which might make it harder for the tenant to obtain a loan using the property as security. Moreover, conveyancing lawyers have told us that they groan at the sight of an ultra-long lease, as it makes completing a transaction relating to the property more complex.

Reform was therefore needed. At the end of 2006, the Scottish Law Commission produced the report that we are now seeking to implement. As the Law Commission said when it issued its report, the aim is to

“bring law and reality into line by converting such leases into ownership.”

The implementation of the report is part of the implementation of a series of reports on property law by the Law Commission. The work includes the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc (Scotland) Act 2000, the Leasehold Casualty (Scotland) Act 2001, the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004. Indeed, work on the reform of property law and the abolition of feudal tenure has been going on for some time. For example, the Land Tenure Reform (Scotland) Act 1974 prohibited new feu duties, conferred a right to redeem feu duties voluntarily and provided for the compulsory redemption of existing feu duties when a property was sold. So this bill completes an aspect of property law reform. I take this opportunity to record my thanks to the Law Commission for its work on property law reform.

We have, of course, just appointed a new chair of the Law Commission: Lady Clark of Calton. Lynda Clark will be known to many of us, and the Government looks forward to working with her on the reports that the commission produces and on helping to implement those reports.

The value of the commission’s work is shown by the detail of the bill. I said that the bill has a simple concept at its heart—conversion to ownership—but it has to protect landlords’ rights, too, which is one of the reasons why it is fairly lengthy.

The bill makes provision for a number of leasehold conditions to convert to real burdens in the title deeds; it allows landlords to preserve sporting rights; it makes provision for compensatory payments to be made, based on the rent that the landlord will lose; and it makes provision for additional payments to be made, to reflect other rights that the landlord may lose.

In many cases, the detail of the bill may not have much impact on individual leases. On sporting rights, the commission noted in paragraph 5.13 of its report:

“Although not common in the context of ultra-long leases, the rights where they exist may be of considerable value.”

The typical annual rental in an ultra-long lease is less than £5, so the compensation for the loss of rent will, inevitably, not amount to very much either. The commission noted in paragraph 6.28 of its report that cases where additional payments will be claimed

“are likely to be rare”.

However, the provisions will be needed in some cases and they are there to protect landlords’ rights.

There has been vigorous debate about some of the provisions of the bill when it was considered during the previous parliamentary session by the Justice Committee and when it was considered this time around by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. The bill has been improved as a result. The scrutiny that the bill received at stage 1 showed the benefit of the Parliament’s processes, and we have had the benefit of two excellent stage 1 reports.

Before the bill was introduced to Parliament again in January, we made some amendments to reflect the Justice Committee’s report. We added an exemption for harbours, we clarified the exemption for pipes and cables, and we made provision to allow landlords to register an exemption where the rental is over £100 a year. That reflects the fact that the lease may include variable rental, which can mean that the annual rent paid is more than £100 a year.

In this parliamentary session, further amendments have been made to reflect the evidence that was taken. We have amended the requirement in relation to the unexpired portion of a lease, to draw a distinction between residential and non-residential leases; and we amended section 2 to reflect the fact that the annual rent payable under a lease can be varied by a registered minute of variation or agreement.

I appreciate that much has been made about the common good—the debate that we have just had reflects that. The Government is taking very seriously the issues that were raised in that debate. However, we are very reluctant to cut across the general principle in the bill, which is that ultra-long leases akin to ownership should convert to actual ownership.

The bill is part of wider work that has been carried out to reform property law. Clarifying the law in this way will make life easier for tenants in ultra-long leases and lenders and solicitors engaged in transactions relating to the properties. Ultimately, I presume that its simplification will relieve many transfer transaction costs. The bill is not magically going to transform the world, but I think that I can say without fear of contradiction that the simplification will be welcomed by practitioners in the field.

I commend the bill to Parliament and look forward to the concluding debate.

10:45

Statement: Rio+20 Earth Summit

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a statement by Stewart Stevenson on the Rio+20 earth summit. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

09:17

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): I would like to report back to Parliament on the outcome of the Rio+20 earth summit, which I attended and which was an immensely valuable event for the Scottish Government to participate in. Once again, we contributed to a major international conference in which the subject of debate was the vital sustainability and climate change agenda. While I was there, it became ever clearer to me that our actions, leadership and messages are well received and welcomed by other Governments, international organisations, non-governmental organisations and other actors including businesses and young people.

The wide range of stakeholders whom I met at the conference were keen to hear about what we are doing here in Scotland, and in partnership with other countries. There is support for our commitment to actively addressing climate change and sustainable development and, through our contribution to climate justice, to helping others to do the same. Even though we are, in global terms, a small emitter, we are acting big—we have big ideas, big ambition and a big message. We discussed that with Minister Lidegaard of Denmark, which is a similar-sized European country with big ambition, whose determined leadership of the European Union at the conference should be applauded.

At the conference, which came barely three weeks after the First Minister was joined by Mary Robinson to launch our climate justice fund with £3 million, our message was focused: it is that engagement with the agenda is not simply a moral duty that is born out of historical responsibility and the current economic position, because the path to a green economy that is now laid beneath the feet of the world’s leaders offers a substantial economic opportunity to countries around the world that choose to grasp it.

In Scotland, we have proved that the economics of low carbon are sound and that reduced consumption and smarter management of resources do not mean reduced productivity or economic decline, but quite the opposite. Given our competitive advantage and the excellence and experience of key sectors, our low-carbon sectors have experienced consistent growth in jobs and output and our technological base continues to expand and to be world-leading.

Our record continues to attract the attention of others in the international community, with which we are continuing to build alliances, including with the Inter-American Development Bank, which wishes to benefit from our expertise and innovation in low-carbon technologies—notably marine energy. However, such messages should be coupled with our equally key messages about the importance of strengthening support for developing countries.

In Rio, I had the opportunity to speak about our climate justice agenda at a United Nations Institute for Training and Research and CIFAL event. I talked about our new fund and its objectives of providing poor and vulnerable communities with projects that address climate adaptation solutions and which should result in climate-change resilient legacies in those communities. I was also able to confirm the latest funding, through the international development fund, of three new projects in sub-Saharan Africa, which will receive a total of £4 million investment over three years and will contribute to work in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia.

I was also delighted to be able, with the delegation of the Government of Malawi, to build on discussions that we had at previous conferences. I took the opportunity to discuss strengthening our existing relationship and, following our provision of £3 million in recent years for community solar and community renewables, we made an offer—which was accepted—of practical assistance for the country’s development of climate change and renewable energy policies. That assistance will take the form of our providing short-term policy secondees from the Scottish Government to the Government of Malawi, and will offer an opportunity for some of its staff to come to Scotland and learn directly from what we are doing, as well as giving us a valuable insight into their work.

The conference’s overall programme was extremely full. I attended numerous events, participated in panels and programmes, met many people in the margins and held specific bilaterals with a number of important stakeholders, including the Inter-American Development Bank and The Climate Group. Building on a meeting between the First Minister and Ban Ki-Moon in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, I met United Nations Assistant Secretary General Bob Orr, who is responsible for policy co-ordination and strategic planning, and we discussed the contribution that Scotland can make to Ban Ki-Moon’s sustainable energy for all initiative. That meeting will pave the way to the development of a clear offer that we can make actively to participate in and to support the achievement of the three goals of sustainable energy for all: first, to ensure universal access to modern energy services; secondly, to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and thirdly, to double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Scotland will play a full and active role in that.

As for the conference itself, I was deeply disappointed that there was not more agreement on a more ambitious programme. Nevertheless, we are still determined to engage with partners and, over the coming weeks, there will be a process of analysing and thinking beyond the text.

The conference proceeded in a rather different fashion to many previous international conferences of this variety. After 12 months, there had been only limited progress on agreeing the text; indeed, by the end of the fourth preparatory committee in the week preceding the conference, only about one third of the text had been agreed. Significant differences remained over key elements, including the green economy, the process for agreeing sustainable development goals and the resources that will be required to implement the text.

As the week of the conference opened and further negotiating days were added to the schedule, extraordinary events unfolded. Although certain of the tactics that were deployed by President Rousseff of Brazil were initially not universally welcomed, all the Governments that I met during the week ultimately expressed admiration for, and gratitude towards, the Brazilians for the strength and commitment of their chairmanship. Brazil’s achievement was to get an entire text delivered as agreed before the commencement of the high-level summit. The initial shock at not having to spend another three days locked in negotiating rooms quickly wore off as we all realised the opportunity to start focusing on the deliverables—in other words, the concrete next steps towards delivering on sustainable development.

The text has reasonably been criticised for not addressing resources and for setting a weak timetable and thematic list for delivery of the sustainable development goals. Others have described the agreement as “timid”; I must say that I agree. Although it builds on the Durban accord, which is to lead a legally binding agreement by 2015, and takes us forward to a discussion of the timetable and resources for delivering sustainability, it does not go as far as I would have liked and currently provides no certainty that either will be delivered.

The Brazilian text and leadership enabled heads of delegations and ministers to begin to address what each country in the world must now do and what resources might be made available in order to implement the programme and to build towards a complete post-2015 framework, which will now include the second phase of millennium development goals, a new legally binding framework on climate change and—as a result of the Rio+20 conference—sustainable development goals.

The world no longer needs to rely upon the traditional leaders of opinion. Although the role of the European Union and its member states continues to be important, we now can look wider for sources of progress. We are working on that by building on partnerships with colleagues in Malawi and the Maldives, among others, as well as continuing to work with our European partners.

When Parliament debated the Rio+20 summit on 30 May 2012, much was said about the preparations and expectations for Rio. I very much welcomed the unanimity of support that Parliament showed for my participation in Rio. I am also grateful to the many NGOs and businesses around Scotland that provided support to my programme by recommending side events, facilitating my direct participation in them and offering briefings.

In spite of our disappointment that the summit did not deliver more, it is vital that we maintain and build upon our work so far. I trust that all parties will join me in ensuring that Scotland makes a full and positive contribution to delivering the outcomes of Rio+20, which will support other ambitious nations around the world.

6 June 2012

S4M-02575 Royal Highland Education Trust

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-02575, in the name of Colin Keir, on the Royal Highland Education Trust. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the Royal Highland Education Trust’s work to promote Scotland’s rural and agricultural environment, farming and countryside activities and food education to Scotland’s young people; considers that Scotland’s urbanisation over recent decades has meant that many children have no direct link with the countryside or experience of environmental issues and that this is a gap in young people’s education; notes that the Edinburgh-based charity has received funding from the Scottish Government to educate children about the role that food plays in their lives through farm visits, working with local companies and introducing food topics in the school curriculum; considers that food education has an important role to play in improving Scotland’s health, helping people to make healthier choices and making them aware of the importance of eating sustainably; further notes that the programme will highlight the career opportunities available to young people in Scotland’s food and drink sector, which provides an increasing boost to the Scottish economy, and welcomes the trust’s aim to deliver its programme of farm and estate visits for 15,000 young people per year by 2015.

17:06
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17:33

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Several members have welcomed the debate. On behalf of the Scottish Government I, too, thank Colin Keir for the motion, as it is right that we take time to highlight and celebrate the contribution of the Royal Highland Education Trust to teaching Scottish schoolchildren about the issues surrounding food, farming and the countryside. The charity provides a crucial link between urban and rural communities and is making great strides in helping to promote a better understanding of our way of life and of how to enjoy the countryside responsibly.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP): In my teaching days, a pupil asked me whether hens laid eggs hard and with a little stamp on them. I will ask the minister a question to which I do not know the answer: does the hen lay eggs that are soft and then harden? I am thinking of the hen.

Stewart Stevenson: One party trick is to boil one egg and not another, put the two on a desk, get them both spinning and then put one’s hands on both of them to stop them spinning. When the hands are lifted off, the soft egg—the one that has not been cooked—will restart spinning and the other will not. As the teacher has taught me something, I hope that I have taught her something.

I absolutely agree with what Colin Keir said about healthier choices for the young and about careers in food and drink. The food and drink sector is important to our economy and appropriate choices about food and drink are important to people’s health throughout their lives. I am sure that RHET is contributing to people making healthier choices.

As someone who was brought up in a rural community, I find myself doing things that seem to astonish my officials when I am out and about, such as, on a visit to a farm, picking a bit of clover and just sticking it in my mouth to get that wonderful, sweet flavour. They look at me in horror—“What are you doing, minister?” That is the sort of thing that we country dwellers do naturally. It reconnects us to nature.

My earliest recollection of a farm is from around the age of three, when I was sitting on a wall somewhere near Wick, having been asked to count the sheep coming through the dip. I suspect that my counting was somewhat inaccurate, but it probably introduced me to an important concept for use in the urban setting.

I am disappointed to say that, this year, I will not be at the Highland show, as I am taking part in the Rio+20 conference and I will not be back in time.

We heard some interesting revelations. Jean Urquhart talked about the Alcoa Foundation in Iceland funding outdoor school rooms. That sounds interesting. If we can just get the weather management under control, that would be absolutely excellent.

Claudia Beamish introduced quite an important side reference in her remarks when she talked about children washing their hands. It is helpful for children to learn that, when they go to the farm, it is perfectly safe, as long as they take care of themselves and make sure that they do not transfer the wrong things from their hands to their stomach. That is part of the learning process that is applicable in quite a wide range of areas. She spoke warmly of the contributions of Jim Warnock, a farmer in her region, to the education of children who visit his farm.

Alex Fergusson: I was similarly delighted to hear Jim Warnock’s name mentioned. I am sure that the minister will join me in applauding the fact that today, at Scotsheep 2012 at Dumfries house, he received an award in recognition of his contribution to the sheep sector.

Stewart Stevenson: I am delighted to hear that. The cabinet secretary was speaking at Scotsheep this morning. I do not know whether he was the one who made the award, but I am always delighted to hear of achievement in our rural sector.

Aileen McLeod talked interestingly about the next generation of auctioneers. Perhaps if they fail at auctioneering they can come and be politicians instead.

Alex Fergusson was one of the members who referred to Alison Motion, who is in the public gallery. She has been the key person in the co-ordination of much of the activity. Alex Fergusson also talked about milk. That took me back to when we used to go camping in rural areas. In those days, I used to be sent down with the milk jug, which would be filled directly from the cow and would be in the cup within 10 or 15 minutes. That is the kind of thing that today’s children just do not realise, but people such as I do.

Graeme Dey came up with the best phrase of the debate: classroom into the countryside; countryside into the classroom. If that does not capture the essence of what the trust is trying to do, nothing else will.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP): Does the minister recognise that RHET has an important role to play with regard to promoting a safer Scotland and the fewer knives, better lives agenda, as people such as gamekeepers can show young people that knives are used only for work and gralloching deer rather than taking to Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes, as one pointed out on a children’s visit that I attended?

Stewart Stevenson: That is perfectly correct, and demonstrates the breadth of experience that can be crammed into often quite short visits in order to show that the countryside is a real part of their life, even if they spend comparatively little time in it. Reference has been made to the curriculum for excellence and the role that what we are talking about can play in it.

The debate has been wide ranging and it has picked up on the interests of many people. Although the motion refers to it, I have not heard directly in the debate about the support that there is from a number of companies for the initiative. I welcome the fact that they are putting a bit back. It is proper that companies such as Tesco, and others like it, which sell the products that come from the country, are making contributions to the initiative, and I welcome the fact that they have done so.

Whether it is through farm visits or through working with local companies, embedding food topics in the curriculum, food education and education about the countryside are key to helping young folk understand the role that food plays in their lives. All the encouragement that we can give and that the trust gives is to be welcomed.

I again recognise the fantastic work that the trust is doing and its success in delivering a programme of farm and estate visits for 15,000 young people per year by 2015. Let us all join in wishing it all the best for its future success.

Meeting closed at 17:41.

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