IF you blink, you miss it. If you dip in and out of political headlines you’d be mistaken in thinking that the debate on Scottish land reform bubbled to a mainstream crescendo on the 16th of March, and has since died down into a quiet contemplative slumber. It hasn’t.

From Lewis to the Lothians, Bute to Bute House, land reform is now a permanent fixture of Scottish political action. On Lewis ex-landowner Barry Lomas is threatening the Pairc Estate with legal costs that would bankrupt the community land group.

Earlier this month the Lothians returned life-long land activist Andy Wightman to parliament. On Bute a craft brewery – Bute Brew Co. – was set to close after its request to develop on derelict council land was needlessly blocked by bureaucracy. Last week in Bute House, the office of the First Minister, Scotland gained a Cabinet Secretary for Land Reform for the first time.

We should hope that Roseanna Cunningham’s appointment is a signal of intent that the programme of overdue land reform in Scotland is just getting started. We’ll know soon enough. Tomorrow Cunningham will address the lobbyist group for the vast private estates that have dominated this country for centuries. What will the message be?

Cunningham has inherited a huge challenge and opportunity with her new role. The 2016 Land Reform Act still requires secondary legislation, regulations, and its full implementation. The new Land Commission needs established. The SNP also set itself a high bar of “diversifying ownership” and “ending anonymous land ownership”. And that’s just a start.

Although the past year has brought signs of change, a major challenge remains igniting public interest and understanding of why land reform matters. For many the idea is detached from their street, town and city, with reform a grievance for some far off glen and “land” viewed as purely a matter for farmers.

For example, if you live somewhere with a population over 10,000 people you got more powerful last month. That’s because the community right to buy – created thirteen years ago – was finally expanded to urban Scotland. Of course the vast majority of people are unaware of this change.

The narrow idea we have of land reform becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as the public, politicians, policy makers and journalists think it’s a narrow, specialist subject then it will remain that way. Campaigner Alistair Davidson had a creative suggestion for expanding its popularity: tell the middle classes that land reform will get them a holiday chalet out in the countryside. That’s certainly one way to grab folk’s self-interest sensors!

Other options include stating that if you want your children to have houses, we need to deal with land prices. If you want to deal with poverty, we need to deal with derelict land. If we want to reverse centuries of under-development in rural Scotland, we need land reform.

The new Act won’t cut it. Far bolder measures – such as building towards a land value tax – will be necessary during the next parliament. While the Greens and others back a transition to a land tax, the SNP are yet to fully investigate the idea. It’s likely that the party’s leadership will need to be persuaded to do so by its membership.

I was repeatedly told by SNP members that they wanted Andy Wightman elected to push for stronger land reform. It’s also a weak spot for the Tories, who have elected a few notable private landowners to parliament. As the main opposition, the Tories’ views will be under greater scrutiny – and when it comes to land reform they’re yet to move on from the 50s, in this case the 1650s.

The ball is now in Cunningham’s court to set the level of ambition for the country’s land reform journey. Let’s hope it meets expectations.

Michael Gray @GrayInGlasgow is a journalist with CommonSpace.scot

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