A LABOUR MSP has accused Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) of spreading misinformation about her plans to place a limit on how much land the super-rich can own.

Mercedes Villalba launched her Land Ownership and Public Interest (Scotland) Bill on Wednesday which proposes to put a presumed 500-hectare limit – or five square kilometres - on how much land a person can own, sell or transfer. If someone wishes to own more land than this, a public interest test would be triggered.

The legislation aims to address a centuries-old issue of the super-rich having control of vast swathes of rural land and property in Scotland.

A Scottish Government report a few years ago cited how just 432 private landowners own 50% of the private land in Scotland, which was described as proof of “exceptional inequality”.

But when Villalba announced her plans to launch the bill last week, SLE – a membership body that supports landowners and rural businesses – criticised them, suggesting the 500-hectare limit would impact family-owned farms which Villalba did not "seem to grasp". 

It said the proposals were “riddled with inaccuracies” and added Villalba “did not seem to be aware of the scale of land reform change which has already happened”.

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But speaking exclusively to The National, Villalba said Scottish Land and Estates was spreading misinformation, given the majority of farms are well under the 500-hectare limit.

She insisted the bill is not about reducing the number of farms or agricultural holdings.

Asked about the comments, Villaba said: “I would dispute that assertion and I would go as far to say it’s a bit of misdirection and misinformation because the research I conducted before bringing forward this consultation shows that 95% - the vast majority of agricultural holdings in Scotland - would fall under the 500-hectare limit.

“I think they’ve [Scottish Land and Estates] been very careful to choose their words by saying family farms and not saying what they mean by that, so it may well be that a family owns a farm that’s over 500 hectares, but that’s not to say it’s your local mom and pop farmer’s market small scale holding.

“If it’s over 500 hectares, then we’re talking about a very large piece of land.

“We are very clear that this bill is not about reducing the number of farms or agricultural holdings, it’s actually about increasing the number, bringing more people onto the land, so we can have more locally sourced, sustainably grown food in this country.”

The limit of 500 hectares equates to the size of about 700 average football pitches or 10 18-hole golf courses.

Not only will the legislation place this presumed limit on sales and transfers, but it proposes a mechanism which would ensure existing holdings can also be subject to a public interest test.

It is proposed the regulator of the test would be the Scottish Land Commission which would be empowered to apply the test to an existing holding if it feels the need to or there is evidence of widespread public concern about the impact of a holding, such as via a petition.

Villalba said: “Tackling holdings as they come up for sale I don’t think would see the pace of change that we need because they don’t come up for sale that often so we need to look at mechanisms for the public interest test to be met through existing holdings too.”

The Scottish Government has, meanwhile, published its analysis of its own consultation on plans for land ownership reform. It is expected to bring forward its own bill later in the parliamentary term.

The Scottish Government’s proposal suggested the presumed size limit on holdings should be 3000 hectares, but the majority of people said this should be much lower in response to the consultation.

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Villalba said: “To put 500 hectares into context, that’s nine times the size of Edinburgh Old Town, which makes the Government’s proposed limit of 3000 hectares even more mind-boggling.

“I am heartened by their [the Scottish Government's] analysis [of its consultation] because we saw there is a clear majority - 72% - who agree there needs to be a public interest test on large-scale holdings.

“On the topic of large-scale holdings and what that definition should be, we saw the majority of people called for a lower figure for the threshold so I think the Scottish Government is going to have to move on their initial proposal."

The consultation for the bill is now open on the Scottish Parliament website and people are being urged to get involved and strike up conversations about land ownership in their communities.

Villalba added: “What we see is in parts of the country where there are very large holdings held by one or two people, those individuals not only own the land but also a lot of the properties on the land and the rights to build further on the land.

“We hear often that we’ve got a housing shortage in rural areas and we’re seeing depopulation. It’s not always because we’re not building enough homes, it’s because existing homes are being used for holiday homes and second homes for the profit of those few individuals that own the land and the buildings.

“It’s then very difficult for local residents to address that because the land owner has disproportionate power and sway in the community. With ownership comes access to networks and power and decision-making that is not scrutinised and not accountable to local people in the same way a local authority would be.

“I would ask everyone to take a look at the consultation because land underpins everything.”

Sarah-Jane Laing, SLE chief executive, said: “The most recent Scottish farm business income survey stated that the average size of a cattle and sheep farm in a less favoured area [LFA] was 815 hectares whilst specialist sheep farms in LFA areas averaged 945 hectare, way over the 500 hectare threshold proposed.

"Ms Villalba herself acknowledges that many of these farms are family-owned. They are only viable by being managed at scale despite many struggling for profitability. This bill seeks to place further obligations and bureaucracy upon them for little defined benefit.

“We find Ms Villalba’s comments on 'local mom and pop farmers' to be patronising to the sector and fails to understand how farming operates at different levels.

“Scottish farms provide substantial input to our wellbeing economy, food production and the environment and we want to work with all parties, including Ms Villalba, to build that contribution long into the future."