Churches in Scotland are calling on the government to re-write new land registry plans.
As part of its land reform program, the Scottish government has introduced legislation to increase the transparency over people who have significant influence or control over land owners or tenants.
Known as the Register of Controlled Interest (RCI), the policy aims to create a new register of people rather than a more traditional land register.
But churches say that, as it stands, the RCI creates "unmanageable administrative burdens for local congregations" as it fails to take into account the "unique legal structures" of congregations and the reliance on local volunteers.
Rev Fiona Smith, the Kirk's Principal Clerk said: "We've nothing against the principle of the register; indeed many Churches have been supportive of land reform and increased transparency for a very long time. It is the way the new register has been designed that will cause significant difficulty for churches and congregations to comply.”
“Overall it is going to have a hugely detrimental impact on our ability to serve Scotland's communities, and money that could be used for help with sustaining community and congregational life or to support people struggling against poverty will instead have to go on administration and legal advice.”
The Scottish Episcopal Church, United Reformed Church and others will be similarly affected due to their internal structures and the number of properties covered in the new policy.
“The problem for congregations is that it's attempting to solve a problem which doesn't exist,” Mary Macleod, solicitor for the Church of Scotland, told Premier.
“There's no greater difficulty in establishing ownership of churches, mounters halls…etc. There's usually a sign outside saying who owns the building…So there's no lack of transparency in relation to the ownership of church land.”
Macleod argues that gathering and submitting all the information will have a big economic impact on churches.
“For example, in the Church of Scotland, we reckon all together, we have about 6,000 properties. So that’s 6,000 sets of entries that needs to be made. It's going to cost us tens of thousands of pounds, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds to comply with this legislation.”
Those who fail to provide information to the register could face criminal penalties, although that has now been extended for 12 months, subject to parliamentary approval.
“That doesn't really help the churches, because, at the moment, we're still thinking, compliance is going to be necessary, and it's still going to cost us the same regardless of when we do it,” Macleod continued.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "We have listened to the concerns raised by the Church of Scotland and others in relation to the challenges they face and the impact of Brexit, the pandemic, and the current economic pressures.
"We hope that extending the transitional period by 12 months will ease the burden on those in the scope of the RCI by giving them more time to prepare their submissions before the offence provisions take effect. Officials have written to key stakeholders to make them aware of our intention to introduce legislation to provide this extension."
You can listen to the full interview with Mary Macleod here: