Communities in Scotland may soon be able to purchase land even if the landowner doesn’t want to sell; where do you stand?

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Posted Oct 17 2015 by Dave Darby of

There are radical changes on the table when it comes to land ownership in Scotland. The Land Reform Scotland Bill is intended to address the huge disparity in land ownership in Scotland – but there is one clause that is making some people extremely hopeful, and other very worried. A clause that at first looks quite innocuous, mentioning community input and sustainable development, on closer inspection includes the right for local communities to purchase land if it can be shown that it’s not being looked after sustainably – but get this – even if the current owner doesn’t want to sell. Gripping stuff. The right to buy already exists for crofters, by the way – but this bill will extend the right to communities everywhere in Scotland.

Land ownership in Scotland today

At the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Duke of Cumberland crushed the last Jacobite rising and changed the social landscape in Scotland completely. Highland clearances followed, purging the land of smallholders to make way for sheep, on vast estates owned by absentee, often English, landowners.

The 1886 Crofters Act included land reform legislation intended to put right some of what had happened during the clearances. The land, especially the Highlands, is now largely empty. But it wasn’t always that way – it was emptied. Around 400 landowners now own half the private land in Scotland. It’s the most uneven distribution of land in Europe – unique due to the enormous scale of the Highland Clearances.

A rebellion is now under way in Scotland, to try to finally abolish the feudal style of land tenure there. It’s happening now because of a Scottish parliament with power over land ownership. It would have been pointless to try this via the Westiminster parliament – not enough time would have been allocated to get anything through, and the Lords (often big landowners) would have done everything they could to block it.

The bill was initiated by the coalition that formed the first Scottish government, and it’s being pushed now by the SNP government. In the section of the bill involving communities, if a landowner is deemed by the commissioner to be blocking sustainable development – either by misuse or neglect, the community would have the right to buy it – against the wishes of owner. There have been plenty of community buyouts already (e.g. the island of Eigg) – but not compulsory ones. Rural Scotland, especially the Highlands, typically has an ageing population, with younger people leaving because of a lack of affordable housing and of work. Even so, there will be a lot of hurdles in the way of compulsory community buyouts, which have to be conclusively proven to be in the public interest.

What big landowners and their friends say

One landowner (Viscount Astor) called it a Mugabe-style ‘land grab’. Writing in the pro-privilege Spectator, he paints it as a nationalist land grab – but it’s much less to do with nationalism than with social justice and sustainability. He complains that his family might lose some of their estates – estates where according to him, they spent their summers, and sometimes visited in the winter. Words fail me. This is him:


Michael Forsyth, Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland in the nineties, is happy with the concentration of land ownership. He sees the bill as a battle between state and citizens (although a certain select group of citizens, of course). The role of government, he believes, is protecting property ‘rights’. He calls it the ‘politics of envy’ (rather than of justice). Well of course he would, representing privilege as he does. The property in question was originally stolen, and now that it’s in the hands of a tiny minority, he wants to ‘end history’ and set the current system of land ownership in stone. It could be argued that land was stolen everywhere – and it would be true in almost all cases. But in Scotland, now that there’s a chance to redress the balance, communities are looking forward to the chance to take it.

‘Wealth management specialists’ Turcan Connell – whose business is a bit like Robin Hood in reverse – say that the bill ‘could seriously damage confidence in the Scottish property market’. They see this as a bad thing, of course. They wouldn’t want to deter speculators and those who see land in terms of the market and money rather than homes and livelihoods. Managing partner Ian Clark ‘specialises in asset protection advice for high net worth individuals and their families, including entrepreneurs, businessmen and land owners.’ In other words, he helps the rich to pay less tax, so that the rest of us have to pay more if we want to keep the same level of public services. He also helps stop crofting communities getting their grubby hands on the assets (i.e. land that they would actually farm) of the rich. How does he live with himself?

What do you say?

First, here’s my (totally unbiased) opinion:

This bill is a long-overdue reversal of some of the concentration of land ownership that occurred during and after the clearances. Opposition to the bill is coming from landowners, for reasons of self-interest. The world, and especially Scotland, needs land redistribution. Too few people own too much of our planet. Of course these people will oppose any policies that kick against the increasing concentration of wealth, resources and power into fewer hands, because those hands are theirs.

The bill will mean that it is no longer acceptable to own land in Scotland without using it sustainably. Resident land owners usually want to look after the land properly, because it provides them with a home and a livelihood. Most Scottish land is currently purchased by people who have no understanding of it – as an investment or a plaything. Michael Forsyth puts it down to envy – he says that absentee estate owners spend a lot on their estates and bring in a lot of money via the shooting industry, benefiting hoteliers and taxi drivers. But what has this got to do with using the land sustainably? It’s exactly the wrong attitude – even leaving aside the moral and environmental problems associated with the shooting industry.

There are lots of problems that will need to be ironed out. For example, if communities, including people living and working on the land, challenge the landowner and lose, what do you think will happen to them then? The system is still quite feudal, and people like the odious Donald Trump are still able to build golf courses in areas of outstanding natural beauty, basing his case on the amount of money he’s bringing in – regardless of whose pockets that money ends up in, and whether or not it’s used for sustainable development or building communities.

Radical that I am, I’d take it further and question the concept of land ‘ownership’ altogether. The land will always be there – long after the ‘owner’ is dead and gone. Who knows who the previous ‘owners’ of a particular piece of land were – it doesn’t matter. You can only steal, appropriate and steward a piece of land for a while. A chieftan or a feudal baron can be burnt or buried with their possessions, but land stays exactly where it is.

‘Property’ (as opposed to personal possessions) can be considered ‘means of production’ – i.e. factories, land etc. Why should these be owned at all by people who are not working in those factories or on the land? It’s a question that doesn’t tend to be asked much these days, and yet in the 19th century, it was actually a focus of the Republican Party in the US, and especially Abraham Lincoln. If you’re not working in the factory or working on the land, then why should it be yours? Some go further and question the rightness of private ownership of a portion of the earth’s surface at all – even if you’re working it. Shouldn’t it belong to all of us – like the oceans and the air? Let’s hold land in trust for people who want to live on it and use it productively and sustainably.

But back to this bill. Whatever the future holds – I believe that communities having the right to obtain land for their livelihoods and homes from absentee landlords is a step in the right direction. What do you think?