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?
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1John Harrison October 17th, 2015
Congratulations to the Scots. On thinking about it, this isn’t quite as radical as it may seem. The state has always had the option of compulsory purchase when it wants to put a road in, etc. What this does is to empower communities beholden to absentee landlords.
I’d love to see similar legislation rolled out across the UK.
I’m a steward of the land I ‘own’ It is my duty to look after it, to manage it well so it’s passed on to the next steward improved from the condition I took it on. I know this with certainty, just like I know the sun will rise again after the night.
2pat bowen October 18th, 2015
I also question the concept of land ownership. The debate needs to be about land use and distribution after the end of ownership
3frederick avery (@resonatingavery) October 18th, 2015
I’m not really sure where I stand. But I do know from the horses mouth (an old lady whose hair I cut) that the treatment of people by some SNP counsellors on this issue has been quite intimidating and unusual. This lady was in her home, the door left open in the summer. She walked into her library to find the local counsellor walking around. She asked him what he was doing and he said “looking around” and walked out. She said she was very scared. She’s in her seventies. It’s not so much the priniciple of land ownership. What matters is that any kind of class warfare and intimidation is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed even if it is ‘in our favour’. The turning away from behaviour that we would consider abhorrent in our opposition, in order to support a cause should never be accepted. The banner “SNP”, or ‘green’ does not mean all who are under it are nice people. Just as the banner of “conservative”, or even “wealthy” does not equal enemy. What worries me Is the way all political parties and groups polarise us all to suit their agenda. The reality is that without creating a common enemy political parties wouldn’t have a voting block. its quite telling that the picture of the landowner they choose to use is one designed to create a feeling of us and them. i see in this article the kind of disdain for a whole bunch of people that people accuse the tories of. im not a tory but if we are standing on principles, then this article needs to be looked at carefully. we dont accept race, gender, sexuality to be used to polarise us, so we shouldnt accept class/background/wealth either. one of my kindest, nicest clients is a duke. and i am a hairdresser. i dont belong to any political group, because people who go against my basic priciples exist within all of them.
4Dave Darby October 18th, 2015
‘It’s not so much the principle of land ownership.’
Yes, it really is. It’s not about who’s nice and who isn’t, it’s about a system that allows 400 people to own half the private land in Scotland. I believe that land and the means of production should belong, or at least be under the control, of the people working with it. If you don’t, then we’re not on the same side, politically speaking. I wouldn’t advocate being nasty to your friend the Duke, but I’d advocate a system that didn’t have people working on his estates and paying him a rent.
5Jacqueline Fletcher October 19th, 2015
Redistribution of land in favour of communities and indigenous peoples anywhere is a question of both social and environmental justice. As the problems besetting the planet are aggravated by climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation and a fragile economic system, promoting equal distribution of resources among local people who will manage them as small-scale agro-ecology, regeneration of natural forests and rivers etc, (instead of heathlands for hunting and golf courses!) is a matter or urgency too. Land redistribution should also form a part of creating resilient local economies with health cooperatives and credit unions. This is a great opportunity for Scotland, for the ecosystems and for the people.
6Dave Darby October 19th, 2015
Well said – we can take the economy back, if enough people are willing to lean that way.
7John Harrison October 19th, 2015
Just a thought – I don’t know the details of the bill but is it limited to those owning vast tracts of land? If not, what about someone with a garden?
It does raise a lot of other questions – “how much land should someone be allowed to own?” Just to complicate the issue, what’s worth more; 1,000 acres of marginal uplands. 100 acres of prime East Anglian farmland or 1 acre of central London?
There is a concern about Scotland in that it is now effectively a 1 party state which doesn’t promote effective scrutiny of legislation.
8Dave Darby October 19th, 2015
It covers urban areas as well, but it’s more about communities getting the use of empty properties that have been bought as investments. It doesn’t cover what anyone does with their garden.
“how much land should someone be allowed to own?” is an excellent question. For me, it’s how much you can work yourself, and not by employing others to do the work for you. Small-scale, organic agriculture is the future, or there will be no future for humans. Images of planes flying over endless fields dropping toxins will have future generations aghast – that is, if there are future generations to see them.
And for me it’s about the principle, not the party. I happen to think this bill is a good one, regardless of my position on anything else the SNP stand for.
9John Harrison October 19th, 2015
Sorry, just to clarify my comment that you may have misunderstood the last part of, I’ve no real opinion about the SNP. My concern was based on a faulty understanding that they had swept the board in the Scottish parliament as they did in the general election. Having googled it, they have 50% of the seats which means the bill will have had a proper level of scrutiny and debate. That ignorance is a comment on the coverage in the media outside of Scotland,
10daniel October 19th, 2015
Communities would seem to imply the people, the residents, but I suspect it will be more small politicians who grab land for tax base, for corporate cronies who want it for development, pay for play.. forcible purchase that gets passed at a discount to developers. That’s what we have seen in the states more and more with compulsory purchase that is no longer for the common good as originally envisioned, works of public common good, roads, hospitals. Now common good means government will take the land from a user that provides small tax revenue and give it to a user that promises more tax revenue.. Farmers and small holders pushed aside for the developer that wants to build a new asda… Who sets the value of the compulsory purchased land? Be careful what you wish for.
11Randall Taylor October 22nd, 2015
I have friends that had to move to Stornaway from Fortwilliam to get a smallholdin
Anyone wishing to have a smallholdin should get it with a small rent , or be able to buy it , when they are finished with the land if they should hand it onto new people to work the land and live as they like. The property should not be bought and then be sold for a profit by a profiteering person just for money.
12Jes Sig Andersen October 24th, 2015
This actually has happened in Assynt, where the community bought of the land from a foreign capital fund. I don’t know the answer, but does anyone know if the cure has worked ? I mean, has there been an influx of younger people and are more living from the land and has real estate prices gone down ?
13Dave Darby October 24th, 2015
The Isle of Eigg was bought this way in 1997. Since then the population has increased from 64 to 90, mostly from young people returning (and not leaving). They have a housing trust that rents properties at affordable rents.
14Jes Sig Andersen October 24th, 2015
How good – I could live there if I could make a living. But I guess crofting is still the main occupation, or some narrow niche food or delicatess produktion, besides tourism. I hope the best for the Highlands and its inhabitants.
15Jen Stout November 2nd, 2015
It’s great this is being discussed here, but can I advise some caution? Read a few sensible articles on both sides of the debate before forming opinions! The Land Reform (Scotland) Act, as currently drafted, certainly does not allow any community to just buy out an unwilling seller, as your title & some comments here suggest. The clause permitting ministers to intervene in land ownership on grounds of sustainability is so extraordinarily stringent that in reality no community will be rushing into it – four very strict conditions must be met and the onus is entirely on the community to meet them. The cost and legal burden, as with community buyourts currently, will remain high, and the prospect of pissing off your landlord (who is also often employer, council Provost, and elected representative) for years of legal wrangling which you might not win is not exactly a rosy one.
Try Andy Wightman’s blog and some Bella Caledonia articles, or Lesley Riddoch’s columns, to get a good understanding of this.
Also – I’m not an SNP voter, but this really isn’t a ‘one party state’. blimey.
16John Harrison November 3rd, 2015
I did apologise for the one party state comment and explained it was made from ignorance.
17Dave Darby November 4th, 2015
Community buyouts against the will of the landowner will be possible – the article didn’t address the difficulty of such buyouts, just the principle.
I did address the problems associated with an unsuccessful attempt: ‘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?’
Those blogs you mentioned are superb. Riddoch was involved in the community buyout of Eigg.
18Richard November 30th, 2015
I remember Lady Astor MP from my Irish history ( wife of the second Viscount Astor). She was the SECOND elected woman MP to the British Parliament. The very cool Countess Markievicz MP was the 1st woman MP. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Astor,_Viscountess_Astor)