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May 18, 2011

Same old vested interests

When Scotland’s Land Reform legislation first appeared, it was lampooned in some parts of the national press as fermenting nothing short of ‘Mugabe-style land grabs’. Similar hysterical reactions are starting to emanate from landowning groups and vested interests south of the Border as pressure grows on Westminster to bring the rest of the UK into line with Scotland

Steve Wyler, Chief Executive, Locality

When I spoke to minister Greg Clark recently about the Localism Bill, he asked me to meet the Countryside Landowners Association, to try to soften their opposition to the Community Right to Buy.
Well, I did try. I visited them at their grand offices in Belgravia. They were, of course, very well spoken. “Do please understand what is at stake,” said their President, “We have 35,000 members, owning half the land in England and Wales.” 
So, less than half of one tenth of one percent of the population still own more than half the land?   
They are of course “horrified” that the government is considering a Community Right to Buy, even though the Localism Bill doesn’t in fact give communities a real right to buy, but merely provides a window of a few months to help communities prepare a bid if land or buildings of community value come up for sale.
It turned out that their biggest objection is that ‘lifetime transfer’ might be affected by the provisions. There is already an exemption for transfer though inheritance, but that’s not good enough for these people. As they explained, the very wealthy make sure to hand down their land to their sons and daughters at least seven years before they die. “Is that for tax avoidance reasons?” I asked. “Naturally,” they said, “This for us is a line in the sand.”
All of which was a salutory reminder that the rich and powerful never give up their wealth and power without a bitter struggle, even if, as in this case, they disguise it with a veneer of gentlemanly behaviour (“You must realise,” they said, “We take our social responsibilities very seriously, we don’t consider ourselves owners, but rather custodians of land for future generations…”).
The new Locality Board met last week and started to address the question of what it will mean for Locality to ‘speak truth to power’, as we promised at our launch event last month. We are managing the Community Organisers programme, which at its heart is about identifying ways for those without power to challenge those who are powerful. If, as is very possible, the spending cuts produce civil unrest in the coming months, where will Locality stand?  What should our position be on direct action? Which are the big causes we should rally behind?
We will be discussing these questions with members in the coming weeks and months, leading up the first Locality member conference in Manchester, on 1-2 November, where we intend to lay the foundation for a manifesto for our movement. Do please share your views with us – as if we could stop you! You can find our comments page here.