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March 21, 2012

System of land ownership – worst in Europe

Writing in the West Highland Free Press, Brian Wilson is incredulous at the way this country allows vast estates to change hands without a pause to consider the implications for those who live there.  He describes our system of land ownership as the most inequitable in Europe. At Community Land Scotland’s recent conference on Mull, he overheard many tales of communities still living under the petty tyrannies of landlordism. Where to now for land reform?


Brian Wilson, WHFP 14 March 2012

FIFTEEN years ago, Scotland had the most inequitable distribution of land ownership in Europe – a state of affairs which engendered much political rhetoric accompanied by demands for action, usually in response to some particularly dubious transfer of ownership.

In 1997, a Labour government took the first political steps towards addressing that dishonourable legacy of history. The result was a package of useful measures, some of which were acted upon immediately and others which were bequeathed to the incoming Scottish Parliament to be translated into legislation.

But nobody on the land reform side of the fence ever intended that to be the end of the process. Giving crofting communities the right to buy their land, abolishing the feudal system and guaranteeing freedom to roam were the low-hanging fruit of land reform. The hard stuff was supposed to follow.

We are still waiting. Fifteen years later, Scotland continues to have the most inequitable distribution of land ownership in Europe. Not one line of legislation beyond what it inherited has been originated at Holyrood to address that reality. Meanwhile, the political rhetoric has subsided as if the subject had been quietly filed under “gone away”.

But for many communities and individuals throughout Scotland, it has not gone away. They still live under the petty tyrannies of landlordism or see the resources on their doorsteps being squandered in the name of sport. They watch schools and shops close and homes become holiday lets. They seethe quietly because that is the safest way to seethe. Or they leave.

Anyone who does not believe that such things go on in 21st-century Scotland should have been with me in Mull – itself a bastion of capricious private landlordism – this week. I was there for the annual conference of Community Land Scotland, the umbrella body for community-owned estates which now cover 500,000 acres of Scotland, most of it in the West Highlands and Islands.

Put a few people with an interest in this subject together and the horror stories soon begin to flow, particularly from places where there is a stirring of interest in community ownership. Abuses of power, frustration of economic activity, speculation in assets such as forestry and quiet depopulation are all regular ongoing features of life in every corner of landlord-controlled rural Scotland. The land question may have been filed away by Holyrood but it is still very much alive in the real world.

There is an alternative path and, for the past 20 years, communities in the West Highlands and Islands have been clearing it for others to follow. More than 20 community-owned estates now add up to these 500,000 acres, and the results have been unerringly positive. At least another dozen are waiting in the wings. The potential is enormous and could transform the prospects for vast areas of rural Scotland.

At present, there are a lot of anniversaries to celebrate. Community-owned Assynt estate, where the people gave the lead to the politicians, is coming up for its 20th birthday. Revitalised Gigha, which previously was the subject of a cruel game of pass-the-parcel, today celebrates its tenth year of democratic control. The biggest and most ambitious buy-out, South Uist, has just marked its fifth anniversary by finalising a windfarm deal that will bring in £20 million for re-investment in economic development.

Sadly, there will not be many new birthdays to celebrate for a few years. Having plateaued in the middle of the last decade, the community land movement then ran out of momentum – not due to lack of demand but to a total absence of political support. The Scottish Land Fund, which was the engine of the movement, was closed down; its role supposedly to be taken over by the Big Lottery.

That never happened. Of more than 60 applications related to land buyouts, only one has so far succeeded (though there are some still in the pipeline). The Big Lottery doubtless had other worthy priorities, but the inescapable point is that unless there is funding quite specifically devoted to support for land reform, it will not be used for that purpose. 

The old Scottish Land Fund, which did a fantastic job under the chairmanship of David Campbell, was made up of people who – crucially – believed in land reform, and it had a specific remit to “diversify the pattern of land ownership in Scotland”. Nobody doubts that there are other priorities for lottery funders within Scotland and, without such a remit, there is no particular reason why land buyouts should take precedence.

All of this takes on a particular relevance because there is to be a new Scottish Land Fund, eventually conceded by the current Holyrood administration. It is worth £6m over three years, which is not a lot, since land does not come cheap. The fund will cover the whole of Scotland and be co-administered by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Big Lottery. Why the Big Lottery is involved in distributing money not raised through the National Lottery is far from clear and, on past form, does not bode well. 

But the bigger point is that the progress of land reform should not depend either on a flea bite from the Scottish Government’s budget or on the vagaries of any lottery. It needs to be driven as a political priority fuelled by an understanding that the current structure of land ownership in Scotland represents a serious problem, both in terms of social justice and economic under-performance.

The SNP administration promised in its last manifesto to establish a land reform review group. If and when that happens, the remit and membership will be crucial. Will it be driven, as happened in 1997, by a belief that reform is necessary and the questions to be addressed are about means rather than ends? Or will the status quo remain an option? If so, it will not get very far.

For the great majority of rural communities which may aspire to controlling their own destinies and throwing off the heavy hand of landlord influence, the option simply does not exist. Outside of crofting areas, there is no community right to buy, far less financial support to advance such ambitions. These are the issues which a land reform review group must address – not the rhetorical question of whether land reform is a good idea.

James Hunter has just written a new book on the history of the community ownership movement in the Highlands and Islands which chronicles the events which have led to these 500,000 acres being under the democratic control of the people who live on them. He points out that all the public money committed to helping to achieve that outcome equates to what has been spent on constructing 600 yards of the Edinburgh tramway. Politics is, as ever, about priorities.

At a time when even the Scottish Football Association has realised that it might make sense for a “fit and proper person” test to be applied before putting up the welcome signs, vast estates still change hands in Scotland without the slightest regard for the implications for those who live on them, or how the land will be used. It is a very stupid way to run a country. Whether anything will have changed in another 15 years from now will have nothing to do with the constitutional debate and everything to do with whether the political will exists.