January 16, 2013
Low key communications
The Group set up to carry out an independent review of Scotland’s land reform programme is in evidence gathering mode. That may explain why, other than a presence on the Government’s website, the Group’s communications strategy has thus far been surprisingly low key. Last week’s deadline for submitting evidence was extended by a week but no one was informed. And apparently the evidence submitted won’t be in the public domain until next year. Andy Wightman has published his submission along with any others that come his way
Radical Land Reform
Evidence from Andy Wightman to Land Reform Review Group
For a full version of Andy Wightman’s submission click here
Scotland has a historical legacy of tightly framed land tenure laws designed to benefit a
property-owning elite. It also has perhaps the most concentrated pattern of private
landownership anywhere in the world (due principally to inheritance laws which until 1868
were based upon primogeniture and were only abolished entirely in 1964). This has
discriminated hugely against women in particular.
The Poor Had No Lawyers outlines how this powerful nexus of power evolved. The task of
any self-respecting land reform programme (which I assume this to be) is to break this
nexus for good, to redistribute power, to democratise the governance of land and to place
land in its proper place – as a resource to be stewarded for the benefit of the people of
A centralised United Kingdom government and an unelected House of Lords allowed for
almost unfettered political advantage for the landed and propertied class for centuries. The
advent of the Scottish Parliament posed a challenge but these vested interests have
adapted and are creating a narrative of their inevitability, their centrality and their role in
communities – telling stories of co-operation, partnership and provision (of land) for local
benefit. This is elegant power – offering “help” and “assistance” to communities which
serves the wider hegemonic interests of the landed elite.
The real issue remains as it has always been – that of power – how it is defined, who has it,
how it is exercised, how it is transferred and how it is held to account.
I want, for example, to live in a country where a young couple needing a parcel of land for
a home can approach their local council (local – as in municipality, kommune) and be able
to secure (through the exercise of appropriate local political power) this most basic of
needs at minimal cost. I want to live in a country where, as one travels across it, one finds
a well populated land full of energy and optimism.
I want to live in a land where class distinctions are no longer legitimised by the recognition
of aristocratic titles and where the principle of equality underpins access to land rights. I
want to live in a country where the ownership of land is contingent on paying a proper rent
to the community and where speculation and unearned increments are ended. I want to
live in a country where land cannot legally be held in private trusts immune from
inheritance tax or in offshore tax havens beyond the reach of the tax authorities.
I want to live in a country that finally puts an end to the centuries of landed power and
returns the land to the people of Scotland – both men and women.
CHALLENGE FOR THE LAND REFORM REVIEW GROUP
In order to rejuvenate the land reform agenda it is important to be clear what is meant by
the term. To date, the term has been used to cover two categories of policy reform, namely
land law reform and reform of some land-related rural property matters such as access,
community right to buy and agricultural holdings legislation.
Consequently, the land reform process is often regarded as being about the technicalities
of property law (abolition of feudal tenure, title conditions, etc.) or about essentially rural
matters such as crofting, access and rural development. It is also, in some quarters,
almost exclusively associated with public access to the countryside.
This has contributed to the popular view that land reform is about rural areas, mainly in the
Highlands and Islands, and thus has limited relevance for most communities and individuals.
In fact, land reform is a process of reforming the relationship between land and people by
means of, for example:
• extending property rights beyond a restricted elite
• modernising land tenure laws to provide greater security to owners and tenants
• changes in land policy to increase participation in decision-making
• fiscal and taxation reform to promote specific outcomes.
Land reform is thus a rubric around which a significant number of issues that may at first
seem disparate should be given a coherent intellectual framework which fits with existing
Government initiatives on, for example, community empowerment.
In relation to land reform in Scotland, a number of topics raised in 1999 remain
unresolved. In addition, other topics have emerged that are also part of a land reform
agenda. These include: –
• Land information and registration
• Leasehold reform
• Succession law
• Law of the foreshore and seabed
• Law of prescription and pre-emption
• Governance of the Crown Estate
• Community right to buy
• Agricultural holdings
• Local government finance
• Open spaces & allotments
• Community based regeneration
• Common good land
• Common property regimes
• Land use policy
• Community forestry
• Asset transfer
• Public land
• Compulsory purchase
• Wildlife legislation
Land relations is the common theme in these topics and there are numerous linkages.
1. Individuals and families have a need for land to build homes, and yet land is overvalued
and communities wishing to promote affordable housing have few effective
means of doing so.
2. Tax arrangements are designed to enable many of Scotland’s wealthiest landowners to
avoid inheritance tax. Such owners also do not pay business rates on their land even
though they promote rural estates as businesses. 4 Millions of pounds are lost to the
Treasury every year due to land being owned in offshore tax havens and yet at the
same time, there is a lack of finance to support community acquisition of land.
3. Communities wishing to pursue marine renewable energy projects have no rights over
the seabed adjacent to them and are powerless to have any meaningful say over such
developments since the Crown Estate Commissioners administer all the property rights.
4. Contracts are being negotiated with multinational energy companies to develop
renewable energy projects on public land when such development would deliver greater
value if controlled at least in part by communities.
5. Farmers, individuals and communities could benefit from and deliver a more diverse
and integrated pattern of new forestry in the countryside and yet the Government has
no policies in place to stop multinational companies buying land, receiving millions of
pounds in public subsidy and profiting as a result.
6. Children have no legal rights to inherit land and thus Scotland continues to have one of
the most concentrated patterns of private landownership in the world.
7. Scotland and the UK continue to experience unacceptable levels of social and
economic inequality which are being exacerbated by the growing gulf between those
who own land and property and those who don’t (and perhaps never will). The richest
10% of the UK population own 44% of the wealth; some £4,000 billion of assets out of a
total personal wealth in the UK of £9,000 billion.5
How society chooses to govern public and private land rights and the economic and social
benefits that accrue from these rights is at the heart of these issues.
Scotland has no coherent policy on land ownership, occupation and governance.
The Land Reform Poilcy Group adopted a very specific remit when they set their objective
for land reform which was “to remove the land-based barriers to the sustainable
development of rural communities”. In it’s final report in January 1999, the Chair, Lord
Sewel, stated that,
“It is crucial that we regard land reform not as a one-for-all issue but as an ongoing
process. The parliament will be able to test how this early legislation works and how it
effects change. They will then have the opportunity to revisit and refine their initial
….These present recommendations are therefore by no means the final word on land
reform; they are a platform upon which we can build for the future.”
Unfortunately, Parliament has since neglected to test, revisit and refine this ongoing
process, never mind build for the future.
Now is the opportunity to do so.