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April 13, 2021

In the public interest?

It’s well known that decisions about land use will be critical if the country is to become a net zero nation by 2045 (although arguably how we use Scotland’s marine environment is even more critical). Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, in its final report, underlines this and argues that Scotland’s concentrated land ownership risks the benefits from investment in carbon sequestration being skewed away from communities towards large landowners. The report adds weight to the growing clamour for a public interest test to be introduced on land acquisitions over a certain size. Excellent blog on this from Calum Macleod.

Beyond the Horizon – blog of Dr Calum Macleod

Last week the Scottish Government-appointed Just Transition Commission published its final report on how to ensure that Scotland’s goal of creating a net zero carbon emissions economy by 2045 is achieved fairly.   That issue of fairness matters because an uncoordinated and unregulated free for all in the race towards ‘net zero’ risks deepening and widening existing inequalities in Scottish society by producing very clear winners and losers.

Nothing illustrates that paradox more starkly that the vital role of land in addressing the existential threat of climate change.  The Commission’s report is clear that more will be demanded of Scotland’s land as part of a huge investment programme to restore peatlands, plant many more trees and manage woodlands as an integral part of the drive towards net zero.

The report is equally clear that Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of rural landownership presents a challenge to ensuring the benefits of such investment are distributed fairly.  It states that “part of ensuring a just transition must be about making sure the benefits of investment in carbon sequestration are felt as widely as possible. Without careful design and meaningful engagement there is a risk that benefits may flow mainly to large landowners and opportunities for community benefit will be missed.”

Amongst the many recommendations in its report, the Just Transition Commission calls on the Scottish Government to develop a statutory public interest test for any changes in land ownership above a certain threshold.   That proposal echoes a similar recommendation to Government made recently by the Scottish Land Commission following its own report highlighting the corrosive effects of concentrated land ownership in rural Scotland.

Anybody who thinks this is much ado about nothing clearly hasn’t been paying enough attention to the rapidly evolving market in Scottish rural estates; a market described with masterful understatement in a recent article in The Scottish Farmer as “rarefied”.  The article notes that only 23 rural estates changed hands in 2020.  Worryingly, for anyone interested in land ownership transparency (which is most of the Scottish public, according to recent Scottish Government research) around half of these estates were sold privately without surfacing onto the open market.  The same article notes that the total value of Scottish estates sold last year increased by 43% to £100 million.

Through the centuries the Highlands and Islands have seldom been strangers to those eager to sample the rarefied air of estate ownership, often historically funded by morally reprehensible sources of capital. The links between planation slavery and landownership in the region recently highlighted in research by the academics, Dr Iain MacKinnon and Dr Andrew Mackillop, being a case in point.

These traditional ‘trophy estate’ hunters haven’t gone away.  Why would they when private estate sales are unregulated and huge tracts of land can be bought with no questions asked, as long as the price is right?  What has changed is the expansion of the rural estates market to incorporate aspiring ‘Green Lairds’ of various stripes intent on capitalising on investment opportunities presented by the climate emergency.

According to Evelyn Channing, Head of Rural Agency for Scotland, at Savills, “The ESG agenda (environmental, social and corporate governance) is bringing buyers forward of all shapes and sizes, from small Scottish businesses to large charities and investment companies. As a result, the forestry and planting land market is booming: several new funds in the market have been competing aggressively alongside larger, more established investors from all over Europe and beyond. Other buyers are looking to offset carbon emissions produced elsewhere, by purchasing natural capital.”

This is all great news if you happen to own an estate that you’re keen to off-load.  And proponents of a ‘glass half full’ approach to life might optimistically conclude that at least some of the new players in the green land grab are motivated by the best of environmental intentions and an altruistic perspective on the fate of our shared planet.

But you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that any consideration of communities’ role  on the new elite frontier of land and the climate emergency seems conspicuous largely by its absence.   Neither does the continuing existence of an unregulated rural estates market with sharply escalating land values chime with the concept of a just transition to a net zero carbon economy.  It’s equally unclear as to where the idea of retaining wealth within communities for their benefit sits with these new market dynamics.

Increasing community control of land and other assets is essential if we are serious about achieving a just transition whereby the benefits of natural capital are distributed fairly in addressing climate change.    That much is clear from ‘Community Landowners and the Climate Emergency’, a research report by the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development (Inherit) produced for Community Land Scotland and also published last week.

The report highlights the diverse range of climate action initiatives that rural and urban community landowners are implementing locally, often in partnership with others. They include managing ‘carbon sinks’ such as woodlands, peatlands and green spaces, generating renewable energy to address local electricity needs; improving household energy efficiency to reduce fuel poverty, promoting active travel and low emissions transport, and promoting local food growing and access to healthy and affordable local produce.   This is climate action from the ground up, delivering tangible benefits for the communities themselves and for the wider public as a whole.

In calling for “a national mission for a fairer, greener Scotland” the Just Transition Commission is right to assert that “the imperative of a just transition is that Governments design policies in a way that ensures the benefits of climate change action are shared widely”.   We know that the relationship between Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of rural land ownership and an unregulated estates market is both socially dysfunctional and a structural barrier to delivering on that mission.  Scotland’s political parties know it too.  As the Scottish Parliament Election edges ever closer, the key question is what they propose to do about it.