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May 3, 2022

What might have been

Since the Scottish Government auctioned the seabed leases to energy companies for the development of offshore wind energy, there has been much talk as to whether an opportunity has just been missed by not following Norway’s example and creating a sovereign wealth fund by taking an equity stake in off shore wind development. That said, the £700 million raised from the auction is still a sizeable sum and long term advocate for land reform, Peter Peacock, has some interesting thoughts as to how it should be used.


Calum Ross, Press and Journal

A former government minister has called on the SNP to use a recent £700 million windfall to buy-up land across Scotland to protect it from the new “green lairds”.

Peter Peacock also wants a Holyrood inquiry amid claims the super-rich are being handed a “licence to print money” through tax breaks and subsidies on offer to cut carbon emissions.

He fears these incentives are supporting a “dark market” of secret land deals at eye-watering prices, as businesses seek to greenwash their operations.

The former Labour education minister said the Scottish Government could ensure communities benefit from their local land by using the £700 million windfall raised during the recent ScotWind seabed sell-off to purchase estates across the nation.

The move would establish a “sovereign wealth fund” of land.

The new generation of landowners have been accused of pricing out community groups in the rush to offset their carbon and take advantage of government support for tree-planting and other initiatives.

Huge parts of Scotland are being sold off in this dark market with no questions asked.

In an interview with this newspaper a year ago, Mr Peacock said he was becoming increasingly concerned that the “next great Highlands and Islands land exploitation” was under way.

He noted a danger that these new patterns of external ownership would “last for the next century and more”.

Mr Peacock now says his fears are being realised, with the trend underlined in a recent report by the Scottish Land Commission.

It showed prices for estates had doubled in just the last year, that almost two-thirds of the deals were done in secret, and half of the estates were sold to corporate bodies, investment funds or charitable trusts.

Mr Peacock said it was vital that ministers and MSPs acted quickly to halt the trend.

“This dark market for land in Scotland evades transparency and operates within a shadowy world of high value individuals and corporations,” he said.

“Prices being paid for land are eye watering and may be beyond the reach of local people even if they knew the land was available for sale.

Peter Peacock when he was education minister

“This is possible because of a completely unregulated market for land sales in Scotland.

“It seems clear this is a dysfunctional, failed and still failing land market which benefits only the super-rich.

“Today it provides what appears to be a licence to print money underwritten by the public purse of land subsidies and tax breaks.

“Huge parts of Scotland are being sold off in this dark market with no questions asked.”

Mr Peacock, who was a Highlands and Islands MSP from 1999 to 2011, called for the Scottish Parliament to order an urgent inquiry into how the market has been operating and how to protect the public interest.

He also urged ministers to take action, including through the purchase of land in the national interest, in order that “the people of Scotland and not just wealthy private investors or individuals take all the benefits”.

Pointing to the revenues from the recent ScotWind auction, he said: “The huge receipts coming as a windfall from the sale of seabed leases from off-shore wind could be largely used to secure the land we need as a country to meet our climate and carbon sequestration requirements.

“This could be viewed as a sovereign wealth fund being held in the form of land.

“Communities could be partners in a national endeavour using the experience of community ownership to deliver multiple local and national benefits.

“There is an honourable tradition of state backed land purchases from the early part of the last century for the creation of crofts and for the forest plantations to meet national priorities.

“Current times demand a similar approach.”

The ScotWind auction has become increasingly controversial in recent weeks.

It’s been claimed the seabed plots for major offshore wind projects were sold off on the cheap.

Land Reform Minister Màiri McAllan said last year that the government was ready to seize an “immediate window of opportunity” to ensure communities benefit from a boom in land values created by green lairds.

SLC chief executive Hamish Trench has recently spoken about the “option” of establishing community wealth funds, as well as other potential proposals.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We must ensure equitable sharing of the benefits of this investment with local communities and wider society.

“We are committed to ensuring a values-led, high-integrity market for responsible private investment in Scotland’s land and natural assets.

“That is why we have recently published a set of Interim Principles for Responsible Investment in Natural Capital, and we have also committed to doubling the Scottish Land Fund by the end of this parliamentary session.”

He added that transparency in land ownership and decision-making was “crucial” in helping communities have more say over their local area, highlighting a newly-launched Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land (RCI).

“This new register, which complements our existing Land Register, will enable local communities to better access information about who owns and decides about land in their area,” he said.

“Our new Land Reform Bill, which we will bring forward over the course of this parliament, will build on our land reform measures to date and will further tackle Scotland’s historically iniquitous patterns of land ownership – including by tackling problematic scale and concentration of ownership.

“ScotWind will deliver around £700 million in revenues to the public purse for the initial awards alone and has the potential to deliver billions more in rental revenues once projects become operational, to be invested for the benefit of the people of Scotland