NW Sutherland:  Visitors call it 'The Last Great Wilderness'. NATO call it a cheap bombing range. (Photo: K Williamson)

NW Sutherland: Visitors call it ‘The Last Great Wilderness’. NATO call it a cheap bombing range. (Photo: K Williamson)

@CalumMacleod07 and blogging at: Beyond the Horizon
Tomorrow Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s new First Minister will announce the SNP’s Programme for Government; the package of legislation and policies shaping her party’s priorities until the next Scottish Parliament election in 2016.

“Radical land reform” apparently lies at the heart of that programme according to the conference speech the First Minister recently delivered in Perth to an enraptured party faithful, old and new. If so, it will cap a journey by land reform from the forgotten fringes of Scotland’s political agenda towards its centre scarcely imaginable when the SNP won the 2011 election.

Back then, all of the main parties’ manifestos were united in offering precious little indication that they were finally getting serious about tackling the “land question”. To its credit, the SNP did at least promise to re-establish the Scottish Land Fund to support community buyouts; a promise duly delivered when the party was returned to power. Aside from that, insipid commitments to review the workings of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 were about as radical as any of them got.

A lot’s changed since 2011.

Most obviously, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good – the report of the Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) published last May – lit a fuse for radical action that supporters of land reform seem determined not to let fizzle out in the aftermath of the independence referendum result.

Amongst the report’s 62 recommendations are proposals to establish a National Land Policy with new institutions (a Scottish Land and Property Commission, Community Land Agency and a Housing Land Corporation), amend existing legislation to support community buyouts and sufficiently resource that process, devolve the Crown Estate’s powers to the Scottish Parliament, investigate the scope for introducing a Land Value Tax and cap the size of private estates in Scotland.

If these recommendations seem radical that’s only because Scotland’s highly concentrated system of private land ownership and centralised decision-making processes are so markedly out of step with the norm in many other European countries. Even so, there’s precious little in The Land of Scotland and the Common Good to gladden the hearts of the 432 increasingly embattled owners of half of Scotland’s private land.

Listen to that landed elite’s more floridly vocal cheerleaders and you’d be forgiven for assuming that private lairds provide some kind of alternative welfare system for the poor, enfeebled souls that sit huddled and helpless on their estates, grateful for any scrap of assistance that comes their way. Here, for example, is Charles Moore springing to private landlords’ defence in a mercifully short Spectator blog from January 2014:

Without philanthropists, megalomaniacs and serious sportsmen pouring cash in to maintain these difficult places, their communities, and so the environment, would suffer. You can see this happening already in the islands where crofters’ rights have been exercised.

Unless Fantasy Island has been secretly land-grabbed by Scotland it’s hard to identify where these “difficult” places enjoying the lairds’ largesse are located, other than in Mr Moore’s somewhat fevered imagination. I doubt he means Gigha where, despite recent negative press coverage, community ownership has substantially increased the island’s population, established new businesses, refurbished the local hotel, set up petrol pumps and built a new children’s play-park; a catalogue of development underscored by principles of democratic local accountability that few of Scotland’s private lairds would recognise.

Neither can Moore possibly mean the Western Isles where I come from and where a succession of community buyouts from Lewis to Eriskay have provided affordable housing, renewable energy initiatives and vital local services benefiting entire communities living on the land. It’s perfectly true that these islands have not been strangers to the odd philanthropist, megalomaniac or serious sportsman over the years. However, the notion that the positive impacts of large-scale private landownership there have ever amounted to much beyond benign neglect is a myth.

It’s also a myth, albeit one much trumpeted by the lairds, that land use rather than land ownership is what matters if the thorny issue of the “land question” is to be grasped by Government. In fact land ownership, land use and the exercise of power are all inextricably linked although it does not serve vested land interests well to point that out. The Land of Scotland and the Common Good doesn’t hesitate in doing so. It states:

Ownership is the key determinant of how land is used, and the concentration of private ownership in rural Scotland can often stifle entrepreneurial ambition, local aspirations and the ability to address identified community need. The concentrated ownership of private land in rural communities places considerable power in the hands of relatively few individuals, which can in turn have a huge impact on the lives of local people and jars with the idea of Scotland being a modern democracy.

Of course it’s one thing for the Land Reform Review Group to speak truth to landed power. It’s quite another for the country’s political elite to place land reform at the heart of a post-referendum vision of Scotland as a modern democracy. Crucially, even without independence the practical constitutional means to do that already exist. Almost all of the 62 recommendations contained in The Land of Scotland and the Common Good can be implemented within the current devolution settlement. The critical issue is how many of the LRRG’s recommendations will be implemented in the medium and longer term; not least because that will tell us rather a lot about just how distinctively left of centre and communitarian Scotland’s political values really are.

Initial signs in that regard are encouraging. Nicola Sturgeon’s refreshingly gender-balanced reshuffled Cabinet includes Aileen McLeod as Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform; her expanded portfolio title to include land reform being a small but symbolically important sign that the “land question” is gaining further traction as a policy area in the machinery of Government. Pressure for reform is also gathering pace from the bottom-up driven by grass-roots activism; most obviously through movements such as the Radical Independence Campaign and organisations like The Common Weal. Land reform campaigners are themselves also regrouping and organising to help usher in a new era. At Strathclyde University earlier this month a dozen key thinkers chaired by Lesley Riddoch met to explore “land value rating” (LVR) as they prefer to call LVT. These campaigners – the Scottish Land Revenue Group – believe LVR could be applied to fund future community buyouts – essentially making landowners pay for land reform – and could have wider and much more radical tax reform implications that are already within the powers of the devolved government to use. Meanwhile Scotland’s other parliamentary parties (with the obvious exception of the Tories) have all signalled that they also get the need for radical land reform, and are committed to its achievement.

One early test of that gathering cross-party consensus relates to the “Community Right to Buy” provisions contained in the Community Empowerment Bill currently before Parliament. Specifically, under test is the question of whether the proposed extended “right to buy” to include circumstances where there is no willing seller (if it is in the public interest to do so) can be implemented in practice. The same goes for the existing unworkable “Crofting Community Right to Buy”, consideration of which has belatedly been tacked on to the Bill. A second test concerns the extent to which the Land Reform Bill in the SNP’s forthcoming Programme of Government will provide a legislative basis for the strategic programme of land reform measures so glaringly absent from Government for a decade. If empowering communities lies at the heart of that programme then land reform is as relevant to urban Castlemilk as it is to rural Castlebay.

The prospect of the ‘land question’ finally getting the political attention it deserves is good news for anyone on either side of the independence debate who sees land reform as integral to the journey towards a more socially progressive Scotland. Perhaps less so for Scotland’s private lairds; the more perceptive of whom probably now realise that, far from safeguarding their landed interests, the referendum result seems to be accelerating momentum for radical land reform.