Land Reform Withers on the Vine of Complacency & Ignorance


It is probably quite appropriate that today, within 24 hours of publishing her Interim Report, the Chair of the Land Reform Review Group, Alison Elliot, is giving the keynote address to Scottish Land and Estates AGM at Perth racecourse. (1) No doubt she will receive a warm welcome and a rousing cheer from the landed class and its legal and financial advisers as the latest attempt at kick-starting land reform withers and dies on the vine of complacency and ignorance. See previous blogs on the topic and, in particular the immediately previous one for a foretaste of developments today.

The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) was announced by Alex Salmond at a meeting of the Scottish Cabinet on Skye in 24 July 2012. On 23 August it’s remit was published and on 8 October the Group’s advisers were announced. Given that nothing had happened on the land reform front for a decade, this development was widely welcomed at least among those who believe that Scotland needs land reform.

Yesterday, the Group today published its Interim Report together with an analysis of the evidence submitted to the Group. Following the previous resignation of Professor James Hunter, it was also announced that the one other member with (limited) experience of land reform has also resigned – Dr Sarah Skerrat. She is the co-author of the report along with the one member left from the original Group – the Chair Alison Elliot.

The Interim Report fails to deliver anything meaningful and effectively kills off any prospects of radical land reform due to one significant (and for those unfamiliar with the topic not immediately obvious) and devastating revelation in the report.

wrote at the time the group was established that whether any of the wicked issues like “inflated land values, affordability of housing, succession law, tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, theft of common land, land registration laws, common good etc. etc. etc.” got looked at depended on 1) a definition of land reform and 2) the remit of the group. Last August, I welcomed the remit as wide-ranging and I did so because on a straight reading of the words, it was just that. For the avoidance of doubt it is worth re-stating the preamble and three key tasks that the Group was set.

The Scottish Government is committed to generating innovative and radical proposals on land reform that will contribute to the success of Scotland for future generations.

The relationship between the land and the people of Scotland is fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country. The structure of land ownership is a defining factor in that relationship: it can facilitate and promote development, but it can also hinder it. In recent years, various approaches to land reform, not least the expansion of community ownership, have contributed positively to a more successful Scotland by assisting in the reduction of barriers to sustainable development, by strengthening communities and by giving them a greater stake in their future. The various strands of land reform that exist in Scotland provide a firm foundation for further developments.

The Government has therefore established a Land Reform Review Group.

The Group will identify how land reform will:

1) Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;

2) Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;

3) Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland

The emphasis is mine and I interpreted the three tasks as relating broadly to 1) individuals 2) communities and 3) governance. Others may read it differently of course but it appears to provide a wide framework of analysis. It follows on from a preamble that highlights structural problems, progress to date and community ownership as representing one strand of land reform.

Yesterday that remit was ripped up.

Section 4.4.2 contains the first clue in a passage that tenant farmers across Scotland have reacted to with a sense of anger and betrayal.

This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention. For the LRRG to address these issues would be to interfere with the work of the TFF [Tenant Farming Forum] and to stray considerably away from our remit which focuses on communities rather than relationships between individuals. Having spent time on the issue during the first phase of the review we would be interested in sharing perspectives with the TFF through our advisers as appropriate but we do not intend to report further on this matter, except where it can be addressed within the context of community ownership” (my emphasis).

This a kick in the teeth for Scotland’s tenant farming sector. As the Group noted, some tenants were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” (2) Now they learn that, after patient and diligent engagement with the Group, their concerns are to be addressed by a talking shop in which the lairds have a veto.

But the revelation goes way beyond the immediate concerns of tenant farmers

It redefines the remit of the group as focussing on “communities rather than relationships between individuals“. This redefinition is confirmed by Sections 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 of the report which interpret each of the three aims in the remit as relating solely to community ownership. Section 4 opens with the claim that,

The group was given a wide-ranging remit which entailed a review of the legislation of 2003 as well as the task of considering how the benefits of community ownership could be extended to more communities through the exploration of new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland” (my emphasis).

It concludes by announcing that “some more technical issues that are frequently raised in discussions of land reform – the position of the Crown Estates, common good land, taxation and succession” have not been considered but the Group “may do so if they are likely to throw light on the other topics on the Phase 2 agenda.”

So these important topics (not to mention tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, housing tenure, land information etc.) will only be considered if they have a bearing on advancing community ownership.

I was thus wrong when I welcomed this wide-ranging remit because I failed to understand what it meant.

Either that or, effectively, the Group has re-written its remit so as to exclude concerns relating to anything other than community ownership.

Has the Scottish government approved of this redefinition or was I alone in having interpreted the remit wrongly? From the Media Release issued, it appears that the Minister, Paul Wheelhouse agrees with the Group that the Review is, in fact, about community ownership.

“The LRRG has made good progress over the past few months as they have travelled across Scotland meeting a wide range of people with an interest in land reform and in an effort to understand how Scottish Government can utilise Scotland’s land and assets to empower Scotland’s communities – both rural and urban.  The interest in the review has been great with the Group receiving over 475 responses to their initial consultation.

 “I now very much look forward to the next stage as the LRRG move into the second phase of it’s work looking at radical options for community land ownership before the final report in 2014.” (my emphasis)

So it must be me then. I just misunderstood the remit. This is not a land reform review group – it is a community ownership review group.

Given the coverage in the media today (a few sentences in the Herald’s farming page and a brief interview with myself on BBC Radio Highland (itself quote a reflection on the marginal significance now attached to land reform), it is clear that land reform is effectively dead as a matter of public policy. That does not reflect my own experience of speaking to thousands of people across Scotland over the past couple of years (during which events less than a handful of people ever appeared to have heard of the LRRG) but it does sit comfortably with elite Scotland’s view of the world.

What makes the report hard to understand is that there are flashes of radicalism like this.

Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to people who live their lives on it. While many of these will be good decisions, it is an expression of the material inequality in the country that this situation obtains.”

But then there is a complete and utter failure to say anything at about how this is to be dealt with.

Perhaps it is time that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament called the group in for another chat.

Finally, as I have made clear in the past, I remain concerned at the lack of transparency in the proceedings of the Group and in particular its refusal to publish the evidence being submitted to it until April 2014. I thus submitted a Freedom of Information request for this information – something that respondents were made aware was a possibility in the Call for Evidence. I was thus rather surprised to read in Section 2.5 Alterations to timescale the following claim.

Immediately after the deadline for submissions in January, a Freedom of Information request was received that the full set of submissions should be made public. This request was dealt with by the Secretariat but it did have an impact on how the group approached analysis of the submissions. Uncertainty over whether confidential responses would be made public worried some respondents and did nothing to enhance the trust some people felt towards the group or the process.”

For the record I never asked for confidential responses to be released and there is a perfectly legitimate exemption under FoI legislation to cover this. To blame an FoI request for undermining trust in the group is frankly pathetic.

(1) Perth racecourse is on Scone Estate – land subject to a heritage tax exemption for allowing public access (map here).

(2) Interim Report page 14

UPDATE – further media reports.
BBC Highlands & Islands online
BBC Naidheachan online

This article reproduced by kind permission of Andy Wightman, you can keep up to date with his blog ‘Land Matters’ here.

Comments (12)

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  1. Donald MacDonald says:

    This is depressing stuff. Land reform is absolutely fundamental to the kind of Scotland we should be creating with independence. If we are not to have root and branch reform in this area, what hope for a ‘fairer, more equal’ Scotland?

    We need to sweep away the dead wood of a thousand years and more of privilege, instal an assumption of land being ‘common’, and work back from there. If commons were enclosed by the elite, no compensation.

    Dammit, I want independence, but by Heaven they’re tempting me to vote ‘No’. Have they sold out? All of them?

  2. George Gunn says:

    The SNP have a lot to answer for over the land question as they have over many other cosy relationships with the rich and the powerful. I will be voting Yes in the referendum but for the love of god give me another party after that to vote for.
    In the Highlands especially landownership is killing off economic development and industrialising our landscape making power utilities handsome profits and landowners easy money. Renewable energy is too important to be left to this unregulated greedy cabal. Land has to be nationalised or its real value taxed. Placating a rich minority at the expense of social and economic justice for the majority will come to haunt the SNP and if it costs us the Yes vote at the referendum then it may cost the SNP their political future. We Scots are lucky at least to have Andy Wightman to keep watch.

  3. Braco says:

    Donald MacDonald,
    I agree with all you say up until,

    “Dammit, I want independence, but by Heaven they’re tempting me to vote ‘No’. Have they sold out? All of them?”

    I have to say, that is one of the daftest/most stupid things I have heard an obviously thoughtful and progressive person say for a long time.

    We are in need of land reform because of our current and historic constitutional situation within the UK. This has zero chance of changing if a NO vote is returned in 2014.

    Change can only happen through real political power being returned to Scotland and the issue of land reform driven forward democratically, forcing future Scots Governments to take the issue seriously.

    This is quite clearly a post referendum issue. It can only be solved with the powers a YES vote would bring, but more importantly the creation of a political will to actually use those powers for the kind of radical change both you and I crave.

    Your published sentiments do nothing but aid the betterNO campaigns tactic of inertia and ‘what’s the pointism’. So well done there.

  4. Andy Mac says:

    First Vote YES , then we will address these issues and create the country we, the people, desire !

  5. George Gunn says:

    A clear commitment to radical land reform NOW by the SNP would result in more YES votes next September. Let us not cal each other names here. Everything must be positive. We must discuss, yes, but we must show solidarity and respect.

  6. Braco says:

    A clear understanding by the Scot’s electorate that the referendum is simply to decide the transfer of power to govern in Scotland, from the UK’s 63 million to Scotland’s 5.3 million population is what will increase the YES vote next September.

    All other policy directions to be taken through that ‘right to govern’ will be decided democratically via the normal processes of manifestos, campaigns and political elections after a YES vote.

    That is the place and time for the real domestic issues such as land reform, banking reform, welfare reform, etc. etc. that any normal country has the luxury to fight over, and can then be safely and effectively raised here in Scotland.

    Until then it would be stupid to expect any pro Indy party to break ranks and start pushing their own policy fancies outwith the specifically acknowledged context of post referendum elections.

    ‘A clear commitment to radical land reform NOW by the SNP would result in more YES votes next September.’ I agree with your sentiments, but where is your proof? This referendum is not about land reform or any other specific policy issue (yet).

  7. George Gunn says:

    Your right I have no quantifiable “proof” as to land reform making any bit of difference to the Yes vote but in the Highlands we deal with who owns the land every day. It conditions almost everything because it is so unjust. If the SNP would declare themselves wholeheartedly for fundamental changes in land tenure then it would give so many people in the north so much hope for the future. I agree that the referendum is for the transfer of power to govern but government is made out of human desire, aspiration and belief as much as it is a dance of pragmatism.

  8. Braco says:

    George Gunn,

    Thanks for your reply. I find myself almost in total agreement with you (and Donald too). It’s just that it seems to me the SNP in particular are having to tread a very delicate path at the moment in order to try and not overpower the message of the YES campaign, that the referendum is in fact non party political.

    The MSM, broadcasters and betterNO are all plainly set on fighting this campaign on the fallacy that it’s a YES or NO to continual one party SNP rule under the iron fist of Dictator Salmond. Ridiculous I know but there you have it.

    If the SNP were, at this moment, to come out strongly with the kind of policy promises that both you and I would applaud it would simply aid the MSM and betterNO to focus on SNP policy in order to push their false framing of the referendum decision and help them to sideline and ignore the true nature of the decision the electorate are being asked to make.

    I truly believe that the reason we desperately need so much reform in our society is the simple lack of democracy and accountability suffered by our population over many, many, many generations.

    Throughout all those decades (and more) there have been plenty of attempts and struggles by great people to change individual injustices and their institutions (such as land reform) but all have failed, or the limited success gained was slowly reversed due to lack of power over unaccountable ‘government’ and vested financial interests.

    The YES vote in September will give those same great people of today’s and future generations the real democratic and accountable tools necessary to make long term political change happen and for it to stay changed.

    So a YES in September is (in my view) the essential first step and the rational for it should not be allowed to be muddied at this stage by party political promises and maneuvering for an Independent Scots election in 2016 that might not even happen. (God forbid!)

    Vote YES! (please)

  9. Hetty says:

    It’s certainly seems that the SNP do have to tread very carefully when it comes to matters of land ownership, for the time being.
    It shouldn’t be the case, we should not have to tip toe around the rich landowners, but it maybe the only way to secure a ‘YES’ as these rich folk are rather powerful whilst we are part of the UK.
    It’s 2013 and in many ways things have not improved, but I do think that once Scotland chooses Independence, we can really get moving on this issue and I suspect that the SNP are the only ones who would take things forward. A ‘no’ vote will create more instability, more inequality and very possibly even take things backward in terms of land ownership and land reform. A ‘no’ vote will be detrimental to the people of Scotland, the only way to make change for the better is via self determination, the Scottish parliament hasn’t had long enough to make those changes but will be required to do so with Independence.
    I think people will take no nonsense after Independence regards such big important issues. I for one expect things to change and quickly, post Sept 2014. The Eton lot down in westminster can pretty much do what they like, change laws over night etc…
    It’s not going to be acceptable for major changes to land reform etc, to be a long drawn out process and to take years, the blue print is already drawn up is it not? I think we can hold any party in power, post Independence, responsible for making changes that represent the interests of all, not just the rich and the rich inheritors, whose ancestors made claim unlawfully, to much of the land in Scotland.

  10. andywightman says:

    95% of the powers to deliver effective land reform have been devolved since 1999. The fact that they have not been used is a reflection on the nature of power relations in Scotland today. In such circumstances here is no reason to think that independence would make much difference. This is about current governance in a devolved Scotland. Read what senior SNP MSPs said in 2002 and compare with their lack of action since becoming Ministers.

  11. Braco says:


    I and many others vote SNP because they are the only party that will produce an independent country, able to formulate policies by utilizing the full range of normal taxation and expenditure calculations normally made by fully democratically empowered Governments.

    On devolution my vote was quite different, as were the votes of many and a ‘rainbow parliament’ was elected. That wide range of new parties and independents sent to Holyrood has not been replicated since, because those who voted for those ‘change’ representatives, like myself, have come to realise they had no real power to make the fundamental changes to our society that they were in fact voted in to instigate.

    Power is in it’s final reality, a first past the post, two party system in Britain. It’s no surprise Scots politics and the Scots electorate soon realised devolution did not change that fact and so have reverted to fighting fire with fire.

    Post Indy, people like me will revert to our default idealistic state and return another ‘rainbow parliament’ but this time with the powers to actually carry out the change they promise in their manifestos.

    A parliament of negotiation and alliance building, not the polarised creature it has been forced to become under the drip, drip of the straightjacketed powers divided up at Westminster’s whim. The sole logic behind those reasons, being an attempt to retain power, as much as possible, to the center.

    The SNP are here to get us Independence, not land reform. Land reform and all the other desperately needed social and legal reforms will be handled and produced via the normal democratic processes of manifestos, political campaigns and democratic elections post Independence.

    Your quoting of existing powers available for land reform in the current devolved and limited Holyrood settlement and their lack of use under the SNP, is as relevant as asking why no party in Holyrood has ever raised or lowered Income tax by the amount that they are technically empowered to enact.

    The reason is simple. The cost of a power (both financial and social) which by design can only be used in isolation, cannot be mitigated against via other policy initiatives and taxation incentives disincentives etc. etc..

    It therefor cannot in political reality be introduced without causing more damage than good. (In the context of our short term political cycles at least). It will therefore never be used and is not a ‘power’ at all.

    The law of True Political power has forced Holyrood into its current contorted and misshapen two party state, as it struggles to gain complete control over all Scots resources from an unelected and undemocratic two party first past the post Westminster.

    To expect significant reforms to occur before that battle is over is simply naive.

    Vote YES first. Then ‘normal’ politics will become possible. (thank God!)

    We can only make these essential and desperately needed reforms to our society once we have the power to make real political change.

    We will make change once we have the democratic powers to make the change.

    1. Braco says:

      Sorry I forgot to thank you for the article Mr Wightman. It was very thought provoking (but depressing).

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