Land Reform after the Referendum

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.

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  1. Ali says:

    Much as land reform is high on my wislist, let’s face the fact that Gigha is £3 million in the hole – that buys a lot of petrol pumps.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Given that half a million of Scotland’s 19 million acres is now in community ownership and lists dozens of members, it is astonishing that there have been so few difficulties across the board. Community ownership is breathing new life into Scotland, creating pools of new skills and helping ordinary folks to become empowered in functioning communities, including the tricky areas like recognising and processing conflict. So much is happening on Eigg, for example, that unless you’ve got fast broadband it takes quite a while for their website to load. Yes, we shouldn’t have to be buying back our own land in the first place, but given human rights law and that this is not Zimbabwe we have to work within certain frameworks. Tax the private lairds and vacant city “land bank” plots, I say. That’ll lower land values when market capitalised and, as this article says, generate the funds with which to finance further community buyouts in localities where the community feels ready.

      1. Ali says:

        Agreed. As I said in another comment, taxation is the only way to address this I think

    2. For any enterprise to have debt of X Y or £3m is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether the income stream to service and repay that debt. The recent press coverage read/heard like a one sided hatchet job focused on only one side fo the equation.

      1. Ali says:

        I’m not sure it was so one-sided and plenty of time was given for explanation of the situation. Nevertheless my point is that trumpeting a playground and petrol pumps against a background of £3 million pounds of debt seems a wee bit weird. One interesting aside is that while Gigha is able to borrow money Scotland can’t!

      2. Ali says:

        p.s. I dispute the assertion that it is “irrelevant”. Personally I think this is a scary level of debt – perhaps irresponsibly so.

      3. Alastair McIntosh says:

        A lot of community based organisations, both rural and urban, have had to take on debt since the financial crash of 2008 and the consequent shortage of money from traditional funders. Usually this involves allowing the lender a charge on assets. I cannot say what the details are on Gigha but the timing of it all is intriguing. Could it have anything to do with souring the ground for the Scottish Govt’s expected announcement in an hour’s time on land reform?

  2. Ali says:

    Also unintended consequences have to be looked for. It’s alright giving people the right to buy land they’re on unless the same law means landowners make sure nobody gets on their land in the first place! Tax the hell out of it – that’s the only solution.

  3. bringiton says:

    To many Scots who never venture outside their urban homes in Scotland,this may not seem a very important issue.
    However,for rural Scots it is potentially of vital importance to allow their communities to flourish.
    Control over land ownership ranks along side having control of revenues and taxation in that they are the main enablers of democracy at local and national level.
    Scotland needs to signal at all levels that we are parting ways with the feudal system of governance and land ownership represented by the British state and it’s power structures.
    Great article Calum.

    1. Simon Chadwick says:

      Urban homes are still built on land, and the issues of land ownership, resource allocation etc. are just as relevant to city-dwellers as to island crofters. Who owns the land your house or flat sits on? How did they get it? What percentage of Scotland’s land do you own?

  4. andywightman says:

    This is a vital issue for urban, rural and marine Scotland. Currently house prices are (and have been) rising faster than incomes (much faster) and are forecast to continue to do so. This is due to rising land values. Meanwhile young people in particular face poorly-paid work, job insecurity, student debts and unaffordable housing. The most important aspect of land reform is fiscal reform – capturing speculative gains in the form of economic rent. Private debt is heading towards £1.5 trillion in the UK and over 80% of that is mortgage debt. Whether you are a renter or an owner, that is a call on current and future earnings that is suppressing economic prosperity, investment and wages. For urban Scots there is no more important topic than land reform.

    But it is unlikely that the Scottish Government recognises this. It ruled out tackling the exemption to non-domestic rates that means over 90% of Scotland’s land pays no annual land tax. It appears keen to abolish the council tax and replace it with a tax on incomes. When house prices (actually land values) have tripled and wages are declining this is a recipe for economic stagnation and decline.

    At a more elementary level there are a host of recommendations in the Land Reform Review Group report that relate to housing and urban land. In addition the Community Empowerment Bill is dealing with modest reforms to allotment law, vacant land, urban right to buy and common good law.

    Given that Scotland’s politicians (including Nicola Sturgeon at the Hydro rally – “”Land reform will mean much-needed changes in the Highlands and other rural areas”) appear to persist in seeing this exclusively as a rural issue, I am not surprised that so many of Scotland’s urban citizens do too.

    1. Ali says:

      If people even think of land reform they probeably think of a rural setting? In Lesley Riddoch’s “Blossom”, George Monbiot’s “Feral” the focus is on princially the Highlands and Islands and the rogue of the piece is always likely to be a toff hunting deer. I confe4ss I never even thought much about it until swotting for the referndum. Thanks for the point re the urban dimension.

    2. muttley79 says:

      I presume the fact that many Scottish politicians think of land reform as only affecting rural areas is mostly due to the legacy and remembrance of the Highland clearances.

  5. wullie says:

    the land issue rips my soul apart, I want all of it returned to public ownership. I do not agree with buy outs, I see this as a form of reset. Remove the land from these so called owners in the same manner it was removed from the people. This was legally accepted in the past, whats good for the goose etc

    1. andywightman says:

      How would this be achieved? The public sector cannot afford to acquire all the land of Scotland. It cannot be expropriated because that would be in breach of Article 1 of Protocol 1 (A1P1) of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are in the unfortunate position of trying to undertake land reform AFTER the introduction of a human rights framework that provides a conditional protection for existing property rights. Importantly, however, A1P1 does NOT, however, apply to fiscal policy.

      Not only is current fiscal policy flawed but there is no inhibition on amending it. So if we want to observe the seriousness of the current Scottish Government’s approach to land reform we should pay attention to the fiscal dimensions and, in particular, the attitude adopted towards council tax reform.

      1. gun ainm says:

        great to see the reform debate moving forward in this manner and find myself in broad agreement on the fiscal argument you make Andy – couple of quick questions though if I may?

        1) the technicalities of arriving at a land value would seem critical – the value could shift dramatically if consent for a windfarm development for example is gained. How would you predict the into of LVR would impact on existing community owned estates and on a future trend towards further community ownership?

        2) if LVR tackles the high price in land that will clearly make the public funding of buy-outs easier to bear for the taxpayer but if a community trust is going to have their purchase backed largely (or exclusively) by the taxpayer in my view it would be great to see greater public benefit secured in conditions attached to the funding – would you agree?

  6. david steel says:

    I fear that most on here will be disappointed when any land reform proposals are published. there is no way I can see Scottish government going as far as many on here want. experience tells us that they will tinker round the edges, tackle the low hanging issues and proclaim success and progress.
    The subject is far more complex than many people think. If absolute right to buy is introduced – where does that take the tenanted land sector when no landlord will dare to let land? Where does farming new entrant businesses get a start ? Forced sale and break up of estates – where do you draw the line between those nasty Tory toffs and deerhunters and genuine working farms and families? How do you draw a difference between a tenanted farm /croft and a tenanted house in the town – same principles apply.
    Absolute right to buy / compulsory purchase is not the answer. Pre-emptive right to buy definitely is one strand, land tax is another – and that applies to urban as well as rural (look out Tesco) but not necessarily a broad land tax but one that penalises underutilised land – thus genuine fragil rural businesses don’t get clobbered along the way.
    As I said – its a complex business and there is many unintended consequences.

  7. zetorzetor says:

    ECHR can be overridden if in the public interest, and 100,000 acre estate can hardly be declared “private”.
    The scots are not classed as an indigenous people, therefore have no rights to land, except at the whim of a laird or his ghastly factor.

  8. David Soulsby says:

    Well Well, Just a quick note “Not Related to this article” To all the “Socialists” Who have signed up to the SNP. I received the email from 38 degrees today explaining to us all and asking as many people as possible to sign the petition to our “Glorious left wing leader” Nicola to stop the support that the SNP currently has for TTIP.
    I cannot believe that all this support has gone to the SNP for independence when they are planning to sell us all out to the american corporations.
    I would call on all right minded people to sign this petition and start to make as much noise to the SNP to stop this NOW.
    If we do not then we will never get any true independence we will be at the mercy of the corporations.
    If we don’t want GM farming, TOO BAD, if we don’t want GM food imports, TOO BAD. If we want publicly owned services TOO BAD.

    Sign the petition now! Help stop this!

    1. muttley79 says:

      Are you a unionist, as the “Glorious Leader” pish is what they did to Salmond? You do know that 38 degrees is almost certainly a Labour Party related site? It was the same site that Brown hijacked for the more powers petition?

    2. muttley79 says:

      Nicola Sturgeon opposes the TTIP in regards to public sector workers, as she has said on Twitter. Salmond has written a letter to Cameron opposing TTIP in regards to health care. Do you know about this, or have you just charged in with your allegations?

      1. David Soulsby says:


        Sorry I have been working and I have just got back to my post!

        No I am not a unionist!

        Sorry if the satirical quip ” GLORIOUS LEADER” upset you.

        I am however very worried about the reaction anyone gets if they dare to question the SNP.
        and I am very worried about handing this amount of power to any one party.
        The term “glorious leader” is usually used by the head of single party states is it not?
        I think Scotland and the YES campaign was a diverse movement, I am not an SNP voter and I believe that we need a broad spectrum of political views and parties to have a good and balanced parliament and country.
        Socialists should be Socialists, Greens Should be Greens!

        I would also expect the Unionists to be equally worried about TTIP.

        I am fully aware of what the SNP position is on this and Alex Salmond writing a letter to express concern over one small part of this treaty to me is not enough or an appropriate response.

        My concerns are with the whole of TTIP and the fact is that the SNP have not come out in FULL OPPOSITION to this is very worrying to me.

        Obviously not to you!

        I could go into detail about handing power to corporations who will be able to sue governments in a closed court as is happening in Australia at the moment and in many small third world countries where farmers have been bankrupted and some have even committed suicide but I wont,

        You seem to know all about it and are so insulted that I dare question the SNP so I can only presume that you are happy with there stand on this.

        These “Allegations” as you call them are just facts, you can if you wish, read them on line, check out Nicola”s speech to the EU in Brussels.

        To finnish “38 degrees is almost certainly a Labour Party related site”

        Do you have any idea what you are saying, do you not want debate?

        only self serving adulation.

        This is not my type of politics at all.

  9. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Whoopee! Today’s announcement:

    “The first minister added that ending rates exemptions for shooting and deerstalking estates, ‘put in place by the Tories in 1994 to protect the interests of major landowners’, would pay for an increase in the fund which supports community land ownership from £3m to £10m a year.”

  10. tonyroz says:

    yes, a good start, lets hope there are tenant farmers rights to buy the farms they and their families have worked and lived on for generations. As Nicola basically said, ‘new housing’= ownership of land, ‘diversification’=ownership of land, ‘a real and meaningful link for young people to stay and work on farms’=ownership of land.

    1. david steel says:

      As a tenant farmer – Absolute right to buy is not the answer. It is not as simple as folk think. If they introduce an absolute right to buy it will dry up the available let land and quite simply landlords will not offer new land for tenancy and take existing holdings on shorter tenancies back in hand at the end of their term. That will be a disaster for agriculture as it leaves no pathway for new farmers. The other point being those on old “91” tenancies are on a very favourable rent for the current financial conditions – going to an owner occupier by purchasing will mean they will pay far far higher in interest mortgage payments than they would ever do in current rent. In many cases their businesses would suffer through a shortage of working capital as all available funds are put towards the purchase.
      All I would say is think about Maggie thatchers great council house sell off and the problems it created with the shortage of available social housing as everybody became owner occupiers – same scenario would apply.
      Pre-emptive right to buy if the landlord wishes to sell IS the way forward though and much less contentious.
      Land tax on underutilised land IS also the way ahead – force landlords to either utilise the land to its potential or the tax will in effect force it on the market.

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        But David, no tenant would be forced to buy. It would be for them to figure out the business economics of capital investment vis-a-vis needs for investment and interest versus rent. Why would you want to constrain that freedom? Is private ownership not also contentious in many situations, especially because it smothers people’s voices and suppresses the entrepreneurial spirit.

        There is no comparison with selling off council houses. Council houses were built as a policy of social justice to serve the less-well-off. Private ownership is a tax on the less-well-off harvested by the rich, a.k.a. “rent”.

        As for owners refusing to lease if tenants had a right to buy, that needs to be dealt with by the provisions announced by Nicola Sturgeon yesterday – provisions that even such a hard-bitten commentator as Andy Wightman describes in today’s edition of The National (the new newspaper) as ““an important, substantial and meaningful set of proposals.” In short, there is a very strong feeling in the new Scotland of today that the old and grossly asymmetric patterns of land ownership are unhealthy – both for the rural economy and for the psychology of many land-based families and communities. The days of grace-and-favour feudalism are over. I find it thrilling to be alive in a Scotland that, after a thousand years, is managing to change that situation.

        1. david steel says:

          Your answer kind of proves my point – don’t get me wrong I’m all for land reform but you have to be aware of the wider implications. To go at it like a bull in a china shop with absolute right to buy is not the correct approach. Automatic pre-emptive right to buy is fine – the tenancies will automatically unwind to owner occupiers as estates come on the market. If the community land fund and the crown estate act as vehicles to “purchase” land on behalf of the state much as the forestry commission does at present and then re-let the farms to new farmers – ideal (my parents got a start on a department smallholding in the 1950’s) but to force landowners to sell would end up in the courts (how would you react to the government selling off your garden of your house because you didn’t cut the grass?) My analogy with the council houses getting sold off is relevant – if you take my local town of St Andrews – by selling off all the council houses it left no places for the young folk and low paid workers of the town to live within the town as house prices rose and they had to move to outlying areas and the richer folk bought up the houses within the town.
          The same would happen within agriculture – By forcing the sale of tenanted farms 1) No landowner would ever risk starting new tenancies 2) As shorter non 91 tenancies came to an end, they would be taken back in hand and worked as normal farms by the estate. 3) With fewer farms coming onto the market for rent – rental values would increase due to scarcity. 4) when tenants did succeed in buying their farm they then can buy and sell that farm as an owner occupier and take advantage of the increasing value of the farm – leaving only the richer bigger farmers able to afford to purchase these units.
          Where on earth are new farmers then meant to get a start within the industry if no let land is made available and owner occupied farms are far too expensive to buy – just as the ex council houses have to low paid workers.
          There are many things that can be done to effectively force landowners to utilise their land better – such as a land tax on underutilised land and changing the tax regime so that only genuine working farms not just by holding the land benefit from tax breaks.

  11. This works out at app. 4 acre for every person in Scotland. I would like to live on part of mine and maybe rent the rest to a company who wants to make profits or am I being unfair?

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Sounds very fair to me with the proviso that the rental component is to the community as a whole. Let’s not be overly individualistic!

  12. Bothy Basher says:

    A wee anecdote – in the 60s when I was an apprentice in a Clydebank shipyard I discovered the joys of hillwalking as a great antidote to an industrial life.

    I was walking on a hillside above Glen Falloch when I was stopped by the stalker of the landowner, out for a stag. The stalker was suitably ashamed but when the landowner spoke it was to say ”Get orf my land”, in southern arrogant tones.

    That’s where my thoughts on land reform began.

  13. Atom Ant says:

    David Steel

    From what I see , especially in the St Andrews area , there is a lack of farm tenancies being offered and more contract farm arrangements between landlords and farmers . This type of agreement has been going on well before right to buy was ever mentioned in farming and you should know that .
    Areas of land that are being farmed by one farmer are getting larger due to ” economy of scale ” so the sooner traditional tenant farmers get the chance to buy their farms the better , so that their farms are kept as family farms and not farmed as an agri-business that mops up all the land around . It should maybe also be pointed out to you that the family farm might be available for the new entrant who started 10 years ago , whereas , if it had been swallowed up in an agri-business , then there is no chance .

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Well said Atom Ant. I can’t imagine anything worse for the soil or the communities that it sustains – from the earthworm upwards – than contract farming.

    2. david steel says:

      Atom & A Mcintosh – but contract farming is exactly where Absolute right to buy leads. Place your self in the shoes of a landowner, any threat of ARTB will you let land or will you contract farm it or indeed farm it in hand. The tenanted land market dries up – no farms for new blood to farm.
      The next question is what happens when a tenant becomes an owner occupier – he becomes the farmer that’s looking to expand to get economy of scale.
      The last question is just where exactly will any new entrant get the funding to purchase a farm ? and compete with every other owner occupier in the district ?
      If the long term let land market dries up due to ARTB then the whole house of cards fall in and you will end up with agribusiness far quicker than you are banking on.

  14. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Yes David, but that is why ARTB needs to be only one part of a wider land reform that is configured to support, sustain and expand the number of family farmers who live on the land they farm and have a long term interest in sustaining the quality of soil and the local community. Land tax, with lower or exempt bands for smaller and community-held holdings are probably the way to achieve this.

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