• Rob Gibson

Land reform in Parliament at last

Too far or not far enough?

The landlords have given to the people no satisfaction but have told us to have patience. We told them that our forefathers had died in patience until now, but we can wait no longer – our forefathers got nothing by their patience but a constant worsening.

John Macpherson of Glendale, evidence to the Napier Commission, 1882.

With a Land Reform Bill promised by 2015, the lairds’ network once again amassed a substantial war chest to mount a sustained campaign of opposition. They had deployed such a strategy each time land reform appeared on the political agenda. During the early stages of the LRRG’s work group its members engaged in meeting many estates and landowners, among others. This was cast up by some land reformers as a sign of bias in the lairds’ favour.

SLaE produced 238 pages of a ‘Response to the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review’ which was published in January 2013, ahead of the evidence taking sessions. 1This blockbuster document, compiled by a range of members and consultants, set out to show the strength of their case for extensive land ownership in rural Scotland.

Of the 60 recommendations they made, several would require considerably more taxpayers’ spend, to the benefit of existing owners. One pointed example was a demand for

a critical economic evaluation of community buy-outs to be carried out, looking at their successes, failures and their cost effectiveness in achieving their business plan objectives. 2

Surely SLaE with its friendly welcome of community ownership was indeed skin deep?

Despite stating it would be willing to work along with Community Land Scotland (CLS), the umbrella body for community landowners, landlords and land agents, SLaE returned time and again to downplay community land ownership. Right wing newspapers and journals had been targeting communities such as Eigg, and more recently Gigha, often distorting facts about their economic viability. I raised the Gigha issue in my speech on Nicola Sturgeon’s first Programme for Government in November 2014 (see below).

Scotland’s private estate owners have never been slow to denounce land reform measures brought forward by the Scottish Parliament. The 2003 Land Reform Act was branded a ‘Mugabe style land grab’, which Tory MSPs duly voted against. By 2013, ten years’ experience of the further need for strengthened land reforms had set in train a two-part process of inquiry by the Scottish Government’s LRRG.

Its interim report seemed underwhelming to longstanding land reform campaigners, but the beefed-up approach to Phase Two drew a stark headline in The Scotsman, ‘Lairds warn Holyrood over new land buy-out powers’. 3 What had triggered such divergent views on the state of Scottish land ownership and use?

Disquiet arose during the LRRG’s early months. It has been suggested that clerical and organisational back up was slow off the mark. Reform-minded campaigners noted a preponderance of meetings with estate owners. Alarm bells rang out when Jim Hunter left the team (for personal reasons) before the interim report was compiled by Alison Elliot and Sarah Skerratt and published on 10 May 2013. This led Andy Wightman to speculate that the two remaining group members were interpreting their remit as community empowerment not full-scale land reform.

Further concerns mounted when news broke that Sarah Skerratt had decided to return to her work at the Scottish Rural University College – mapping the problems of rural Scotland issue by issue at biennial intervals. 4

It all seemed pessimistic for the task set for the LRRG by Alex Salmond in July 2012, namely:

a) 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;

b) 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;

c) Generate, support, promote and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland. 5

Andy Wightman’s blog Land Matters assessed the lack of progress under a lurid headline “It’s Over – Unconditional Surrender”. Within hours of the interim report’s publication, Wightman noted that Alison Elliot, the LRRG chair, was giving a keynote speech at the SLaE AGM at Perth Race Course. He went on:

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. 6

Andy Wightman’s comments are seldom likely to be mistaken for a ray of sunshine. He tore into the LRRG’s work having questioned at the outset how its interpretation of the remit would guide its actions.

Those of us at Holyrood were concerned about the bad press and criticism of the LRRG’s interim report. We noted, however, that the report was only the group’s initial thinking. We also noted that the work of Phase Two and Three was laid out over the coming months. As well as details of the visits and of the evidence received (and published sometime later) other than the interim report, we welcomed the focus on the means to take forward the full remit to a conclusion by April 2014. The subjects listed provided strong indicators of a fully-fledged response to the expectations raised by Alex Salmond’s original proposition.

A competing claim came from the Scottish Conference of the Labour Party held in Inverness in April 2013. The party’s leader, Johann Lamont MSP, called for radical action on land reform. She said:

land reform had stalled under the SNP, if it is in the public interest, communities will have the right to purchase land, even when the landowner is not a willing seller. 7

Lamont’s speech suggested that the LRRG lacked ambition. This may well have been the first sign by the main opposition party of a coordinated move in a bidding war with the Scottish Government’s land reform programme.

Concerns about a lack of progress from the SNP’s choice of an independent advisory group had been fed by Jim Hunter’s resignation and Wightman’s speculations. Misgivings about the group’s focus were confirmed five days before the publication of the LRRG interim report and a month before the Labour opposition decided to secure a short debate at Holyrood on 5 June to raise their own concerns. Hunter was speaking at the unveiling of a new land league monument at Bhaltos in Lewis. His stinging attack was relayed widely:

We’re now six years into an SNP Government which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world. 8

Hunter proposed that the Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, should take over the chair of the review group, as Labour ministers had done in 1997. He listed a range of actions required for a radical approach to ensure the review group explored land value tax and got serious about a right to buy for tenant farmers, as the Labour Party had indicated the previous month. He demanded that the SNP Government should commit to legislate in 2014–15. 9

Hunter’s demands ignored Labour’s own selection of land reform topics for development from among the total recommendations of their LRPG’s findings in 1998. What would be included in forthcoming legislation, that became the 2003 Acts on land reform and agricultural holdings, had far fewer subject heads than previously consulted on. For example, land value tax explored in 1998 was dropped from the draft bill being deemed to require ‘further study’. Hunter failed to remember the Scottish Executive orders to whip Labour and Lib Dem Rural Development committee members (John Farquhar Munro rebelled) to vote against the absolute right to buy (ARTB) when the SNP had attempted to bring it forward as an amendment at Stage 2.

It became clear in 2013 that out-manoeuvring the SNP via a Westminster land reform enquiry by the Scottish Affairs committee (SAc) was part of the Labour tactic. On the morning of 5 May, ahead of Labour’s planned land reform debate in Holyrood, the Daily Record’s London political editor, Torquil Crichton, announced in his blog, Whitehall 1212, ‘MPs to launch “who owns Scotland” investigation’. He went on:

Ahead of the debate on land reform in Holyrood today Scots MPs at Westminster have signalled they are to launch an investigation into the shady offshore companies that own vast tracts of land in Scotland.

The Commons Scottish Affairs committee is due to start an inquiry into land ownership and tax avoidance after campaigners slammed the SNP Government’s lacklustre commitment to the land reform agenda.

Ian Davidson MP, the Labour chairman of the Scottish committee, said he hoped the inquiry would ‘establish who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order to minimise tax avoidance’. 10

In the event this enquiry soon looked like it would be complimentary to Holyrood’s land reform review process. But it was political gamesmanship which, later that summer, afforded Jim Hunter a chance to compile a wide-ranging set of land reform proposals as a starter paper for the SAC.

He authored the paper on behalf Peter Peacock, Michael Foxley and Andy Wightman thus playing on the multi-party concerns to broaden the debate beyond powers available to the devolved Scottish Government. It is a thread I will pick up after recounting the outcome of the 5 June debate in Holyrood.

Claire Baker MSP led the charge for Labour in this debate by pointing out the inadequacy of the LRRG interim report saying:

the interim report has been met largely with disappointment and criticism from land reformists because of the group’s lack of expertise in many key areas, the decision that it took to narrow the remit and the dearth of radical proposals or options for further development.

She pressed on:

I fail to understand how this review of land reform can take place without considering land tenure... An opportunity is being missed for the LRRG to highlight to the Government the need to address best land use and tenure in Scotland in the next decade and beyond... There is now a strong and justifiable mood of cynicism amongst tenant farmers that they have been side-lined and an opportunity is being missed to provide vision and direction for this neglected rural community of Scotland. 11

Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, responded for the government by proposing a simple amendment to point out that the LRRG was indeed an independent advisory group and then underlined how he intended to enhance its work:

A key theme will be land reform in urban Scotland. As that is closely associated with the developing community empowerment and renewal bill, we will ensure that that bill takes on the review group’s ideas in furthering the Scottish Government’s desire to empower urban and rural communities and in resolving problems identified with current legislation.

He followed this with a discussion about the proposed land agency which “is another key consideration and I am intrigued by the possibilities that it might deliver.” Mr Wheelhouse assured MSPs that:

The group will look at community engagement with landowners and community energy projects and at how we ensure that the right support and advice are in place for community landowners. It will recommend how the community right to buy legislation, which currently makes life unnecessarily difficult for communities in a number of respects, can be simplified and amended to be more accessible, and further work will be commissioned on common good land, taxation, public interest issues and issues with regard to the Crown Estate.

He went on to announce further resources needed to complete the work. He had previously agreed with Alison Elliot to expand the group from its original three members to five. Ian Cooke, a director with Development Trusts Association Scotland, was appointed as vice-chair to ensure that there was expertise on the community sector, and John Watt as the second vice-chair following his role as a recent director of HIE with a wealth of experience on state aid and public sector support for communities. This was a welcome step up for Watt who was already an adviser to the LRRG.

Furthermore, the Minister stated that two additional appointments would be announced in due course to complete the expanded group. Additionally, Richard Heggie and Malcolm Combe had been appointed as new advisers so that the group would be fully resourced to carry out Phase Two of its review. Thus, he concluded,

the additional expertise available will allow it to come up with clear, informed and workable proposals in its final report. 12

In reply to Labour’s debate, I questioned if Johann Lamont’s conference speech were more than ‘fiery words’, arguing:

As has been said, land reform is a process, like constitutional reform, and the background to the current inquiry must be understood so that other members can have the chance to comment.

Clarity on the issues was not helped by Johann Lamont telling the Scottish Labour spring conference in Inverness in April that a compulsory right to buy should become available to urban and rural communities if they so wished. Those were fiery words, but there was not one single detail to allow that to be taken seriously. 13

The outcome maintained the overwhelming consensus for radical land reform. A Tory amendment, proposed by Alex Fergusson MSP, sought to water down the LRRG’s work. It concluded, the parliament

agrees that, while community ownership is to be encouraged, a willing buyer and willing seller are paramount, and welcomes the group’s decision not to examine land tenancy issues, which are currently being scrutinised by the Tenant Farming Forum.

This was defeated by 98 votes to 12 and the motion amended with inclusion of the government phrase about the LRRG being independent and advisory was accepted by Labour and passed by the same margin.

The amended motion then read:

That the Parliament notes the publication of the Land Reform Review Group’s interim report; recognises that the Land Reform Review Group was appointed by the Scottish Government as an advisory group independent of Scottish ministers to offer a ‘radical review of land reform’; believes that ownership of land is an economic and social issue; recognises that the Scottish Government has the power to deliver further land reform now; supports greater diversification of land ownership in Scotland, and calls on the Scottish Government to demonstrate a commitment to radical and bold land reform. 14

Following his announcement in the land reform debate on 5 June, Paul Wheelhouse appointed Pip Tabor, project manager for the Southern Uplands Partnership, to join the other three LRRG members. She brought to the table practical expertise from the south of Scotland.

Land review – Phase Two goes wider and lairds dig deeper

The second appointment in June 2013 was Robin Callander as an independent special adviser to the LRRG. This signalled radical intent by the Scottish Government to strengthen and deepen the LRRG in its Phase 2 work. Callander’s credentials were widely acknowledged as highly appropriate. His work at Birse Community, previous publications and collaborations, and indeed advisory posts to local authorities in the Highlands and Islands on the Crown Estate and the Scottish Affairs committee in Westminster marked him as a driver for radical and comprehensive change.

He underlined this when appearing at my committee with the LRRG chair Alison Elliot on 26 June 2013. We could see his depth of knowledge and drive in a series of answers that guided MSPs to have confidence that a big step up in output by the review group could be expected. 15

It was during that summer of 2013 that I took up the deer culling issues to protect threatened woods in Assynt in my constituency, as described in previous chapter. The RACCE involvement in the wider deer management issue played into important moves by the government to put deer management groups under notice. Get your plans up and running or expect tougher action!

In anticipation of beefed-up LRRG’s conclusions, the landed classes again mobilised. They correctly anticipated the mood for enhanced reforms which a substantial Holyrood majority was expected to back.

The Earl of Seafield commented on this new energy for change. In the forward to Seafield & Strathspey Estates News Review in the summer of 2013 he wrote:

Johann Lamont took the land reform concept to a new level in her speech to the Labour conference this spring. She said that ‘land reform had stalled under the SNP’, and then declared that ‘if it is in the public interest, communities will have the right to purchase land, even when the landowner is not a willing seller.’ That seems a dramatic extension of compulsory purchase – but full marks to her for laying her cards on the table. 16

As one of the leading lights of SLaE, Seafield was serving notice that a major counter offensive was being planned against the likes of shooting rates and further farm tenancy reform.

Ahead of the grouse shooting season, Tom Peterkin, writing in The Scotsman, obliged the SLaE publicity machine by reporting that ‘breaking up their sporting estates could have a “disastrous” effect on rural communities’. And that

the Duke of Roxburghe and other representatives of the nobility had taken the rare step of putting their heads above the parapet to express reservations about moves to help individuals and communities buy land that had been in their hands for generations.... a host of Scottish aristocratic families have made their views known in a series of documents published this week. 17

Peterkin then selected quotes from the Duke of Roxburghe (65,600 acres), the Earl of Seafield (101,000 acres), Atholl Estates (145,000 acres), James Carnegy-Arbuthnot, Balnamoon Estate near Brechin (3,250 acres), 15th Earl of Hume, Douglas and Angus Estates (40,000 acres), Lord Lyell, Kinordy Estate (10,500 acres). His selection of quotes encompasses a wish to promote tenant farming, land management benefiting wildlife and assertions that some moves such as an ARTB for tenant farmers had ‘no place in any democratic system’.

The tie up in The Scotsman with SLaE strategy was completed by an ‘analysis’ of the proprietors’ submission to the LRRG by Sarah-Jane Laing, director of policy and parliamentary affairs at SLaE. Laing had often appeared as a witness at the RACCE committee throughout recent years. Reflecting the ‘disappointment’ of the 2,500 members of SLaE across Scotland, Laing concluded:

We believe responsible use of land – whether in public, private or community ownership – should be the determining factor in the policy landscape. Land in the ownership of private organisations is overwhelmingly employed productively. It benefits local communities through tourism, job creation, agriculture, housing and more. Private and community ownership should not be viewed as opposite ends of a spectrum – both ensure the viability of our rural areas. 18

The gauntlet was well and truly thrown down at the LRRG, it had to be wary that its invigorating second phase of investigation could be severely mauled.

House of Commons Scottish Affairs committee probe land reform

In the House of Commons between 2010 and 2015 its SAc completed 11 inquiries on the theme of The Referendum on Separation for Scotland. It reviewed the role of the Crown Estate twice and felt its probe naturally led on to the wider issue of land reform in Scotland which required ‘to be looked at’. It led to conclusions reported in the March 2014 listing revealing, in the main, the UK barriers to change.

The composition of SAc in that session was five Labour, two Lib Dem, two Tories and one SNP. Led by Glasgow MP Ian Davidson, it was no friend of the SNP Government in Edinburgh. Amidst some controversy, the SNP member Eilidh Whiteford MP for Banff and Buchan, one of six SNP members in that parliament, resigned. She refused to continue attendance at the committee after alleging personally threatening behaviour by the chair. With an incumbent Tory and Lib Dem coalition Government in power there was precious little likelihood of the SAC findings being applied. Indeed, it appeared to be more of a meddling bystander, or commentator, than a serious influencer in the actual land reform process.

The timing of its enquiry ahead of the independence referendum on 18 September 2014 led to the publication of its Eight Report of Session 2013–14, entitled an interim report, in March of that year.

When Jim Hunter, the distinguished land reformer, left the Scottish Government’s LRRG, commentators saw the LRRG as stuck in a narrow rut. However. Professor Hunter had been given another chance to approach the issue, and on a more expansive canvas, by Ian Davidson for the SAc. Hunter took up the commission with relish. As a long-time land reform campaigner, he held a thorough definition of land reform, some of which would have to be delivered from London. This starter paper coincided with Hunter’s exit from the LRRG.

Hunter wrote:

The paper’s purpose is to inform the SAc as to the current state of the land reform debate in Scotland, to connect the debate with wider concerns about growing inequality and wealth and, in particular, to underline the extent to which SAc – in the context of UK and international efforts to combat what a recent EC [Edinburgh City] Council resolution calls ‘tax fraud, tax evasion and aggressive tax planning’ – is well-placed to explore ways in which fiscal and related arrangements contribute to and underpin inequality in Scottish land ownership. 19

Hunter steered the forthcoming committee process towards the big issues of tax and company law which were, and still are, reserved to Westminster. This was confirmed by the SAC’s Interim Report that contained 22 conclusions and recommendations, 18 of which were clearly UK powers. The report argued for further investigation or early intervention by a UK Government although committee members knew this would be dismissed by the Treasury. 20

Evidence of growing inequities of wealth and opportunity were a pivotal reason to pursue radical land reform solutions, the report concluded. So, Ian Davidson’s committee came back to the subject to probe a further four issues after the result of the independence referendum of September 2014. The four issues were:

1. whether the ownership of estates through charitable companies set up by private owners is in the public interest and how governance of such organisations should best be organised;

2. how the fiscal framework of agricultural land might be reformed to meet the concerns of tenant farmers;

3. how the new Common Agricultural Policy framework can best support farmers;

4. and the extent to which land is owned in offshore jurisdictions as part of individual corporate tax planning. 21

People centred land governance

In Scotland, the LRRG Final Report entitled ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ arrived at an impressively wide set of recommendations compared to predictions by the doubters in April 2013. The 262-page tome contained a lucid argument, supportive data, concerns about constrained time for research, but a challenging set of 62 recommendations. It was presented to Scottish Ministers in May 2014 inducing considerable public interest in its proposals, not least from campaigners for radical change. 22

For MSPs with an interest, a careful reading of this blockbuster signalled major proposals for legislation which we would expect the Scottish Government to reflect and consult on. The independence referendum delayed progress till the winter of 2014 into 2015. Apart from the complexities for officials to absorb and recommend potential for law making, the referendum campaign reached its pitch, or denouement, if you will, by mid-September 2014.

Scotland’s future – your guide to an independent Scotland

The definitive case of the Scottish Government for a Yes vote in the independence referendum had been published in November 2013. Running to 649 pages of detailed policies, Part 3 Chapter 8 (‘Environment, Rural Scotland, Energy and Resources’) explained the thinking on land and communities at the time. Empowering communities and local government, committing to a target of 1,000,000 acres in community control by 2020 and the reviews of land reform and tenant farming were said to be part of

building a fairer society for which independence is required, for example, taxation powers are needed to encourage land to be made available for new tenant farmers and address wider land reform. 23

In the Q&A section of the manifesto, a commitment was made to bring the Crown Estate into Scottish control and to decentralise both management and revenues for local benefit. 24

These complex matters would be developed in the next two years, despite the No vote on 18 September 2014. In that respect, various far-sighted commentators were proven correct.

Objections to change by private landowners

Voices hostile to change among SLaE and other landowners pepper the chapters of this book. Wherever deer management, shooting rates and tenant farming conditions arose, so did threats aimed at the Scottish Government citing huge costs to the public purse and of likely recourse to ECHR. These threats hinted at redress being sought through the civil courts if certain policy options were adopted. The volume of comment cranked up during the lead up to the independence referendum which was played out in the two years leading to the decisive vote.

Two stories penned within weeks of that first Scottish independence referendum exposed the concerns of the propertied classes. Successive land reform measures and the fears among the great landowners were exposed as a speedier pace of land reform and community empowerment were expected if Scots voted Yes.

First, let’s hear from Sophie Money-Coutts. She wrote for Tatler in July 2014, going ‘beyond the wall’ to see why ‘Scottish aristocrats are fiercely opposed to independence’. 25 Secondly, in August 2014, Merryn Somerset Webb asked readers of the Financial Times Weekend was this ‘The twilight of private ownership?’ 26

The buggers are out to get us!

Sophie Money-Coutts embarked on a breathless romp from big house to big house across Caledonia stern and wild. She found many plummy voices ready to raise fears of a Yes vote, but would Scotland’s old lairds ‘really abandon their ancestral mountains and ancient customs’ she pondered and would the new landowners, not only land rich but cash rich, be concerned for the future of their huge holdings? 27

While poking gentle fun at kilts, reeling and haunted castles, Money-Coutts, a scion of the private banking family, detected class differences between aristocratic lairds and the nouveau riche. She heard of the former group’s fears about likely land reform moves. The Duchess of Argyll told her how Inveraray Castle ‘eats money… what if Salmond imposes a mansion tax? We’re done for.’ 28

Money-Coutts concluded,

Given the fairly feudal distribution of land in Scotland, you can perhaps see why big landowners are nervous. 29

She pinpointed what she deemed to be ‘Old Scotland’ whose hereditary lairds seem ‘definitely panicked, as if they can already hear the tumbrils approaching’. As for ‘New Scotland’, the ‘arivistes’ often foreign, not always so, such as Anne Gloag and Paul Dacre are ‘insulated by their immense wealth’ and not able to be blamed for the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries like ‘Old Scotland’.

By December 2014, having seen off the immediate threat of independence, Money-Coutts reported a new burst of lairdly apoplexy when Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, announced radical land reform proposals following her predecessor Alex Salmond resigning after the Yes voters were defeated.

The direction of land reform travel had been correctly forecast by Merrin Somerset Webb before the fateful referendum vote in ‘The twilight of private ownership?’

Essentially, Webb was looking at the prospects for large landowners in the wake of the final report of the LRRG in the summer of 2014. Writing in the Financial Times ahead of the grouse shooting season, she also detected a slowdown in the land and property market in the three months leading to the referendum. She commented:

The talk around independence doesn’t pander much to the wealthy. There’s much talk of a new Scotland having better values than the rest of the UK. 30

Real fears of progressive taxes, of land redistribution would likely fall on those with the broadest shoulders. But, she noted,

The Scottish Government already has the powers to do most of the things you might be nervous about. Land and Transaction Tax, the Community Empowerment Bill (enacted in 2015) and concerns about absolute right to buy for farm tenants in the wake of powers already available to crofters. 31

The property market, Webb went on, was influenced by the LRRG Final Report with concepts such as ‘wellbeing’, ‘sustainability’, ‘greater diversity of land ownership’ and ‘social justice’ indicating serious threats to landed proprietors. In sum, this legislative focus

represents a change in broad policy from a focus on expanding the number of people who have access to land to one on expanding the numbers of people or communities who own land. 32

On alleged woes for investors, Webb quoted legal firm Gillespie MacAndrew saying it was likely that reform would

impose a far greater degree of public involvement in and control over land ownership, together with substantially increased visibility of the use made of that land. 33

She concluded:

Whichever side you choose to take, this all matters for the Scottish economy, for confidence in the sanctity of property rights and for social cohesion. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with the independence vote. It’s going to happen anyway. 34

The questions Webb posed, reflected the fear among proprietors of diversity of ownership. It perceived a wide-open market for bolt holes and shooting estates coming to a grinding halt. Old landed power was being systematically challenged and the privileges of the lairds, which stretched back centuries, was challenged not only for economic and social reasons but also for environmental reasons by our devolved Scottish Government.

The steps along that democratic road would certainly be contested in the courts. Considerable legal business had passed to the Supreme Court, invented by Tony Blair, which had been handing down rulings that narrowly interpret ECHR, so far too often in landlord interests.

If ECHR had been in force in 1976 then crofters ARTB probably would have been challenged in the courts. But their scraps of land could have been seen as a burden to estate factors and the Scottish Office, while land agents could see valuable assets for future speculative sales to holiday home prospectors.

Devolution in 1999 opened the debate on what land reform could do. By 2014 it also became clear to investors here and abroad that the ‘sacred rights of property’ were going to be eroded, whether the lairds liked it or not.

Fallout from No vote leads to more radical land proposals

Immediately after the No vote in September 2014 came the resignation of Alex Salmond as First Minister. His commitment to land reform had been longstanding. From the mid-1990s when he initiated the SNP’s own Land Commission to the setting up of the LRRG with a stretching target of doubling community ownership to one million acres by 2020, he had been a staunch proponent of a fairer and more diverse Scotland.

The arrival of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister would bring a new Programme for Government in November 2014 which included land reform commitments.

In parallel, the SAc concurred with the Scottish Government for once when the new First Minister put her stamp on the land reform journey with the following statement:

On the 26 November 2014, the First Minister, as part of the Programme for Government, set out the Scottish Government's vision that Scotland's land must be an asset that benefits the many, not the few. This vision promotes a strong relationship between the people of Scotland and the land of Scotland, where ownership and use of land delivers greater public benefits through a democratically accountable and transparent system of land rights that promotes fairness and social justice, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. 35

I spoke in the debate on the Programme for Government. My speech was as follows:

Rob Gibson (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP): To underline the fact that we have a radical government, radical land reform is rightly at the centre of the social justice debate.

The Land of Scotland and the Common Good: Report of the Land Reform Review Group sets the tone for the wide range of land reform policies that are contained in the SNP programme. We can transform our nation’s fortunes through optimum use of our most basic natural resource. Land reform will deliver participation, prosperity and fairness but, above all, we must diversify ownership to create social and environmental sustainability.

Inequalities in Scotland are summed up by the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in Europe. Land reform is based on the public interest and has overwhelming support in the Parliament. First, we need to know who owns Scotland. Next, we need to build local capacity to own the land and use it sustainably. Crucially, the proposed land reform commission could facilitate the best transfer of public or private land to a new set of non-traditional owners.

A good example of the new hope in land ownership received unjustifiably mixed coverage this week. The community buy-out of the Isle of Gigha in 2002 has transformed the island, which has a growing population and a variety of new commercial activities to complement farming and tourism. Nevertheless, the BBC hinted this week at financial trouble for the Gigha Heritage Trust, which took over the island for about £4 million in 2002, saying that it was almost £3 million in the red.

The trust replied that it ‘has invested in the housing and other developments on the island some of which has been borrowed, some granted from supporting organisations and some raised from the island’s own businesses and efforts... In addition to improving our housing stock, £1m was paid back to lenders within a year of the original purchase of the island; over £800,000 has been raised through Trust’s renewables companies; and the value of the island has increased to over £7m.’

It has also recently carried out a strategic review with the support of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

A typically hostile press has focused on a grumpy farmer, alleged divisions among islanders and implied incompetence among community leaders, not on their successes. The islanders are due to take part in a vote of confidence in the chairwoman of the trust this week.

That stands in stark contrast to the conduct of the private estates that sprawl across our landscape. We never know how much in the red they are, and the media rarely asks. Also, the families who live on large estates such as those owned by the 432 individuals and trusts that control half of rural Scotland are never asked their opinions about the future of the land.

Lairds avoid taxes through skilful accountants. James Hunter and company suggested to the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster that huge landholders offset losses on land through tax accounting via non-landed enterprises.

All those powers are still reserved and not on offer by the Smith Commission.

Liz Smith: Does Mr Gibson acknowledge that, nonetheless, many of those private landowners are doing a highly successful job when it comes to Scotland’s economy?

Rob Gibson: As Andy Wightman said in The National newspaper today: ‘these ideas… will be opposed every bit of the way by powerful vested interests.’

There is a powerful vested interest. In some cases, the lairds have had 1,000 years to build their domains, so it will take community bodies such as those in Gigha, Eigg, South Uist and Knoydart a few more than ten years to sort out the mess that the lairds often left behind.

The North Harris Trust has successfully built new homes, and it runs the deer shooting and creates renewable energy income, as Fiona Mackenzie has charted in her recent book, Places of Possibility. That sums up the intent of the government’s land reform package.

The review of local government finance can take land value tax seriously and look at many other possibilities. Like many members, I want tenant farming reform to be included in the proposed Land Reform Bill, and I want real powers to be given to the Land Commission to chart the how as well as the what of sustainable land ownership.

We could measure the success of land reform against the number of members that Scottish Land & Estates has. At present, it has 2,000 members. In ten years’ time, perhaps it should have a membership of 20,000, which should comprise a vibrant mix of communities, smaller landholders and reduced-scale sporting estates. Why not? As the land leaguers used to say, the land is before us. I commend the ambition and common sense in the Scottish Government’s plans. 36

Smith Commission offers Crown Estate devolution

The aftermath of the referendum reverberated and a three-party Unionist vow was made on the eve of the vote. The London Government responded by appointing Lord Robert Smith to propose more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Among these, to pass control of the Crown Estate Commission Scottish assets to Holyrood. All this was to be completed by St Andrew’s Day 2014. It, in turn, led to a new Holyrood committee being formed to review Smith and the Scotland Bill that followed it.

I had been a member of the previous Referendum Bill committee which saw its major proposal agreed to enfranchise 16-year-old Scots to vote for the first time. This contributed to the huge engagement of voters across Scotland in the exciting referendum summer in 2014. The committee morphed into the Devolution (Further Powers) committee which was to recommend whether the Smith proposals were met by the London Government’s Scotland Bill and whether we could recommend that the Scottish Parliament should pass a Legislative Consent Motion to allow the Scotland Bill 2016 to be enacted in Westminster. 37

London committee concurs with Holyrood

During this period before and after the independence referendum, the SAc scrutinised Scottish land reform matters. This involved many new witnesses, including Alison Elliot and others concerned with the final report of the LRRG. The Scottish Government consultation on the Future of Land Reform in Scotland launched in December 2014. The final report of the Review of Agricultural Holdings Legislation published in January 2015 was also a focus. These were preparatory to the publication of the draft Land Reform Bill in June 2015.

The SAc finished its land reform scrutiny in March 2015, ahead of the dissolution of Westminster’s elected chamber for the forthcoming general election. This led to 15 conclusions and recommendations aimed mainly at the incoming government. They all required UK action, the repository of reserved powers.

In its conclusion the SAc noted its pleasure

that the Scottish Government is taking forward work on land reform in line with the findings of our interim report. 38

The committee urged the UK and Scottish Governments to work together on areas of mutual interest, such as land tax reliefs to ensure a tax system that supports the Scottish Government’s stated aim of increased community ownership of land. 39

Intergovernmental relations (IGR) became a major ask of the Smith Commission in November 2014 so as to adjust the Scottish Fiscal Framework. Alas the history of Joint Ministerial Council meetings was one of conflict and impasse, and emphasised the real barriers to Scotland’s wish to exert tax and other powers over landowners, whether resident or not. IGR was to become a special study area for Holyrood’s Devolution (Further Powers) committee in its final report in March 2016 ahead of the vote on the Legislative Consent Motion to trigger the Scotland Act 2016.

SAc had observed the main barriers to change without any likely means to effect that change. In the event, all the Labour and Lib Dem MPs of its membership were defeated in the 2015 electoral ‘tsunami’. A majority Tory UK Government came in and had no intentions of implementing the land reform agenda, either in Scotland or England.

Landowners prepare for Land Reform Bill

In anticipation of the critical proposals in the final LRRG report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good, published in May, SLaE went into overdrive. A month before publication they made further substantial claims asserting the contribution of landed property to the countryside’s benefit. With the collaboration of Rural Solutions and Scotland’s Rural College Research, their report was published. Entitled ‘Economic Contribution of Estates in Scotland – An Economic Assessment for Scottish Land & Estates’, it boasted authorship by five reputable academics. 40

The SLaE report addressed ‘key challenges for land use, land owners and land management’. 41 The body’s members, the report claimed, represented approximately 65% of all of Scotland’s private estates, from which an in-depth survey in the early months of 2014 gleaned 277 useable responses. These had been thoroughly and professionally analysed. 42

Responses had been sought from estates and landowners who collectively managed over 1.25 hectares of land, owned 7,645 houses and provided 1,563 tenancies (23% of all tenancies in Scotland). Then a diverse subset of 35 respondents answered ‘semi-structured’ interviews to augment the findings.

The Scottish Field assured in January 2015 that private land in Scotland owned by SLaE members contributed £471m in revenue per annum. This figure was more complex than just a bald claim. It was derived from calculations from the SLaE database, not the above sample. This showed 1,351 members holding 2.27m hectares. It was estimated that annually SLaE membership directly generate £272m revenue, which contributes £471m or £207 per hectare to Scotland’s output after indirect and induced impacts are included. An additional estimate of the impact of SLaE members is said to contribute £91m (£40/hectare) to Scottish household incomes, maintain 5,919FTE jobs (91FTE per 385 hectares) and contribute £186m (£82/hectare) to Scotland’s GVA. 43

As with many of these calculations SLaE members and supporters could regurgitate these figures to anyone who questioned the value of estates, large and small. For insight, from a political point of view, there was the open section in their final survey question. This shows respondents’ views about key barriers and challenges to future opportunity. Of those nearly half cited land reform and political uncertainty, while a quarter raised concerns about bureaucracy and excessive regulation. Planning, taxation, uncertainty over CAP, grants and subsidies, access to finance, managing public assets and managing heritage assets trailed off into single figure concerns. 44

SLaE used the deep purses of its members to set down markers for their determination to contest, in a robust fashion, a land reform process they did not want and to assert that best land use practice, rather than disturbing the rights of private property, should be the government’s focus. 45

Wild land or devastated terrain?

Many policy areas affect the delivery of radical land reform. When Scottish Planning Policy gave a place to core wild land areas – of which there are 42 mapped out and described by SNH in 2014 – it was aimed at halting any development of onshore wind turbines in or near, as it was beginning to be interpreted by some, these extensive but artificially drawn zones. They total 1,537,247 hectares or 3,843,117 acres of Scotland. 46

As a comparator, the Royal Commission on the Highlands and Islands, better known as the Deer Commission, reported in 1896 that 1,782,785 acres should be returned from deer forest to extend existing grazings, new holdings and in some cases modest sized farms. 47 Many of these areas are adjacent or overlap the wild land (non) designation.

I drew attention to this with a comparison of my map of clearances trail areas and many of the core wild land areas. The controversy prompted a debate in community land circles where the concept of repopulating previously inhabited areas was taking shape. I was invited to address Community Land Scotland’s annual gathering in Inverness on 22 May 2015. I took the theme of books that had guided my thinking on land issues and homed in on the Clearances Country controversy.

Speech: Community Land Scotland, 22 May 2015 – Health, Beauty, Permanence?

Forty-three years ago, on a rainy, midge ridden evening in September 1972, the Skye crofting community of Strollamus demonstrated against an overbearing new landlord. That demo was followed by court cases, planning issues and the widespread publicity occurring as a result were widely reported in the fledgling West Highland Free Press and many other places.

Across the country, political ferment was high at the time in the middle of Ted Heath’s Tory Government which had plans for centralising local government, crofting right to buy debates, building of a new torpedo testing range in the Sound of Raasay and the early news of oil rig construction at nearby Loch Kishorn in the dawning days of North Sea oil.

Along with members of the Federation of Student Nationalists, Skye Crofting Scheme based in Glendale, my friends joined forces with locals to highlight what was wrong and suggest ways to make a difference.

I wrote up the story in my 1974 pamphlet, The Promised Land?, in which concluded with a clarion call for community control:

Although the Crofters Commission has locally elected area assessors, there needs to be real on-the-spot control in the townships and communities where crofters live and work. Till the people control the land they live on there can be no hope of achieving a satisfactory and more just way of life for the Gael.

Much eloquent and sound work to back up the cause of COMMUNITY CONTROL has been produced by interested departments in our universities. But intellectual alternatives need sound common sense determination on the ground would be a useful starting point to assess and guide our actions today.

This salvation for crofters is in co-operative action.

I was struck, on reflection, that some of the ideas I drew on then, beyond the obvious history of the Land League, would be a useful starting point to assess and guide our actions today.

Books I refer to include Small is Beautiful by Eric Schumacher, Government by Community by Ioan Bowen Rees, The Politics of Environment by Malcolm Slesser and Land Reform and Economic Development by Peter Dorner in the Penguin Modern Economics Texts. These were my biggest influences along with understanding why it took till 1970 to erect the Glendale Land League Monument. Greater clarity came along in 1976 when James Hunter’s ground-breaking work was published on The Making of the Crofting Community. Also, I attended and applauded the first performance of John McGrath’s ceilidh play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil which is quoted with relish in my book.

In the long years of land reform discussions since then, the first lines in Schumacher on the proper use of land stand out:

Among material resources, the greatest, unquestionably, is the land. Study how a society uses its land, and you can come to pretty reliable conclusions as to what its future will be.

There I’ve said it again!

Around the world Dorner pointed to one key to land reform:

It is quite clear that under a system of private property in land, a small farm agriculture can absorb more labour than a large-farm agriculture.

He went on:

Agricultural production processes, as mentioned, have characteristics which invalidate many comparisons with developments in industry.