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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Urban Land Reform

Scotland had the most rapid urbanisation of any European nation in the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Its workers, its poor, its middle classes all lived in tenements while the rich alone could build suburban and rural mansions. All were built on feus from great landowners, and by the end of the century waves of immigrants, such as the Irish, added to the pressure on one and two apartment dwellings, most often served by common toilets and no baths.

The problems of urban land reform centred around town planning, housing and sanitation. Halfway through the 20th century, less than a third of all families lived in houses larger than two rooms – this was down from a half of families in 1911. Again in 1951, 43% of all households lacked a fixed bath, while a third of households still shared a WC. 1

The biggest house owners, by 1951, were the city, town and county councils. Government subsidies had been applied serially since 1919 to council housing. This was to alleviate the dire Victorian heritage where rapid industrialisation and lower wages had propelled Scotland to the forefront of the world economy for steel and iron, ships, railway engines and associated engineering products. Private renting shrank as slum clearance, new towns and peripheral housing estates kept the social classes apart in a modern variant of feudal society.

In the 19th century, trade unions in Scotland remained weak and local, unlike their English counterparts where higher wages were the norm. This had encouraged investment in Scottish heavy industries. However, the arrival of new socialist ideas began to take root in the 1870s. Irish political connections opened a new strand of thinking following the success of the Irish Land League (ILL), founded in 1879, and with branches among the Irish diaspora in Glasgow. Michael Davitt, ‘Father of the Land League’, became deeply impatient with the conservatism of Irish small farmers who welcomed the three Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure and freedom of sale) enshrined in Gladstone’s Land Law (Ireland) Act of 1881.

Davitt was a frequent visitor to Glasgow and he also visited crofting areas of the Highlands in 1882 and 1887. On these visits he broadened his land reform arguments thanks to the work of the American radical, Henry George, whose book, Progress and Poverty, urged the introduction of the single tax on land. It transpired that his message had the greatest traction in the overcrowded cities, while the crofters, like their Irish cousins were content with a Scottish version of the three Fs.

Land nationalisation was Davitt’s take on the Land League slogan, ‘The Land for the People’. He saw this as a catalyst for more widespread social and political reform. While the landless cottars of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands continued to resist evictions and mount land raids, the Scottish Land Restoration League became a short-lived political party, based on the Georgist theory, around Glasgow in the mid-1880s. 2

Land values, and site value rating was to become a radical strand in UK political thinking, especially associated with the Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George, in his 1911 budget which led to official survey completed in 1915 of all landowners in Britain. With the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the idea of land nationalisation took on an entirely different slant of expropriation, amalgamation and collective ownership by the state. Such was the fear felt by the British landowning class that the modest Lloyd George proposals were scrapped by the overwhelming Tory dominated coalition government of 1919. Thereafter, in UK politics, land value tax was a fringe concern, except for a strand of Labour party thinking exemplified by chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Snowden, and among the Liberals.

The main thrust of urban land use change, from the 1930s, centred on housing and developments in shopping and manufacture. Gradually, the old centres of our towns were transformed by the vast clearance of overcrowded slums into council-controlled peripheral housing estates. Manufacturing developed in newly created industrial estates from the later 1930s onwards.

The annexation of agricultural land into urban spaces played host to the sprawl of built up areas. One interesting designation arising from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was the green space concept in attempts to limit ribbon development. The main tenet was to be detailed town and country planning and planning gain accruing from existing use prices of land as they acquired enhanced value when readied for development. Successive UK Labour Governments in 1945, 1964 and 1974 wrestled with the means to capture this development value for the community, only to see their work quashed by a succession of incoming Tory regimes culminating with the Thatcher Government in 1979.

To that date, 75% of all housing in Scotland had been owned by local authorities, the Scottish Special Housing Association or New Town Corporations. Radicalised Tory individualism ordered an end to council-controlled house building. It ushered in the right to buy at deep discounts for council house tenants but also favoured the creation and development of the housing associations in which local tenanted property would be managed more locally than at, often Labour-controlled, council level. This had the effect of energising a new cadre of local people to make decisions about their neighbourhood with professional services provided by a new breed of housing officers to construct the plans and supervise the delivery of renovations and new build.

Housing still is the sine qua non of urban land use. The tenurial revolution in the 1980s tended to privatise the norms, moving Scots from being predominantly tenants to 60% owner-occupiers by 2015. 3

Urban land slowly addressed in Scottish Parliament

Scottish Office minister Lord Sewell introduced UK Labour’s LRPG consultation in February 1998 with the statement:

The land area of Scotland is about 2% urban and 98% rural. Land reform issues relate primarily to rural land. 4

This set the direction of policy development despite submissions to the consultation which stressed the need for urban land reform. I reflected on these proposals amidst the overall land reform picture in April 1998:

Scotland’s land resources belong to the whole community of Scotland therefore the SNP is committed to the long-term rejuvenation of this most basic physical resource by ending the ossification of both rural and urban landscapes which has occurred under successive Unionist governments. 5

When the LRPG solutions paper was published ahead of the Scottish Parliament election in May 1999 the trend was set to focus on rural reforms.

Of course, abolition of the feudal system applied to urban and rural alike, but community right to buy, a key plank of future legislation, followed the trend set by Assynt, Eigg and Knoydart. Indeed, Calum MacDonald MP had helicoptered to Knoydart to celebrate its liberation day in March 1999. Rural rights to buy could include communities up to 3,000 inhabitants. It was in August 2003, after the landmark Land Reform Act had been passed, that First Minister Jack McConnell sought to include urban land of 10,000 residents. 6 Speculation arose about a deal with his Lib Dem partners which would have benefitted 500,000 more small town residents. This would have suited their voters, even if the secondary instrument was not operative when the Labour/Lib Dem coalition lost office to the incoming minority SNP administration in May 2007.

Urban land reform as such had years to wait. The existing right to buy for communities beyond the crofting areas relied on a willing seller. Court cases showed the procedures to register and ballot were cumbersome. Indeed, the idea of urban communities demanding more local control would possibly finger largely Labour-controlled councils with their inbuilt belief that they knew best how to develop urban spaces. Previous to the 1999 return of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP had pointed to the need for land reform in towns but without working out the best way to proceed, save the election of community land councils to meet and discuss with landowners as to an agreed approach to development or an end to urban decay. The party was well aware of the work of local housing associations as many party activists had sought that work in the 1980s.

It took the LRRG reporting in 2014 to suggest ways to legislate. New reasons for community rights to buy were incorporated in both the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act of 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2016. These were chosen to break the logjam and were the grounds for buy-outs being extended to include the triggers of neglected and abandoned land, the imperative to promote local economic development and grounds for concern regarding the environmental detriment on land in question.

Much of the debate about urban land occupied the Local Government and Regeneration committee at Holyrood while RACCE concentrated on rural transformation. Not enough has been made of the locally controlled Housing Association movement which flourished from area regeneration in the 1970s, and matured in the 1980s, as a model for resident controlled places seeking to climb out of deprivation and neglect. Since the bulk of these are still functioning today, it suggests that alongside community owned estates created by land reform laws that their urban equivalent must be recognised and included in revisioning urban and rural housing delivery.

Such a package to create four homes in Helmsdale, in my constituency, was achieved by a local development trust with multi-agency support. I played a part in helping achieve an affordable energy package from SSE. These were the first public homes built in the East Sutherland village for 35 years. Their unveiling and allocation were a model for other small communities. 7

The LRRG had suggested a form of Compulsory Sale Order to push reluctant landowners to sell, in order to trigger quicker transfers of such properties. This has been taken up by the Scottish Land Commission to develop a policy approach in 2019. It’s a consideration, like many other moves to interfere with property rights, that needs to be ECHR proof. 8

As I review the legacy of house building in towns, it appears to me that devolution seemed to offer the chance to break free from the dominance of Thatcherite private housing markets. However, that has still proved elusive; the huge imbalance of house building still relies on private sector speculative building.

A full analysis by the LRRG argued, in Section 20 of its final report, that a public body, once again, is needed to lead the urban and rural housing renewal. A Housing Land Corporation (HLC) could meet Scottish Government placemaking aspirations. It could be charged with acquiring and developing sufficient land to meet all affordable housing need. Given the history of housing policy since devolution, such a corporation would re-establish a national housing leader to replace Communities Scotland. The latter had been abolished by the Scottish Government in 2007 and was the last in a line over 70 years of government-led agencies to lead the nation’s house building efforts. 9 I will address the rural housing crisis in discussion of the RACCE committee report on the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill in December 2015 in a later chapter. However, the HLC could supervise rural housing provision too. It must address the inadequacy of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation because this is incapable of revealing poor housing next door to luxury dwellings that can occur in rural Scotland. Remembering that a lead housing agency is once again required would be the first step to revisioning the repair, renovation, replacement and new build homes fit for a climate change aware era.

I will expand on this review in the post 2016 chapter.


1 TM Devine, The Scottish Nation, 1999

2 History Scotland, July/August 2003 Andrew Newby and July/August 2019 Dr Brian Casey

3 Douglas Robertson, Housing Policy: Exposing the Limits of Devolution and Ambition in Scotland the Brave?

ed. Hassan and Barrow, Luath Press, 2019

4 Scottish Office, Identifying the Problems, February 1998

5 Rob Gibson, submission to Scottish Office consultation, April 1998

6 Jack McConnell, BBC Scotland, 19 August 2003

8 Scottish Land Commission consultation, 2019

9 D Robertson, Scotland the Brave?

Old Royal Mile, Edinburgh Leith tenements old and new Cityscape Glasgow,

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