Rich private landowners have come under heavy fire after a series of intemperate outbursts aimed at blocking Scottish Government’s plans to tackle huge inequalities in wealth by radically reforming land law.
Large sporting estates have blasted the proposed changes as “ideological”, “emotive” and likely to stir up “hate tactics based upon jealousy”. They have drawn comparisons with Zimbabwe, and said they “resent” interference from urban-dwellers “with little experience of the countryside” and “distorted views”.
One landowner pronounced it “inconceivable” that private land should be required to deliver a public benefit, while another did not believe that land ownership “has to be in the public interest.” The government’s policy would only be acceptable if it deleted the idea of “building a fairer society in Scotland”, according to a major group of landowners.
Scottish ministers are proposing a major package of land reforms, including new powers for ministers to intervene, ending a tax break for sporting estates, and making ownership more transparent. Although about 70 per cent of the 1,269 responses to a recent public consultation were in favour, there were up to 50 private landowners who strongly objected.
Ministers have promised to publish a land reform bill in the next few weeks, but there is little sign that they are going to cave in to landowner pressure. In recent speeches, the land reform minister, Dr Aileen McLeod, has stressed the need to reduce the unequal distribution of wealth.
“We live in a very unequal society,” she said. “Access to ownership and use of land is not evenly spread across society and there’s good evidence that this inequality does not serve us well.”
McLeod pointed out that in 2010-12 the richest ten per cent of households owned 44 per cent of all Scotland’s wealth. “In my view, it doesn’t reflect the kind of society we want to work towards,” she said.
Land reform was one of the ways of combating the injustice, she argued. “I see the Scottish Government’s approach to land reform as one mechanism among others for tackling the causes and consequences of inequality that blights our society and limits our potential as a country.”
Jim Hunter, the distinguished land expert and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, urged ministers to resist the landowning lobby. “Will the government hold its nerve? I certainly hope so,” he said.
“Land reform, because it involves the transfer of power and influence from one group to another – in this case from large-scale landowners to local communities – is seldom, if ever, a consensual process,” he argued.
“And landowners, though not so influential as they were in the days when they could block reforms in a landowner-dominated House of Lords, remain a powerful grouping which some ministers may hesitate to tangle with.”
Hunter pointed out that half of Scotland’s private land belonged to just 432 owners. “The SNP government’s clear commitment to land reform is coming under fire from landowners who have been used to governments that, far from posing any threat to them, shower them with tax concessions and subsidies,” he added.
In their responses to the government consultation, landowners lambasted the land reform proposals. “Scotland must not become the equivalent of Zimbabwe, where the goal was to more equitably distribute land,” said Glenprosen estate in Angus.
“Please avoid trampling over existing owners property rights as this will result in long term legal issues,” the estate warned. “You may open up private individuals to hate tactics based upon jealousy or differing political views.”
Ardverikie estate in Kinlochlaggan accused ministers of adopting a “nanny state” policy. “Country people resist metropolitan interference and resent excessive regulation. They are very much more independent than those in urban communities,” it claimed.
“The majority of the Scottish population being based in the central belt in urban communities with little experience of the countryside other than through leisure activities form distorted views of the countryside and rural land ownership.”
Edward Humphrey, from Dinnet and Kinord estate in Aberdeenshire, thought it was “inconceivable that the government is suggesting that all private land should be required to deliver a public benefit.” This was echoed by Dunecht estate, also in Aberdeenshire, which did not believe “that ownership and use of land has to be in the public interest.”
Strathbran estate in Ross and Cromarty went further. “Public sector bodies have historically been the poorest managers of land providing the least public benefit,” it said. “They should be closed down.”
Viscount Astor, stepfather of the Prime Minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, and owner of the Tarbert estate on the island of Jura, hit the headlines ten days ago by warning of a “Mugabe-style land grab”. He said: “Is it because we don’t sound Scottish? We should not all have to sound like Rob Roy.”
But landowners were criticised by the leading SNP backbencher, Joan McAlpine MSP, for ploughing money into lobbying and donating to the Conservative Party. “I am absolutely confident that despite this, we will have a piece of progressive legislation at the end of the day that results in a much fairer system of land ownership in Scotland,” she said.
Rob Gibson, the SNP MSP who convenes the Scottish Parliament’s rural affairs committee, accused lairds of “cooking up” financial figures to back up their arguments. “Litigation is likely at the slightest provocation,” he cautioned.
Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, suggested in its submission that one of the government’s guiding principles would only be acceptable “subject to the deletion of the words ‘building a fairer society in Scotland’”. The problem was that fairness was “an abstract concept” that was open to interpretation, it said.
The organisation’s chief executive, Douglas McAdam insisted it would be “absurd” to suggest that this meant that landowners were not interested in a fair society. "We said that ‘building a fairer society in Scotland’ was too vague,” he said.
He denied that landowners had mounted a sustained campaign to undermine government proposals. “This view shows a complete lack of understanding of landowners' participation in the land reform review process over the last two years,” he argued.
“We are working to deliver a huge range of Scottish Government policies and proposals, and whilst we do have concerns regarding certain land reform proposals, which we will continue to voice, that is very different thing to the accusation of undermining them.”
by Andy Wightman
Understanding what land reform can do for Scotland involves first of all understanding what land reform is actually about.
Contrary to how it is often portrayed, it is not a process concerning only community landownership or farming tenants or indeed rural Scotland. It is in fact a process of reforming the legal, fiscal and administrative framework governing all land in Scotland. It is about how land is owned, occupied, taxed, inherited, and used from the centre of Glasgow to the island of Rockall in the North Atlantic.
It follows, therefore, that land reform could be transformative. In the housing sector, it could mean secure and affordable homes for owner-occupiers and tenants. In local government it could deliver an autonomous, equitable and comprehensive system of public revenue from land and property. In the wider economy it could mean an end to land speculation and profiteering and the diversion of finance and investment to more productive parts of the economy whilst reducing levels of private debt.
For local communities it could mean much greater control over how vital resources such as the seabed, open spaces, common land, public buildings and forests are used. For business, it could mean quick and free access to sophisticated data on the ownership, occupancy, value, and constraints of land. For households, it could mean access to land for fresh food and fresh air in community gardens, huts and allotments.
How land is owned, used and governed is vitally important to the wellbeing and prosperity of all who live in this country - in particular to those who, because of inflated land values, cannot afford the basic human right of a home. Land is a finite resource and should be owned and used in the public interest for the common good of all the people of Scotland.
The Land Reform Review Group, whose report in May 2014 revitalised the debate on land reform, highlighted how some of this could happen. The forthcoming land reform bill will put some of these ideas into law. Further consultations over the coming year will prepare the ground for further reform in the next Scottish Parliament.
For centuries, the ownership and control of Scotland's natural resources was in the hands of a small elite. Their political influence was such that reforms of inheritance law, for example, have been blocked as an unjustifiable attack on the very fabric of Scottish family life. Vested interests in finance, property and land still promote the idea that change that has long been normal across continental Europe is somehow extreme and dangerous in Scotland in the 21st century.
Fortunately, Scotland is now alive with ambition to build a fairer and more equal society. Land reform has the potential to unlock the potential of Scotland's people if they are given a meaningful and equitable stake in the ownership, governance and wealth of urban, rural and marine Scotland. This is a wide and ambitious agenda. It is urgent and it has only just begun.
by Duke of Buccleuch
The ongoing debate on land reform is often characterised as one where 'progressive' land reformers are pitched against 'intransigent' landowners, which is a great pity as the topic of land reform should lead us all to challenge whether we are making the most of our natural resources.
A truly progressive debate should have at its heart constructive dialogue and a frank assessment of the issues that confront various communities and business sectors.
The Scottish Government's Minister for Land Reform, Dr Aileen Macleod, recently talked of the need for much greater collaboration and co-operation between landowners and communities. No-one should argue with that. She also, however, recognised the social, economic and environmental contribution made by private landowners - a contribution that delivers substantial public benefit rather than simply serving the interests of a landowner.
I don't believe that we at Buccleuch are anti-land reform as there are some proposed measures such as migrating land registration onto the land registry which are constructive suggestions. Also, the sentiment behind dealing with abandoned or neglected land is right - but the challenge here is to get the correct definition. There are also many ways in which agriculture could be improved but binding the subject into land reform does, in my view, the farming industry a disservice.
Sadly, the land reform debate is too easily narrowed into the issue of ownership alone. I can fully understand that some people do not like the concept of individuals owning large tracts of land. However, the portrayal of landowners simply 'owning' land - and therefore preventing progress - is far removed from what happens on the vast majority of estates.
Most landowners I know have a very deep sense of commitment to the land they manage and wish to make the best use of it, not just for them for the benefit and enjoyment of all and for future generations.
Any estate owner will tell you that productive use of land is the main priority and it may take many forms, agriculture, tourism, forestry, leisure, energy are all areas where private landowners make a significant contribution.
Surely, both the private and public sector have a role to play - as they do in most walks of life. Land use should be no different. There are examples where community ownership has proved to be successful and examples where private landownership has not been delivering as much wider benefit as it could. We should be honest enough to admit that the reverse is also true - community ownership is not always a panacea and, in truth, there are parts of Scotland where there is not really a great demand for it.
I believe it would be more productive if there were to be greater acceptance that there is room for everyone - community, private, public and charitable ownership - and each model will face major challenges on how they use land to the best effect.
It is a challenge we face on the Buccleuch estates on a daily basis. Buccleuch is a business and, while I am extremely proud of our heritage, we are wholly committed to looking to the future as a modern and progressive business.
Our core operations of tourism, hospitality and energy are sectors that we firmly believe are of benefit to Scotland. 120,000 people annually visit our estates to enjoy a vast array of activities.
Our plans to redevelop Dalkeith Country Park are well underway and will provide a range of benefits to the local community, creating around 35 new jobs along with a first-class visitor destination.
We believe there are substantial economic and community benefits which could be stimulated in the South-West through potential renewable energy resources. For example, we are a committed partner in the restoration of the Glenmuckloch mine which again has provided local employment and our energy ambitions in that area, should they be realised, could generate direct and indirect community benefit running into many millions of pounds.
Scotland's land is very varied, offering an array of opportunities to deliver more for our nation. Many landowners do their level best to make a positive contribution to rural Scotland and the interests of rural Scotland would be better served if a more collaborative and less adversarial approach is taken to how we use land in Scotland.