Brian Wilson: Land reform is another fine mess

Quango Scottish Natural Heritage has curtailed community development in Staffin on Skye. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Quango Scottish Natural Heritage has curtailed community development in Staffin on Skye. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Scottish land reform bill lays a dead hand on the cause of community ownership, warns Brian Wilson

When governments around the world announce programmes of land reform, it generally means they are going to break up great estates and distribute ownership or tenure on a more equitable, post-feudal basis.

In Scotland, it means setting up yet another quango and encouraging lazy journalists to recycle press releases with the word “radical” in the headline while omitting to legislate for redistribution of a single square millimetre of territory.

If the Scottish Government wants to alter the extreme concentration of ownership, there is one effective way of doing it – giving tenant farmers the right to own their land. That is what happened elsewhere in Europe and it would soon transform headline statistics as well as motivating farmers, many of whose families have occupied the land for centuries. That would be a genuinely radical challenge to some of the most powerful vested interests in Scotland. Unfortunately, it has been ruled out by the Scottish Government though as usual there is someone else to blame – in this case the European Convention on Human Rights, an improbable barrier if the political will to assert “public interest” exists.

Avoiding the threat of legal action by big landowners does not mean it will go away. It simply means there will never be substantial land reform in Scotland if the excuse is always that “we can’t afford to risk them taking us to court”. On that basis, reform in Scotland will never mean more than dancing around the edges of the status quo.

The centrepiece of the bill is to be the creation of a Scottish Land Commission which, in vaguely-defined circumstances, would be able to call our most recalcitrant landowners to account. I confidently predict that it is a power which would never be used because recalcitrance is a difficult commodity to define and prosecute. Actually, what the legislation says is that the commission could “address barriers to furthering sustainable development”. At that point, the definitional problem becomes a lawyer’s paradise. What is “sustainable development” and, even more pertinently, what is the Scottish Government’s own definition of “sustainable development”?

Once upon a time, that was an easy question to answer for simple souls like myself with an interest in Scotland’s rural communities. The objective of development policy was to sustain populations in economically fragile, disadvantaged areas. It was to create opportunities for people to stay in, or return to, these places with access to homes, jobs and land.

In today’s Scotland, quangos armed with countless environmental designations and limitless belief in their own self-righteousness have rendered that view of “sustainable development” hopelessly outdated. They would often prefer a landowner doing nothing to a community trying to do something. It is difficult to see what a Land Commission would add to that mix.

Take the example of Staffin in the north end of Skye, which may be plagued by more designations than anywhere else in the Highlands and Islands. Staffin is a great community and one of the few places that can be described as a last bastion of the Gaelic language.

There is a desperate need for social housing and an active community body, the Staffin Trust, committed to that outcome.

Securing sites on crofting land is difficult enough but they have managed it seven times in seven different locations. On each occasion, the plans have been vetoed by Scottish Natural Heritage, primarily on grounds of visual intrusion. Local needs, local opinion, local democracy count for nothing. Is that the kind of “sustainable development”, reflecting another arm of Scottish Government policy, that a Land Commission will seek to enforce?

Or consider the case of Sallachy in north-west Sutherland where both a small local estate and overwhelming local opinion have supported a wind farm which would bring substantial economic benefits to a marginal rural community. Planning permission was granted in 2013 but since then, the Scottish Government in Edinburgh has withheld its consent because of objections from SNH and its allies.

Sallachy is now designated a “wild land” area under a deeply pernicious new layer of “protection” imposed on vast swathes of Scotland last year by SNH, on top of all the others. Very few of them are anywhere near Edinburgh but the further north and west you go, the thicker the coverage. This really is internal colonialism at its worst and, of course, it is contemptuous of the fact that people are trying to live and work in these places.

Many of these great acreages are now largely bereft of population because of the past power of landlordism. Now the job is to be finished by declaring them “wild land” in which nothing is to happen.

“Measuring wildness is inherently difficult,” pondered SNH before deciding that “the visible lack of buildings, roads, pylons and other modern artefacts” should be one of the criteria. Iain Thomson, manager of Sallachy Estate, wrote: “For my neighbours and me, this is our home and it is where we raise our families. Our primary concern is not the identification and preservation of so-called ‘wild land’ but rather we seek the sustainable use of the assets we have, to provide a stable economy…”

Even where community ownership has been achieved, it is facing constant constraints. For example, Storas Uibhist – the biggest of the community buy-outs – fears that the “wild land” designation over half of South Uist will prevent it expanding beyond its two existing wind turbines. For them and many others, ownership is no longer the problem. Over-zealous environmentalism is the new dead hand.

It’s the same at sea as on land. Marine Protected Area designations are being scattered around the west coast like confetti. This week, Murdo Urquhart wrote on behalf of north-west mainland fishermen that Marine Scotland – another arm of the Scottish Government – “have no intention of taking on board the majority of what we discussed, thereby endangering the lives and livelihoods of local fishermen”.

Scotland needs meaningful land reform which, clearly, the latest bill is not going to provide.

What could be delivered is a coherent rural policy which gives top priority to maintaining people in economically fragile places rather than vesting so much power in an Edinburgh elite with a highly selective idea of what sustainability means in these far-off places.