The fear of ‘living museums’ is more pertinent than Holyrood seems to be aware, writes Lesley Riddoch
Is the SNP’s failure to tackle land reform and centralisation of power in Scotland about to hit them from behind? Admittedly, neither issue seems urgent or important within the Holyrood bubble where all that matters is the independence referendum. But beyond that bubble, land scarcity and high-handed councils regularly top the agenda in village and town hall meetings. Local business people, activists and ordinary folk share a common fear – that their town, village or rural community is heading for “living museum” status and they face an uneven fight against landowners and their own council to survive.
During a recent week spent on Arran, Islay and Dunoon, I heard the same two complaints voiced over and over again. First, that land is almost impossible to buy from landowners who are barely interested in local development. So new affordable housing is non-existent and young people are leaving. Indeed, Argyll is the only council area bucking the national trend of a rising population.
Second, planning permission has become an even bigger hurdle. Many people say permission is given for four or more homes but not for one, thwarting folk who just want to build on ground beside their own home for parents or a small business. Locals also claim permission is granted for developments of holiday homes but denied to affordable housing projects. Privately, islanders ask if North Ayrshire Council, which runs Arran, and Argyll and Bute, which runs Islay, Jura and Bute, actually prefer wealthy temporary residents to poorer permanent ones. But in public, few dare question this “empty glen” policy for fear of victimisation.
Argyll and Bute is generally regarded as an implacable obstacle to grassroots development thanks to weak leadership by elected members which allows unsympathetic officers full rein. One MSP reported 50 per cent of constituency cases concern the council. What’s to be done when there’s a toxic combination of bad landlords and bad councils? The answer appears to be nothing.
Even amongst committed Yes voters, there’s puzzlement and anxiety. Some assume the Scottish Government is simply keeping its powder dry and will tackle abuses of land and local power after the September vote. Others note a deafening silence over Cosla’s recent report Strengthening Local Democracy, which condemned 50 years of centralisation. A few spotted the Scottish Government had failed to levy business rates on sporting estates when the opportunity recently presented itself.
Of course, few independence supporters want to “rock the boat”. But the boat will rock on its own before September when the Scottish Land Reform Review Group finally reports and the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill is formally introduced to parliament. If either measure is a damp squib, heightened expectations and pent-up frustration will be hard to control, even amongst the faithful.
The SNP can use forthcoming legislative opportunities to reverse the top-down nature of governance and the concentrated nature of power and landownership in Scotland before the referendum, or it can bottle it. Which will it be?
On Islay last week, I cycled out to Bunnahabhain distillery; nestled in a bay facing Jura, the location is idyllic. Until you look closely at the houses – 12 out of 18 are lying empty. Apparently these homes are not available for holiday lets or local use, even though medical staff face problems finding accommodation.
They aren’t owned by Islay Estates, which owns most of the land around Bunnahabhain, but it has been the subject of complaints for years. This evidence from an anonymous tenant farmer is on the Scottish Government’s own website: “For the past 40 years… I have witnessed a steady deterioration in my community, and a drop of over 1,000 in the population of the island. Why is this? Could part of the reason be the empty and derelict farmhouses on sporting estates? Not one of my neighbouring farmhouses is occupied. The last secure tenant gave up his tenancy two years ago.
“The farmhouse is now derelict and the land stagnates. All these farms once supported families, who in turn supported the local shops and post office, which are now closed. Farmers used to buy their feed, medicines, tools and all things needed to run farms from the local merchant store, which has also closed. I’m quite sure if these farms had been owner-occupied things would have been very different.”
Amazingly, after hearing powerful evidence like this, the independent but government-backed Land Reform Review Group decided to avoid tenant farming in its interim report. Professor Jim Hunter resigned, commenting that six years under the SNP had left Scotland with the “most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world”. Ian Davidson MP then invited Prof Hunter, Michael Foxley, Peter Peacock and land reform campaigner Andy Wightman to produce a briefing paper for the Commons Scottish affairs committee on possible changes in land taxation. Even though there’s little chance of support from a ConDem government, a radical, workable and comprehensive template for reform has finally been laid – in London, not Edinburgh.
The Scottish Government can regain momentum with speedy action on Islay. Constituency MSP Mike Russell says: “I now believe the situation is so bad there is an urgent need for a mechanism to allow tenants of Islay Estates to buy their farms. Dominant island estates like Islay Estates must be more responsive to community need if depopulation is to be arrested and the economy of the fragile Argyll islands sustained.” Amen to that.
Andy Wightman has suggested community need and depopulation could count as indicators to trigger a tenant’s right to buy a core acreage, farmhouse and out-buildings, leaving some land free for new tenant farmers. Environment secretary Richard Lochhead has the chance to enact such a scheme in June when his Agricultural Tenure Review Group is due to report.
So bold, decisive initiative on land reform can be delivered before September. Likewise, a beefed-up Community Empowerment Bill. Supporters of an empowered, independent Scotland are waiting and watching, hopefully.