Lesley Riddoch: Where do you stand on land reform?

The isle of Gigha, in the Inner Hebrides, was bought out by its community in 2002. Picture: Donald Macleod
The isle of Gigha, in the Inner Hebrides, was bought out by its community in 2002. Picture: Donald Macleod
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MSPs and the rest of us need to ignore the hysteria and unravel the radical from the modest, writes Lesley Riddoch

The Scottish Government seems to be finding the business of reforming the “most concentrated, most inequitable and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world” – to quote Professor Jim Hunter in 2013 – fiendishly difficult.

Landowner Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is "the man with the helicopters". Picture: Getty

Landowner Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is "the man with the helicopters". Picture: Getty

This week the latest, very modest land reform bill will start its passage through the Scottish Parliament amidst hysterical accusations that it is a Mugabe-style land raid and assertions that change is too complex, risky and unnecessary.

For some folk that will be a scaremongering echo – one year on – of arguments used in the independence referendum. For the majority though, the debate will likely go right over their heads – couched as it is in language that is now as remote as the prospect of ever owning a tiny bit of Scottish land.

Radical or modest all depends on where you start.

Scotland’s large “sporting” estates say they help keep people on rural land so barren it’s fit for nothing but the cultivation of grouse and pheasant for invited or paying guests. Others look at much higher population densities on protected croft land on Lewis, in owner-occupied Ireland and Norway and indeed in those same rural areas in pre-Clearance times and suggest the current system has kept Scotland unnaturally empty and under-developed. Some suggest landowners have moved with the times – history suggests hydro electric power would have been delayed by decades, if not indefinitely, had the bold Labour Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston not used the urgency of war to back up his Power to the Glens programme of hydro dam building in the 1940s.

Interestingly, Johnston himself had far more radical land reform goals in 1909 when he wrote: “The first step in reform… is to destroy superstitions. Show the people that our old nobility is not noble; that its lands are stolen lands – stolen either by force or fraud. So long as half a dozen families own one half of Scotland, so long will countless families own none of it.”

Landowners might argue Johnston’s words are out of date. Today it is not six families but 432 interests (including trusts, companies and individuals) who own half the private land in Scotland. I suspect Johnston would not be alone in regarding that as scant progress over a century in which the UK Government gave Ireland’s tenant farmers the right to buy with the cash to do it in the form of loans with a generous payback period of up to 60 years. Scotland’s tenant farmers got nowt.

This week, when MSPs consider proposals to give a little more security to Scotland’s 6,000 tenant farmers instead of the buyout package offered to Irish farmers in 1903, they should consider the consequences of failing to opt for more radical change.

On 28 November Andrew Stoddart, an East Lothian tenant farmer, still faces eviction without explanation or compensation for the shed he built or the improvements he made to his house and land over the last 20 years. New subsidy rules favour landowners, so hundreds of other tenant farmers are finding they can no longer get seasonal lets – needed to graze cattle or sheep during the summer. Without access to land and subsidies, many will leave farming and the countryside, taking the children needed to keep schools, shops and other services viable. There is nothing much in the current Land Reform Bill that will reverse these new clearances.

Nor is there any provision to end the land banking that has led to dereliction in many of our towns and cities and stagnation in the countryside. Key sites like Tradeston in Glasgow, Granton in Edinburgh or indeed the old Seaforth Hotel in Arbroath where a protest was held this weekend – lie empty. In large part that’s because derelict or vacant land receives a 100 per cent exemption from non-domestic rates so it’s cheaper to wait and speculate than sell to a new owner. Why does the new Bill not end this tax exemption?

Perhaps because nervous Scottish Government lawyers blocked the even more modest proposal to require all landowning trusts and companies to register in members states of the EU. This would end the practice of landowners using “secrecy designations” and offshore tax havens to avoid details of their landholdings being publicly accessible – and in the tiny Highland village of Cannich, that has a very real meaning. The largest local owner – with a vast estate of 61,961 acres – is a limited company registered in Guernsey understood to be owned by Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum – the man with the helicopters. Hot on his heels is a Cayman Islands registered company which owns 30,147 acres; a Guernsey registered company which owns 19,082 acres; a Seychelles registered company which owns 8974 acres; a company registered in Panama and another registered in Liberia. Who would have guessed Scotland was so exotic? Roughly 37,000 acres are owned by various private individuals residing in the UK out with Scotland – only five landowners with a total of roughly 17,500 acres are registered as local.

Does that make it hard for Cannich folk to develop their community or even know who to approach? You betcha. And yet proposals requiring landowners to conform to EU standards of transparency have been dropped from the Land Reform Bill. If this requirement is not reinstated, the public will conclude that ministers and MSPs are running scared of lawyers who in turn are running scared of landowner pressure.

Of course, landowners will say they are making more land available for affordable housing without compulsion. On Islay, 20 new affordable homes have been built in a cluster near Bowmore - fine if your point of comparison is no development at all. If you are crazy enough to dream, it’s a drop in the ocean. Back in 1845 when Islay’s owner was declared bankrupt, local man John Murdoch proposed a new start – giving 20,000 acres to the Laird and dividing the rest into 3,000 plots of roughly 28 acres each. That would have turned Islay into a very different place, but the plan was rejected, the population of the island halved over the next 15 years and today the main secondary school is struggling to remain open. Are 20 affordable homes enough to reverse that situation?

So how much land reform is enough? Over the next nine months, MSPs must decide.