A VISIT to a conference of Scottish landowners can be an interesting experience – and not just for the excellent range of tweed on show.
As a group, the lairds are used to finding themselves in the midst of political controversy, usually through no wish of their own. Strong feelings are aroused in the breasts of politicians who believe landowners are the beneficiaries of an iniquitous system of ownership that places the countryside in the hands of the privileged few.
Hardly surprising then that many landowners have been on the defensive against those who believe that reform is required to redistribute the land.
Yesterday, however, the Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) landowners organisation was firmly on the front foot when it held its spring conference in Edinburgh. At the heart of the event was a paper detailing the hundreds of millions contributed to Scotland’s output by private estates, the thousands of jobs sustained by the land and the hundreds of millions of pounds contributed to local economies.
This bolder approach makes no apologies for the notion that managing and making a living from often unproductive land requires investment, expertise and commitment.
Nevertheless, the spectre of land reform remains on the horizon, as does the possibility of independence. The paper showed that 47 per cent identified land reform and political uncertainty as a threat. That was evident when a farmer from Blairgowrie asked finance secretary John Swinney for assurances that independence would not see beef prices fall to Republic of Ireland levels. Swinney was all optimism and reassurance, replying that it was the quality of the product that counted.
His reassuring manner was in evidence once more when asked about land reform. “No decisions,” he said, had been made about the issues being explored by the Scottish Government’s land reform review group, which is looking at extending the right to buy out landlords. It reports next month, but, according to Swinney, there will be further dialogue and consultation.
Similarly, “no decisions” had been taken on the proposals under consideration by the agricultural holdings group, which is looking at giving the absolute right to buy to tenant farmers whether or not the landowner is willing to sell – and does not report until December.
One could be forgiven for suspecting that the Scottish Government is keen to park tricky issues until after a certain event on 18 September. Those suspicions could only be heightened by a separate development yesterday – Kenny MacAskill told parliament that his highly controversial plans to abolish the need for corrorboration in criminal trials would be delayed until next year.