Bill Jamieson: SNP risks treading on a landmine

Sporting estates epitomise the enemy for sections of the SNP but genuine employment providers for others. Picture: GettySporting estates epitomise the enemy for sections of the SNP but genuine employment providers for others. Picture: Getty
Sporting estates epitomise the enemy for sections of the SNP but genuine employment providers for others. Picture: Getty
Land reform plans reveal a party whose famous discipline could come under real threat,writes Bill Jamieson

Few subjects generate more emotion in Scotland than land reform. An SNP bill unveiled this summer has stirred deep apprehension among landowners, while reformers argue that it does not go far enough.

So it is brave, to put it mildly, for Fergus Ewing, minister for business, energy and tourism, to enter this emotive minefield with a spirited defence of the economic contribution made by the country’s large land owners – even going so far as to hint that some of his SNP colleagues did not properly understand the role of estate owners.

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That will not go down well with many in the party. Driving the SNP’s Land Reform Bill is a fierce sense of inequity over land ownership. Reformers see it as a feudal and archaic system. The figure frequently cited is that just 432 owners account for 50 per cent of Scotland’s privately held land. Campaigners want to see robust and effective action to address inequality in land ownership.

Under the bill the Scottish government will gain the power to force owners who block sustainable development to sell land. It would also impose business taxes on shooting estates.

Mr Ewing, holding a senior position in the SNP administration, would be widely seen as a stalwart and cheer leader for this bill. But his remarks indicated some support for land owners. He said he often saw “excellent examples of land use” being promoted by the larger estates. Asked if his SNP colleagues did not sufficiently appreciate the contribution made by big landowners, Mr Ewing is reported to have said: “I think some colleagues in all parties perhaps haven’t had the same opportunities that I have . . . to educate myself as to what actually happens in large estates.” He also indicated that the imposition of rates would have “relatively modest” implications, with the burden for smaller estates in particular likely to be largely offset by measures to support small businesses.

Now all this may be seen as simply an attempt to smooth the ruffled feathers of estate owners and to dampen down opposition to the bill. It’s no more than what politicians always do.

But it raises searching questions on a number of fronts, and not least about the SNP itself and whether it can maintain its impressive unity and discipline on such a highly charged issue. Can a notably left of centre party credibly curry favour with those sections of Scottish life that are not so predisposed to radical reform? How can it present itself as business friendly unless ministers sound supportive of business endeavour?

Mr Ewing has already drawn the ire of SNP MSP Joan McAlpine after he sought to bring her to heel for criticising the Duke of Buccleuch’s plans to mine coalbed methane in Dumfries and Galloway. Ms McAlpine complained to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over Mr Ewing’s support for developing underground gas, claiming that communities had been “sold out” in a “stitch-up” by the minister. Mr Ewing said the Buccleuch estate had been very helpful to the government and that industry needed cheap energy.

Now the minister’s latest remarks are likely to widen this division.

There is also a worrying vagueness about how this legislation will work in practice. The term “sustainable development” is barely defined. But this is the rationale by which the government proposes to give itself powers to requisition land from private owners. And this legislation is not confined to estates but can also be used in urban areas.

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The proposals are bracketed with conditions and may hardly merit the description of “Mugabe-style land grab”. But they have still given rise to unease. David Johnstone, the chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, says there are real reasons to be worried. “The proposed right for government ministers to intervene and enforce the sale of property is a key concern. There desperately needs to be more clarity.”

Then there are questions about the rationale for the bill itself. If it is to be more than a land redistribution exercise, what, exactly, is the economic argument? What weaknesses in Scotland’s rural economy would be addressed and made good? By how much would employment rise and rural revenues be enhanced?

The traditional defence of estate owners is that much of the land comprises moors and hills of marginal economic value. What would be the point of ownership transfer? But this works to underplay the significant and diverse contribution that rural businesses make to Scotland’s economy and the need for reform to focus on how land is used rather than how it is owned.

So what is that economic contribution, exactly? The popular stereotype is of languid landowners strolling across moorland with guns at the ready. The reality is more complex. Private estates deliver a wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits, both directly and by enabling investment and business activity by others. And the strength of this contribution is in its diversity.

A survey by Scottish Land & Estates based on 277 responses from owners of 1.25 million hectares of land and more than 1,500 tenancies last year estimated annual income at £436 million. After indirect and induced impacts, this suggested a contribution of £760m to Scotland’s economic output.

The survey yielded a full-time employment number of 6,648, which, after employment multiplier effects, helped maintain 10,445 full-time jobs across Scotland.

Arguably a more logical and effective approach would be to assess the economic value of the various government subsidies enjoyed by landowners, a start already having been made on curbing subsidies for renewable energy. But care needs to be taken to address needs of rural businesses. Here the huge advances in digital communication should enable many businesses to start up in rural areas. But this in turn requires a much wider broadband roll-out.

The critical question land reformers need to answer – and which was implied in Fergus Ewing’s remarks – is what effect the bill will have in promoting and sustaining economic activity – and with it, fresh investment. For without this, no amount of legislative curbs on ownership will make much difference to the health, diversity and prosperity of rural Scotland. And that should be the foremost concern of ministers.