Lesley Riddoch: Will the SNP grasp the thistle?

THE government need only look to Ireland to see that ending top-down ownership works, writes Lesley Riddoch

Since a £4m community buyout in 2002 on Gigha the population has grown by 50 per cent. Picture: Donald MacLeod

It’s been a game-changing weekend for Scottish democracy. Scotland’s largest landowners must prepare to downsize, pay non-domestic rates, democratise inheritance, reveal the extent of their holdings in the Scottish Land Register and expect more state, tenant farmer and community-led buyouts. Development-blocking speculators face tougher compulsory purchase powers, prompted by disgruntled urban and rural communities as well as councils. Offshore investors in tax havens face an outright ban. The Crown Estates Commission must deal with yet another request to hand over “its” land and coastal assets to Scottish ministers who themselves must transfer land to communities without red tape or sky-high market prices. And Scots can anticipate a new democratic terrain populated by explicitly interventionist institutions of a kind not witnessed since the days of Mrs Thatcher – a Land and Property Commission, Community Land Agency and Housing Land Corporation all combining to deliver a national land policy.

These vital, overdue changes to Scottish society were recommended on Friday by the Land Reform Review Group and just for once those recommendations could become law hyper-quick if the Scottish Government embeds them in Stage 2 sponsored amendments to its own Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill coming before Holyrood in June.

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So the big question is this – will the Scottish Government act?

The pressure is now squarely upon it to do so. Rarely has a single report recommended such radical change in non-punch-pulling, non-conciliatory words of one syllable. After a limp interim report and a brave, change-prompting resignation by Dr Jim Hunter, a partly reconstituted group has rewarded the hopeful and confounded sceptics with a blockbusting final report.

Large landowners and apologists are evidently alarmed, maintaining that reform cannot make a big difference to land use and trying to enlist ordinary property owners to muddy the waters and stave off reform.

In this paper on Saturday, Michael Fry argued: “Scotland amounts to a blend of Norway and Belgium, with picturesque but uninhabitable hills at each end and an overcrowded belt, still in some respects squalid, of condensed human settlement in the middle.” He concluded: “The land use in either case is unlikely ever to change.”

This is wrong and defeatist – a land-based version of Project Fear where democratic change somehow always creates chaos or stasis. If the great wartime Scottish secretary Tom Johnston had paid any heed, there would be no hydro-electricity in Scotland today, so opposed were landed interests to alternative uses of “their” land. Indeed, if change in Scotland is impossible, why are landowners currently trousering millions from wind turbines erected on “their” former grouse moors? Politicised by a lifetime’s work by Andy Wightman, Jim Hunter and many others, I’d guess most intelligent Scots know the Highlands can sustain more than hunting, shooting and fishing for the few, Munro-bagging for the hardy and longing gazes from car windows for the sedentary majority.

The haunting, empty glen is a construct – land doesn’t become overgrazed, barren and devoid of human habitation all on its own. It’s also a distraction – land doesn’t only sit in vast empty country acres; it also lies derelict and underused in cities.

Scarcity, speculation, high prices and exclusion have become near permanent barriers to human development in town, city, village and countryside alike, blocking everything from affordable housing to green space for leisure and city allotments. The Land Reform Review Group has provided the tools for change, support from Labour and the Greens provides the political means for change, and the forthcoming Community Empowerment Bill provides the vehicle.

Will the SNP grasp the thistle? And will the provisions work?

Many have already been tried and tested. As Jim Hunter observed recently: “By enabling virtually all of Ireland’s tenant farmers to buy their farms and advancing cash to help them do so, the Wyndham Act of 1903 eliminated big estates from Ireland and made the entire country, both south and north of the present border, a place where farms and smallholdings are overwhelmingly owner-occupied.”

The review group recommendation of a conditional tenant’s right to buy could be backed in Richard Lochhead’s own review of agricultural holdings, triggering the same kind of change here. Diversity, smaller landholdings and community ownership have all been shown to increase local vitality, levels of investment and employment and help restore the physical condition of the countryside.

Ecologists Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell, for example, have transformed a portion of barren Highland wasteland into a verdant, broad-leafed woodland. Such community-owned woodlands could be coppiced to offer constant supplies of wood, thus reducing local fuel bills, creating open, accessible forests and encouraging low-impact weekend huts of the kind found in virtually every other country at Scotland’s latitude. Overgrazing currently makes natural tree regrowth almost impossible and that damages freshwater fish stocks. Without leaf litter in lochs, the food chain falters and the number and size of fish dwindle. Perhaps that doesn’t matter if the loch is only occasionally used by one man, his friends or paying customers. But under community or more diverse private ownership, the ecology of lochs and lochsides would matter again, boosting local income, providing a high quality source of local food and producing the levels of happiness you witness in any other normal country where diverse land-ownership patterns prevail and people enjoy nature in their leisure time instead of remaining cooped up indoors.

It’s perfectly true that centuries without easy or affordable access to land have robbed some of the ability to imagine Scotland otherwise. But it doesn’t take long to make the interests of local people paramount when the pattern of centuries-long, top-down, monolithic land ownership is finally broken. On the community-owned island of Eigg, shared-equity deals allow young folk to build their own homes now, promising to pay back part of the proceeds if they sell. We need more of this everywhere.

Of course, it will take legal effort to stop landowners circumventing new laws by trusts and physical effort to reverse decades of soil degradation and overgrazing and a new dynamic attitude amongst councils – perhaps a community right of appeal to ministers will be necessary.

But there’s no doubt that with democratic stewardship and new landowners in Scotland, a thousand flowers could blossom – quite literally – as the Highland mono-culture of the sporting estate and the urban empire of the speculators finally make way for long denied diversity.