Michael Fry: Land reform won’t create a Scottish paradise

ONE of the things we were promised when the Scottish Parliament came into being in 1999 was a programme of land reform which would at least take the first steps towards turning Scotland from a country that was owned by the few to a country owned by the many.
Picture: PAPicture: PA
Picture: PA

Fourteen years later, after the parliament has applied its collective wisdom to a wide range of minor matters, it has yet do anything of importance on land reform. Not that efforts have been entirely lacking. Amid a great deal of huffing and puffing the first Labour/Lib Dem administration passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2003. But it turned out to be more about access than anything else – not in itself a trivial subject for legislation, but we already had access to the countryside under common law.

The same act did also establish a limited right for crofters and communities to buy the land they lived and worked on, and a few have since exercised that right. While one or two quick bargains became available, the essential fact is that none of the ordinary folk in the Scottish Highlands has the sort of money you need to buy an estate there. Though the government set up a fund to help, the first wave of purchasers soon exhausted it. In any case, Highland bureaucracy is of the labyrinthine sort and applications may vanish into it for years, never to emerge.

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In sum, land reform, once touted as among the brightest prospects that the Scottish Parliament could offer us, in order to turn this country from one of injustice and failure into one of hope and progress, has been an utter flop. The parliament has done some good things and a few bad things, but on nothing has it proved so impotent as on the land.

Should we be bothered? Your average Scot, whether living in a council scheme or in a leafy suburb, could not care tuppence about who owns the land. Ninety per cent of us are townies, regarding the affairs of the countryside as remote and incomprehensible. It is nice to look at or walk through, but closer acquaintance tends to reveal a less attractive side to its lifestyle, smelly and tedious. All we want is for it to look beautiful and be open to visitors whenever we want to go there.

But a minority of people feel passionate about the land, and these are the ones who tend to drive policy – indeed, have been driving it for a couple of centuries, for there was nothing new about the Act of 2003. A few of them are native to the land, the actual crofters and communities who, for example, wish to acquire a nearby hill and put a windfarm on it, so they can live off the income ever after. But more of them are New Age types who would like us all to go back to living in bothies, or possibly in trees, as some of them do themselves. These are the ones who shout the loudest about land reform and have the most coherent agendas for it: radical ones, believe you me.

In the face of that sort of highly organised pressure group, governments tend to set up committees of inquiry. That is what the Labour government did a decade ago, and that what is the SNP has done now. These committees get sent a lot of revolutionary proposals which thoroughly alarm the civil servants servicing the inquiry. More usefully, they also get evidence from the people who actually own the land and need to make a living not so much for themselves, because they tend to be wealthy, but for the communities in their charge, which in diminishing numbers and never with any prospect of all that much income, work hard to keep the countryside as economically viable as it is ever going to be.

A good deal of the evidence from such people has become available in The Scotsman this week. The most interesting bits concern the danger of fragmentation of big estates under an extended right to buy. Land reformers always seem blind to the fact that three-quarters of Scotland is mountain, moor or rough grazing which can never supply a living to anybody unless it is held in huge parcels and run as a commercial enterprise. It is analogous to the American prairies or Australian outback, and nobody suggests they be divided up into smallholdings. If they were, the people on them would starve, just as the Highlanders did before they left the Highlands and went away to people those prairies and that outback. The best means to cope with infertility is the big estate: we need to look not at the size, but at the productivity.

When all these inquiries come to the point of writing a report and making proposals for legislation, the officials and the politicians are faced with the choice between radicalism, on perhaps idealistic principles, but with no way of predicting whether the final outcome will be good or bad or work at all, and conservatism, of listening to sage advice from people already facing real problems and dealing with them as best they can, with results that may fall well fall short of perfection but still somehow work.

My advice to the Scottish government would be: forget land reform. The last big push for it came 100 years ago, under a Liberal government just as starry-eyed on the matter as this present one at Holyrood. The so-called Pentland Act, named after the Secretary of State for Scotland who sponsored it, cost an immense amount of time and effort and money. The provisions of the law looked generous, and were fully intended to revive rustic life and solve the problems of urban life (because people would move from the slums to run a market garden). The net result was practically nothing.

If anything comes of legislation this time, the result will be just the same. By all means let us help the countryside with small, practical measures. But do not expect ever to create there an earthly, and egalitarian, paradise. A squalid hell is the more likely outcome.