Scottish land, the SNP and the Green, Green Rip-off – Brian Wilson

The politics of land are fundamental to any society. Looking at how land is distributed, accessed and used is a fair guide to where power lies.

Scotland remains a feudal backwater in Europe (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)
Scotland remains a feudal backwater in Europe (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

By that standard, Scotland remains a feudal backwater of Europe. There is nowhere with such an inequitable land distribution and, in 15 years of Nationalist rule, not a finger has been lifted to correct that.

Progress made between 1997 and 2005 ground to a halt once the low-hanging fruit was picked – a public right to roam; abolition of the feudal system; creation of National Parks; establishment of a Scottish Land Fund to support community buy-outs, mainly in crofting areas. All good stuff, but since then…?

However, a problem ignored does not go away. Occasionally the land question is capable of becoming an embarrassment for those who choose not to address it and the current state of the Scottish land market may be such a moment.

Fortunately, SNP ministers do not have to take my word for this. In 2017, they set up a quango called the Scottish Land Commission as a substitute for acting upon information in plain sight. That kicked the can down the road for another five years, and counting.

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A “green” gold-rush is now under way and because it is so easy to trade land in Scotland, we are in the front line. A report for the Commission found “farmland values rising by 31.2 per cent in Scotland in 2021 against 6.2 per cent across the UK”. Great news for a few farmers; bad news for rural Scotland.

Was this boom due to a sudden desire to invest in food production? You’re joking. “Nearly half of all estates were sold to corporate bodies, investment funds or charitable trusts – motivated by the potential for carbon offsetting and developing large-scale environmental improvement”.

I would quibble with “improvement” since it is far from clear that “re-wilding” is more ethical than “re-peopling” – a concept allowed no part in policy formulation. For most “non-farming investors” the prime attraction is their favourite crop – subsidy from the public purse, this time under the guise of environmentalism, without any test of public interest.

There is also no right for anyone to know what is going on among the wheeler-dealers in Scotland’s land, any more than 100 or 200 years ago. In this nation of political Bravehearts, money and secrecy remain the dominant forces when it comes to our most basic resource, the land.

The report found that “off-market sales” make up one-third of farmland, forestry and plantable land transactions, rising to two-thirds of estate sales, “raising questions about transparency, which could further reinforce Scotland’s existing pattern of concentrated land ownership”.

This is not some abstract debate about buyers and sellers. Many rural communities are dying on their feet, denied access to land for housing and other amenities. Tens of thousands of Scottish families could be enjoying better living environments if our primary resource – land – was subject to regulation rather than run as private fiefdoms.

The area in which I live, which faces exactly these issues, was sold last year by private bargain without a scintilla of community awareness far less consultation. It is possible for 10,000 acres of Scotland’s land to transfer from one private interest to the next without any public input, yet it can take years to gain consents to build a house.

Scotland's rural housing market is under huge pressures from people who want either a lifestyle change or a second home. These forces are almost impossible to constrain while the answer is to make far more land available to build far more houses.

As Community Land Scotland said: “The report highlights factors driving changes to Scotland’s largely unregulated and increasingly overheated rural land market and raises fundamental questions about who benefits from land-use associated with Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of rural land ownership.”

Maybe it’s time for a theatrical production to highlight the hypocrisy of our devolved rulers on an issue they once tried to exploit. Perhaps it could be called The Cheviot, the Stag and the Green, Green Rip-Off.

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