David Johnstone: Landowners not enemy in land reform plans

Estate owners see themselves as rural business men and women. Picture: Contributed
Estate owners see themselves as rural business men and women. Picture: Contributed
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THE livelihood of thousands is linked to rural estates, writes David Johnstone

Like people all over Scotland, the folk who live and work in our rural communities will take stock over the festive period and no doubt reflect what 2016 will hold for them and their families.

This will include many thousands of people whose livelihoods are linked to rural estates.

The last economic survey of a cross section of Scottish Land and Estates members revealed more than 8,000 people being employed directly and the estates generating £300 million of expenditure.

Estates are rightly proud of the contribution they make and are instrumental in helping it happen – whether that be providing affordable housing, enabling local business development, generating green energy or providing tourism and leisure facilities.

In fairness, the general public visit Scottish estates in their thousands and enjoy the facilities they provide. Local businesses like doing business with estates. Sadly there is another side to the story.

The land reform agenda has developed in such a way over the past few years that estate owners, who see themselves as rural business men and women, feel that, for many, the more the land reform debate has overheated, the more it becomes primarily a ‘bash the lairds’ exercise.

After a two-year long land reform review process, the latest Land Reform Bill is ploughing its way through the Scottish Parliament and will deliver legislation that has far reaching consequences. However, the Scottish Parliament has come under increasing pressure to make the Bill even more “radical”.

Landowners understand the politics of the radicals. There are many people who do not like the idea of someone owning large swathes of land and will never be satisfied until estates are broken up.

To be clear, I am in favour of land reform that will deliver real benefit to Scotland. I support community ownership and believe that it can - and does – deliver benefits, as does private ownership.

However, I am deeply concerned about the direction of travel the Land Reform Bill is now taking. Politicians, quite understandably, hear all too clearly the siren calls for more radicalism but when complex legislation begins to get driven by ideology all of us need to think carefully what the outcome is going to be.

For example, we have raised concerns about the lack of clarity and detail in the provisions that would give Scottish Government Ministers the right to enforce the sale of land and are alarmed by suggestions that the thresholds for the enforced sale of land could be too high. Enforced sale of someone’s property should be an absolute last resort in any society.

Similarly, the extension of rights for tenant farmers sounds good to most people and in some areas of tenancy legislation this is justified. However, if measures such as a right to buy continue to be advocated the likely outcome is that the amount of land available to the next generation tenant farmers will be less not more. Estates are not the enemy and many thousands of people who work with us know we hold dear the shared vision of making rural Scotland a better place. Just think what could be achieved if everyone put all their energies into working together.

• David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates