Lesley Riddoch: Jackpot for Scottish land reform

Picture: Toby Williams
Picture: Toby Williams
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Euromillions winners could change the lives and rights of Scots living in caravans and huts, writes Lesley Riddoch

Two people could start a mini-revolution in Scotland today – and they aren’t Alex Salmond or David Cameron.

Rumours of “Dave’s Deal” reached a frenzy over the weekend – votes for 16- and 17-year-olds in exchange for just one question on the referendum ballot paper.

Sounds like a win-win for nationalists and unionists – if not for the 37 per cent of Scots backing devo-max who must vote no or boycott the vote. Lumping opponents of independence together with supporters of quasi-federal levels of tax-raising powers may be a profoundly undemocratic act. But that won’t derail the single question bandwagon. Alex can easily rebuff Dave and his unpopular Tory government, but not “two question” opponents within his own increasingly fractious party or naysayers with the sceptical mainstream media.

A single question is (sadly) a foregone conclusion. But that won’t stop the issue sucking oxygen from wider political debate for the next few weeks/months/years.

So for the tens of thousands of Scots struggling with the problems Scottish democracy will neither tackle nor resolve – other solutions must be found. Strangely, one appeared last week through the purchase of a £2 Lucky Dip ticket.

Days after their £148 million Euromillions win, Adrian and Gillian Bayford were pictured at the Barry Downs Caravan Park near Carnoustie visiting her parents. One paper listed ten ways the Suffolk-based couple – now 516th on the Sunday Times rich-list – could spend money in the sleepy Angus coastal village, ranging from a night at the Bingo to a trip round the historic Barry Mill.

I’d like to add an 11th option: buy the caravan site.

The Bayfords could begin a new chapter in Scottish land reform history by purchasing the land at Barry Downs and handing it over to the hundreds of caravan and hut owners who live there. At a cash-funded stroke they could do what 13 years of Holyrood democracy has failed to do – resolve a situation which means owners of “temporary” homes are without legal rights and completely at the mercy of landowners.

The first modest, wooden huts were built on the sandy links at Barry Downs in Angus in 1936 just as the Broons first appeared in print complete with their “but ’n’ ben”. Falling land prices had prompted some farmers and landowners to diversify and soldiers returning from war to cities riddled with TB prompted a Europe-wide move towards camping and countryside cabins in search of peace, recuperation and clean air. By the 1940s more than a hundred wooden huts had been built by working class Dundonians with hundreds more around the cities, mines and mill towns of Scotland.

Like the more famous Carbeth Hutters, the folk at Barry Downs quietly enjoyed their weekend escapes without bother until a change of land ownership in 2005.

The new owner barred vehicle entrance to the site, cut off water supplies (which he later restored) and claimed the site breached health and safety rules. He raised annual rents to upgrade the site. The hutters paid, but the cheques were returned.

In 2007, the 45 hutters took legal action to prove tenancy rights – a crippling expense for low-paid workers ineligible for legal aid. By 2010 all had failed and their huts had been smashed up and vandalised. No-one has been charged regarding the damage.

The MSP for Angus said he couldn’t help because the hutters were not his constituents. MSPs where the hutters had “first homes” said they couldn’t help because the huts lay beyond their constituencies.

It was the same story at Rascarrel in Kirkcudbrightshire where hutters dismantled and burned down their own huts after a seven-fold rent increase. Hutters there tried unsuccessfully to use the 1979 Land Regulation (Scotland) Act to claim tenancy rights – but it failed because huts and caravans are not recognised by planning law and “temporary” second homes are excluded from protection against sudden rent rises and arbitrary rule changes leading to eviction.

In the end destroying huts that had stood since the war and thus restoring the land to a greenfield site was the only way to block the landowner’s plans for luxury cottages by requiring a change of use application to the local council which was subsequently turned down.

Now the Carbeth Hutters north of Glasgow are buying their way out of trouble after a 13-year-long dispute over land rights during which they vainly appealed to the Scottish Parliament for help. A community buyout will resolve their problem – if they can find £1.75 million.

Only in Scotland could ordinary law-abiding people have so little legal or democratic clout against landowners. And only in Scotland are there so few modest wooden huts for weekend escapes. In Norway there were 398,000 wood cabins (generally without water or electricity) in 2010. In Scotland (with a roughly similar population) there were just 600 wooden cabins in 1999.

So the Scottish countryside remains a day-trippers’ paradise for ordinary Scots – crushed into the four yards between road and lochside to fish and camp.

The result is a stay-at-home culture and an alienation from nature among urban Scots. Is it a coincidence we have the lowest rate of hut ownership in Europe and the highest rates of problem drinking? Do we seek chemical release because physical escape to nature is so hard?

Landowners call the shots in Scotland and owners of caravans, huts and cabins are in the weakest position of all. Five thousand people in 2007 – many seasonal workers and old people – now live permanently in caravans because they can’t afford permanent homes. The most concentrated pattern of land ownership anywhere in Europe is largely to blame for that – sky-high housing costs arise from sky-high land prices which arise from land scarcity which arises from 1,000 people owning 60 per cent of Scotland. How serious are we about tackling, not just toying, with these vestiges of feudalism?

A cross-party group on caravan parks has just been set up in the Scottish Parliament. In the meantime, Carnoustie-raised Gillian Bayford has the power to sever the Gordian knot and do what the Scottish Parliament apparently cannot – create housing security for hard-working Scots like her own parents.

Sometimes money doesn’t just talk – it can also go where Scottish politicians fear to tread.
• Lesley Riddoch appears with political talk nightly on the Fringe until 24 August