Lesley Riddoch: This time land reform must succeed

The 17 community buyouts in Scotland, including Gigha, have made big improvements to local lives. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
The 17 community buyouts in Scotland, including Gigha, have made big improvements to local lives. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
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Half of this country is owned by fewer than 500 people, a matter that should stir every Scot into action, writes Lesley Riddoch

Has land reform come out of the closet? In recent days, Scotland’s bizarre system of large privately owned sporting estates has been the subject of an Observer editorial: “Reform of land ownership is long overdue”; a Guardian article: “Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership in the west – why?” and a Scottish Field feature: “The case for land reform.”

Admittedly, the “anti” case will be put in the next edition. But unlikely people are being stirred afresh by the fact that half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people – the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world. Even the defensive response by landowners recently published in this paper shows something is up.

Something is. The case for exposing large sporting estates and landholdings to normal taxation was submitted to the Scottish affairs committee at Westminster last month. If estates were made to pay business rates, the public purse would benefit. If Scottish law gave all children a mandatory share of land as well as property, enormous landholdings would be broken up as they have been across Europe since the Napoleonic Code two centuries back. If tenant farmers received the right to buy land, thousands of hardworking locals would get a stake in Scotland – not a conditional, temporary share.

But are Conservatives likely to bite the landowning hand that has traditionally fed and nurtured them? Will the Scottish Government lift its eyes from the referendum prize to tackle this thorny problem? Since the Scottish Land Reform Review Group’s disappointing interim report, few have been holding their breath. But the hostile response – former Labour minister Brian Wilson described it as “the most useless 52 pages ever committed to print” – could mean a head of steam is finally gathering.

And yet it has gathered many times before. The land reform legislation passed by the first Scottish Parliament gave the impression of sealing the deal. It didn’t.

Land rarely comes on the market, but passes straight from landowning father to son. The 17 community buyouts have made incredible improvements to local lives. But a decade after legislation, fewer than one in ten communities that registered a desire to buy land actually managed to do so, and only 142 communities out of tens of thousands even tried.

Not every community wants to undertake such a demanding, joint endeavour. After all, in more equitable countries, the concept of a community buyout is as unheard of as it is superfluous. In Norway, ultra-local councils and tens of thousands of individual Norwegians have owned small plots of land for centuries. In Finland, the cooperatives which produce the world’s newsprint are composed of tens of thousands of small-scale forest/farmers – all landowners. In Denmark and Sweden laws require landowners to have farming knowledge. This is normal. Scotland is not.

Indeed, the country of “Jock Tamson’s bairns” has turned inequality into a general and unremarkable fact of life – land is only the most obviously hogged asset. Elites also run “local” democracy – what else would you call the product of local elections with turnouts lower than anywhere else in Europe except England and the lowest proportion of people opting to stand as candidates?

Elitism and inequality bite even deeper than that. 2011 Scottish Government statistics show that folk who live in Scotland’s 10 per cent poorest neighbourhoods are five times more likely to experience crime and twice as likely to have health problems resulting in emergency hospital admission. Their kids will score less than half the combined academic marks of their peers in the 10 per cent wealthiest neighbourhoods.

Can there really be a connection between unavailable land, inequality, poor health, the behaviour of Scots and even stagnation in our constitutional debate?

I think there is. I’ve just written Blossom – What Scotland Needs to Flourish to describe it. If you will forgive me for quoting from my own work, this is part of what I say: “If Scots can’t see the link between land scarcity, housing costs, poor health, disempowerment and economic under-performance, land reform will go no further. No matter what the latest Land Reform Review Panel recommends. Change will only come when people can visualise things being otherwise.

“It’s a terrible irony. Our foremothers and fathers were so dependent on land that they named, fenced, drained, coaxed, seaweed-fertilised and wanted it, agitated for it, joined British armies through the false promise of maybe having it, and finally left Scotland altogether over the enduring want of it.

“All that pain, hope, love and sorrow – over land. Such emotional attachment is incomprehensible, even mildly embarrassing to those from a world in which land has become a mere commodity. It’s the stuff beneath things that really matter – objects you can move, sell, watch, eat, or wear.

“Land is thought valuable these days only because of what’s built on it. Not because of what can grow in it, or who has security to live on it, or how communities can harness the resources of it, or what ideas and whose dreams can be made tangible upon it.

“Most Scots agree the Clearances were destructive but are left wondering if it actually matters these days. We ask ourselves what else could be done with the vast, empty, desolate acres that make up most of Scotland? We ask if squabbling locals could find the cash and sense of purpose to run remote areas as the lairds did for centuries.

“We believe that few ordinary Scots really want the responsibility and hassle that ownership brings. We whisper to ourselves the doubting, self-limiting language of our excluded mind-set. And because of all these thoughts, we doubt deep down that land ownership makes that much of a difference.

The thing is, it really does.”

People can’t imagine what they’ve never experienced. And most Scots have never experienced owning land. We literally don’t know what we’re missing. We don’t know how living without any expectation of local, democratic control over this basic, natural resource has eaten into our self-confidence. We don’t know how acceptance of massively unequal land ownership has placed a template for inequality at the heart of Scottish public life and a deadening weight on people and their aspirations.

A modern democracy – devolved or independent – cannot carry this burden. Land reform cannot remain the preserve of lawyers, academics and campaigners for one reason. This time around change must succeed.

• Blossom – What Scotland Needs to Flourish, by Lesley Riddoch, is published by Luath £11.99 on 9 September