Brian Wilson: Half of Scotland is owned by just 500 lairds

I felt a blast from the past this week via an obituary for Sir Hereward Wake, who passed away at the decent age of 101. It may surprise you there was still a Hereward Wake in circulation, the moniker being more commonly associated with 1066 and all that.

The North Harris buyout has been transformational  building houses, creating jobs and supporting new businesses

Forty-odd years ago, in early West Highland Free Press days, I had the same reaction when Sir Hereward emerged as central figure in a drama which was manna from heaven for a radical newspaper that took a dim view of landlordism in general and its influence over local government in particular.

Sir Hereward had cut a deal with Lord Burton of Dochfour, chairman of Inverness County Council’s roads committee, to build a by-pass round Amhuinnsuidhe Castle in Harris at a cost of £80,000 – getting close to a million in today’s money. The public purse and Sir Hereward would split the bill. The single-track road in front of the Victorian pile was scarcely over-burdened with traffic and Sir Hereward only occasionally visited his vast Hebridean empire. Roads in Harris were primitive. The idea of spending public money on a by-pass, to protect Sir Hereward’s privacy, sparked outrage which I cheerfully encouraged.

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By fruitful coincidence, Sir Hereward and Burton had attended Eton together and were members of Brooks’ Club, considerations which inspired Derek Cooper to versify: “About this by-pass, Burton/ Here’s something for the kitty/ A handsome cheque for forty thou’ to help things through committee/ Floreat Etona, See you in Brooks’ old swell/ God helps those who help themselves – and help us jolly well.”

The North Harris buyout has been transformational  building houses, creating jobs and supporting new businesses

The by-pass was abandoned and Sir Hereward retreated to his Northamptonshire estates.

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New land body to reveal land owernship in Scotland

Fast forward to 2003, North Harris passed into community ownership and I was privileged to speak at the ceremony. This outcome, even a few years earlier, would have been unimaginable, I said. “North Harris, by virtue of its scale and history, was the epitome of private land ownership in the Hebrides, a fortress that would never crumble.”

Optimistically, I predicted that “the trickle of land reform is going to become a flood”. Alas, the flood has been delayed. Just 2.9 per cent of Scotland’s acreage is in community ownership and that has plateaued in recent years. The Scottish Land Fund is spending a fraction of its advertised £10 million budget, mainly on small, worthy projects that have little to do with land reform. The mechanisms do not exist for big ones to emerge.

The North Harris buyout has been transformational  building houses, creating jobs and supporting new businesses

Like all community buy-outs, North Harris has been transformational – building houses, creating jobs, supporting new businesses and generally doing things private landlordism has no interest in – because people acquire these estates for privacy, sport and status, which are all the wrong reasons.

To digress slightly, it is worth recalling what happened to local government soon after the Amuinnsuidhe affair. In one of the great counter-intuitive episodes in post-war Scottish politics, the power of landlords – who dominated local government throughout rural Scotland – was abruptly wiped out by a Tory government.

The 1973 Local Government Act created regional authorities which, among many virtues, transformed how huge swathes of rural Scotland were run. My native Argyll, for example, became part of Strathclyde, to the immense benefit of public services and of council employees who had hitherto been treated like feudal serfs.

The Western Isles became a single-tier authority, instead of being ruled as divided outposts of kingdoms based in Dingwall and (much worse) Inverness by kilted lairds whom Compton Mackenzie immortalized as the “Monarchs of the Glens”. This was by far the most beneficial constitutional change to affect rural Scotland in my lifetime.

Almost all community buy-outs so far have depended upon a willing seller and a community, supported by public funds, being prepared to take control of its own destiny. Most of the big buy-outs involved crofting estates where the constraints of crofting tenure reduced the asking price. Hugely important though these have been, they were the low-hanging fruit of land reform.

Scotland still has the most concentrated pattern of ownership in Europe with 500 individuals or entities owning more than half the country. In most respects, nothing has changed. Anyone with money – however acquired – can buy great tracts of land, do as little as they please and be accountable to nobody. Until that ends, significant land reform will remain a mirage.

The Land Reform Act of 2013 included powers which would allow communities to buy land against the owner’s wishes where it is demonstrably misused or under-used. However, the secondary legislation to implement this section of the Act has not been pursued, so it remains in cold storage.

Valuation is a big issue to be addressed. I find it preposterous, for example, that £4.6m is being quoted as the value of Ulva, a small island inhabited by six people. No land fund will go very far on that basis. Fair compensation based on agricultural value is very different from the fantasies of a market driven by sheikhs, oligarchs and tax avoiders.

The relatively simple things should be done first. Any country which wishes to break up the concentration of land ownership starts by giving tenant farmers the right to buy. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. But there is no good argument against the law allowing them to, without caveat.

Also, land value tax is an old idea whose time has come. It would create a disincentive to ownership for its own sake and help get rid of business rates, for which the current base is grossly inadequate. It went largely unnoticed last week that of the £164m to be raised from increased taxation in the Scottish budget, £100m was ear-marked for business rate rebates.

On all these matters, powers reside firmly with Holyrood. But is it capable of the kind of past radicalism which has driven community ownership or even of a Tory government which changed the face of local government?

A last word on Sir Hereward. Fairness obliges me to point out that he was also a war hero who won the Military Cross and French Legion d’Honneur. Harris was only a hobby. A happy Christmas to all.