Land reform in Scotland: What do ownership patterns say about our identity?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 5 June 2015 in Feature

Land reform event report: Scotland's identity can appear rooted it its natural landscape, so what does reform mean?

Scotland’s identity often appears rooted in its natural landscape and it was perhaps inevitable, in the aftermath of the referendum and a noisy conversation over what the nation is, and what it wants to be, that land reform should raise its head.

If land is key to Scotland’s identity, questions over who owns it, and who it exists to serve, have become central to its politics.

The headline numbers are now well known. 432 people own half of Scotland’s private land, while 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of Scotland’s rural land. In terms of distribution of ownership, Scotland is one of the most unequal countries in the world.


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The land reform agenda is moving on and, with the draft legislation expected in the coming weeks, the debate has reached a critical stage.

The government consultation showed a clear appetite for change.

Speaking at Holyrood’s Land Reform conference, SNP MSP Rob Gibson said: “There are three things that people raised in the consultation. One was ensuring transparency of ownership of land. The second was greater diversification of ownership. The third was establishing a support system of taxation.

“We need to use our land better and part of that will be, first of all, finding out who owns it. If I said that private trusts are reckoned, in property and land, to be worth £500bn in Scotland, according to the Scots Law Commission, we have to think of that as a source of income that may not be fully tapped at the moment. It is actually a heck of an amount of money that could be raked in if there was a proper taxation system.

“But the diversification of ownership is fundamental to the issue. In making that land more accessible to communities and individuals it has got to be based, not on expropriation, not confiscation, but the kinds of ideas which include good ownership practices and indeed looking at the kinds of things that local people require but are denied because they don’t have the ownership.

“It is about looking at the way that the country we live in is cut off from most people. If we are successful then in ten years there won’t be 2,000 members of Scottish Land & Estates, there will be 20,000.”

In this sense, both the SNP and Labour view land reform as a means of achieving wider change.

As Labour MSP Sarah Boyack puts it: “It is about the overarching policy objective, asking, what are we trying to do here?

"For me, it is about making a Scotland that is fairer, more socially just, where we can create economic opportunity and where people growing up, regardless of where in the country they live, have a future. That is the context in which land reform, and land use, needs to be considered.”

She added: “The Land Reform Bill needs to be about both urban and rural communities, and we need to learn the lessons of the first Land Reform Act – look at the communities where there have been successes, look at the obstacles, look at the learning experiences of those who own land.

“For many communities, without that initial cash to explore the opportunity, many of the communities that bought their land wouldn’t have been able to do that. So it will be about getting the law right, making sure we have the right policy objectives, and having a broad approach to land and how it is used.”

On this, there is broad agreement. Everyone involved in the debate has an interest in effective land management, the question is what effect ownership has.

Allan Bowie, president of the National Farmers Union Scotland, argued that as far as farmers are concerned, the key aspect is not who owns the land, but how they manage it.

Murdo Fraser agreed with this, pointing to the land use strategy for Scotland, arguing it should underpin the whole debate.

“What is our land for? Is it about food production and food security? Is it about climate change? Is it about tourism? Is it about energy? Before we can decide how to approach the land reform issue, we need to be absolutely clear that we agree what our land use approach should be.”

He said: “I think that if you read the consultation responses, those that live closest to the land, those that derive their income from the land, are the most concerned. Some of what is proposed is perfectly sensible.

"Proposals to improve transparency of ownership, particularly if it helps reduce tax evasion, seems sensible. Others require better definition, such as the ministerial power for intervention, where I believe the devil will be in the detail. Others we would regard as fundamentally damaging.

“The proposal to reintroduce business rates on sporting interests I think is potentially very damaging to jobs, and the potential changes to succession law could have a devastating impact on family based agriculture in Scotland.”

Clearly, though, not everyone agrees. Responding to Fraser, campaigner Andy Wightman argued: “I have never argued that it is ownership rather than use that matters. Both matter, because both are intimately connected. I have looked at two land holdings that changed hands in the last year, and the land use in those holdings is fundamentally changing due to the attitudes and motivations of the new owners. So how anyone can say that ownership is unimportant escapes me.” 

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