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19 April 2014
Turf war

Turf war

Scotland’s second biggest land owner, a Danish man called Anders Holch Povlsen, pays no tax on his estate to the UK Exchequer. Given that there is no land tax in Britain, unlike most of Europe, this is not at all unusual.

The strange part is that Danish local authorities do have the power to tax land owned by Danish citizens – and not just in Denmark, but anywhere. This means that Povlsen, along with a few other Danes with land in Scotland, doesn’t pay the UK Government, Scottish Government or local authorities a penny on his land – while making a fairly substantial contribution to Danish public finances.

The case is just one example that activists point to in demanding land reform. With over half of its private land owned by just 432 people, and ten per cent owned by 16 individuals or groups, Scotland has one of the most unequal patterns of land ownership in Europe.

To Dr Jim Hunter, historian and land reform expert, Scotland’s concentration of land ownership is unique.

He says: “There’s nothing like that anywhere else in Europe, and the reason for that is based in history. If you go back a couple hundred years, the pattern of land ownership was very similar, it would have been roughly the same concentration across Europe – the difference is that other European countries have at various times in the last hundred years had sweeping land reforms, which has changed the pattern completely, sometimes in the shape of revolution, sometimes through legal or constitutional reform. In Denmark, for example, land ownership was reformed over 200 years ago before they had democracy – the monarchy decided to take land ownership away from the aristocracy and give it to its tenants, in an owner-occupier system.

He continues: “Land reform in Europe has almost always meant shifting ownership from the landowners – in Scotland, historically, aristocrats – to their tenants, though in Scotland the move has been more towards community ownership, which is quite different. The idea of reforming land ownership was started by the Tory government, then pushed on by the Labour-Lib Dem administration in Scotland, but interestingly, since the SNP took power, the steam has gone out of the reform. In fact up to now they’ve done nothing at all.”

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act, passed in 2003, was meant to represent a sea change in land distribution – it provided for open access to land, gave rural communities the right to buy the land they lived on, and gave crofting communities the right to buy their land, whether the owner wanted to sell or not.

Landowners were outraged. Following the vote, Conservative MSP Bill Aitken said: "This Bill has nothing to do with land reform and everything to do with the other parties in this parliament being obsessed by replaying the class wars of 200 years ago. This type of legislation has no place in modern Scotland. It will have a dreadful effect not only on those living in rural areas, but on city-dwellers whose hard-earned tax will be used to pay for this Mugabe-style land grab."

But the legislation was made extremely complicated, and in practical terms, it achieved much less than campaigners had hoped for. Rural communities are now entitled to register an interest in a piece of land – anything from a whole estate to an acre or two – giving them a pre-emptive right to buy it if it appears on the market.

The problem though, as Hunter puts it, is “you could wait forever for that, a lot of land hasn’t been on the market in hundreds of years, so the change is not that radical.”

Section 3 of the Act almost offered the radical change that activists wanted – containing provisions for crofting communities to take land into community ownership, even if the landowner does not want to sell. However, the legislation is so surrounded by complexity that in practical terms, it is virtually inoperative. Hunter points to the example of a park estate on Lewis, where a community tried and failed to take ownership for ten years.

He says: “I think part of the reason that it is so complicated is that the ministers and civil servants had to ensure that the Act couldn’t be challenged under human rights intervention, under guarantees of property. There was a real worry that it would fall victim to a human rights challenge – which to anyone with an interest in the history of the Highland Clearances will appear slightly ironic.”

But despite the weaknesses, the 2003 Act did signal that land reform was on the agenda. With the exception of the Conservative members, every MSP voted in favour of it. The issue cannot just go away, as some vested interests hope.

The Land Reform Review Group is currently drafting its recommendations – expected in April – and following a widely criticised interim report – described as "the most useless 52 pages ever committed to print", by former energy minister Brian Wilson – it is under pressure to offer radical, wide-reaching recommendations.

Last year Johann Lamont used her conference speech to advocate giving communities the powers to purchase land, even if a landowner is not willing to sell, as long as it is in the public interest. If landowners took the 2003 legislation badly, what will they make of Labour’s plans?

Labour’s Environment spokesperson, Claire Baker, said: “It’s about making the system fairer and giving communities more opportunities. The land reform debate can be a difficult discussion in Scotland but you have to look at landownership patterns, which entrench inequality, and look at where public money is spent because a lot of big landowners benefit from public input, and you have to make sure that money is being used in the public interest.

“Landowners are nervous about the debate but I don’t think they need to be. With the proposals we are bringing forward – if someone lives in a place and they feel the landowner is a good landlord, who is working with the community and helping it develop, then there won’t be demand for a change in ownership, so we don’t think it will affect them. There would have to be a public interest test, but models already exist to do that, so we think it would make the process simpler for communities, help empower them and help them see it as a viable option, for them to go for land ownership – and that’s something supported by Community Land Scotland.”

But what about the human rights implications that complicated the original legislation?  Baker is confident that, providing the sale was deemed in the public interest, human rights would not be an issue. Interestingly, Rob Gibson, the SNP chair of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, agrees with her, at least in theory.

He said: “What Claire Baker is saying is something that hasn’t been put forward before, and the important thing is that it will need to have a good consensus of opinion across parties to be acceptable in terms of human rights law, because if you interfere with people’s ownership, you have got to have very good reason to say why it’s in the public interest. It’s easy to say you have a policy to buy land where there isn’t a willing seller but it’s much more detailed information that we require to be able to do it. It’s a nice headline, a nice gambit, but actually, we need to be able to work these things out in government, and there was no sense of that being worked out by the Labour-Liberal Executive when they were in government.”

He continues: “An absolute right-to-buy, where there isn’t a willing seller, is only available to crofting communities at the moment – that would need extended to all sorts of other bodies. Exactly who, and how they are constituted is part of the programming that needs worked out.”

The area of divergence between Labour and the SNP seems to be based more on practicalities than principles, with both parties supporting major change. But the debate is not a mainstream one, and could benefit from greater public engagement.

Gibson says: “Land reform has not been a directly urban issue, despite Jack McConnell saying that we should be able to apply land reform rules to towns. That would be a way of encouraging communities to own their own assets. There could be a lot more in the east end of Glasgow, in working-class areas of Edinburgh, that could actually benefit people hugely so I want to see what the land reform groups say about urban assets – but we know the Community Empowerment Bill wants to try and make that more possible.

“People are interested – land reform is an iconic issue in Scotland, very much tied up in the years before devolution, with the concept of Scotland the nation unfree. We are the owners and to me, that is a fundamental thing that could give people in towns a stake in something which they have been removed from for generations, and the idea that it is an asset in their hands.”

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