Land Reform after the Scottish Parliament Election

The SNP’s election victory on May 6th ushered in a new session of the Scottish Parliament likely to be dominated by Covid recovery, climate change and the constitution.  That much is clear from the portfolios allocated by Nicola Sturgeon last week to her new, slimmed down Cabinet of 10 Ministers compared to the 12 of her previous administration.  Deputy First Minister John Swinney is now Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery.  Michael Matheson now has Net Zero and Energy alongside Transport in his brief and Angus Robertson is Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture. 

On first inspection little appears to have changed in Parliamentary terms. The SNP remain tantalisingly (from their perspective) short of majority government with 64 seats.  Of the opposition parties, only the Greens have increased their tally, adding 2 seats to the 6 they held at the beginning of the last Parliament.  The Conservatives have 31 seats, the same as their total in the previous Parliament. Labour are down from 24 seats to 22 and the Liberal Democrats lost a seat, leaving them with 4.  

None of that makes much difference regarding the constitutional question where the dividing line between the pro-independence SNP and Greens and Union-supporting Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats remains as stark as ever.   In contrast, Scotland’s perennial ‘land question’ offers scope for both cross-party consensus and significant legislative action in the new Parliament in ways that apparently defy the constitutional impasse. 

That isn’t altogether surprising.   Land reform – defined as changes to land ownership and use in the public interest – has featured as a distinctive and emblematic policy area for the Parliament since devolution in 1999.  MSPs passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which introduced the community and crofting community rights to buy during the first Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition Government.  That administration also established the Scottish Land Fund in 2001 with an annual budget of £3 million to help rural communities buy land for themselves to own.    

Further land reform legislation was passed during the Parliament’s fourth session between 2011 and 2016 under an SNP Government.  The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 introduced the community right to buy abandoned, neglected or detrimental land and a community asset transfer scheme to enable communities to take control of land and built assets from public authorities.  Following that, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 introduced a Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement, a community right to buy to further sustainable development, and established the Scottish Land Commission to cement land reform’s place on the public policy agenda.  The SNP Government also increased the Scottish Land Fund’s annual budget to £10 million in 2014.

Various commitments in the parties’ manifestos indicate that the new Parliamentary session will include a further legislative phase of the land reform agenda.  The SNP’s election manifesto states, “We will improve Scotland’s system of land ownership, use, rights and responsibilities, so that our land can contribute to a fair and just society while balancing public and private interests.  We will bring forward a new Land Reform Bill.  It will ensure that the public interest is considered on any particularly large scale ownership and introduce a pre-emption in favour of community buy-out where title to land is transferred”.  

Similar commitments to a Land Reform Bill to control land monopolies in the public interest are contained in both the Greens’ and Labour’s respective manifestos.  The Greens also call for land held by Scottish Ministers, public bodies, the Ministry of Defence, the Crown and large charities to be subject to a public interest test and “greater public oversight”.  Their manifesto also includes a proposal that significant landholdings should be required to produce a transparent land management plan and be subject to a public interest test.  Additionally, the Greens propose to introduce restrictions on overseas ownership of land, as well as regulating the sale of land of national or local significance. 

There is also cross-party consensus on other land reform measures.  The SNP Government have committed to doubling the annual budget of the Scottish Land Fund to £20 million by the end of the current Parliament. The Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats also committed to increasing the Fund in their manifestos.   Both the SNP and the Greens have manifesto commitments to review the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and to introduce Compulsory Sale Orders to support public interest-led development.   

Against that background, the key issue is how far and how fast the next stage of Scotland’s land reform journey will advance during the new Parliamentary session.   That will largely but not exclusively depend on how well disposed the SNP Government is to early and transformative legislation to ensure that Scotland’s land is owned and used in the public interest and for the common good.  

Several interlinked factors come into play in that regard.  Both Cabinet Secretary Michael Matheson and the new Land Reform Minister, Màiri McAllan, will be aware of the strong public support for diversifying Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of land ownership.  Recently published Scottish Government research on public attitudes to land reform found that 71 per cent of survey respondents support widening ownership of both rural and urban land to include more public, community and third sector ownership, with only seven per cent of respondents opposing that aim.     

They and Mairi Gougeon, the new Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, will be similarly aware of the damaging effects of monopoly land ownership on the sustainability of rural communities.  These effects were documented in the Scottish Land Commission’s 2019 report on large scale and concentrated rural land ownership which highlighted fear of “going against the landowner” expressed by some research respondents.  The report noted that such fear was “rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.

The importance of land reform to achieving a fair transition to a net zero carbon economy will not have escaped the Government either.  Not least because the Just Transition Commission highlighted that very point in its recent report on how to reach net zero by 2045.  The Government has committed to implementing all of the recommendations contained in the Just Transition Commission’s report, including that of developing a statutory public interest test for any changes in land ownership above a certain threshold. 

Supportive public attitudes to the principles of land reform, together with the importance of diversifying land ownership and use to secure both rural sustainability and climate justice therefore make a compelling case for a Land Reform Bill being passed early in the new Parliament.   

The SNP’s status as a minority Government adds a further dynamic to the future prospects for land reform.  Particularly if the Greens decide to factor their various land reform manifesto commitments into negotiations with the Government as regards the basis on which they will support the latter’s legislative and wider policy programme.     

Inevitably the Scottish Government and MSPs of a progressive disposition will face strong pushback from the landed elite and their allies against any land reform legislation they perceive as threatening to their interests. They are likely to portray the introduction of a public interest test, in particular, as unfairly undermining their often long held and extensive private property rights and discouraging ‘investment’ into the rural economy.

These are difficult arguments to sustain in the face of an unregulated land market in which large tracts of increasingly lucrative land can be bought and sold as trophy purchases without any consideration of the wider public interest implications of such transactions. Even more so, given the levels of scrutiny experienced by communities seeking to use the various Community Rights to Buy contained in current land reform legislation to help safeguard their own futures. 

Far from undermining the prospects for land-based investment, a carefully designed public interest test on large scale and/or concentrated land purchases can balance community, public and private interests in support of a sustainable rural economy.  The challenge for both Government and Parliament is to ensure that such a test, alongside other land reform policy measures to which they have committed, are put in place at the earliest opportunity to help enable Scotland’s rural communities to thrive.    

‘Green Lairds’, Communities and the Climate Emergency

Last week the Scottish Government-appointed Just Transition Commission published its final report on how to ensure that Scotland’s goal of creating a net zero carbon emissions economy by 2045 is achieved fairly.   That issue of fairness matters because an uncoordinated and unregulated free for all in the race towards ‘net zero’ risks deepening and widening existing inequalities in Scottish society by producing very clear winners and losers.

Nothing illustrates that paradox more starkly that the vital role of land in addressing the existential threat of climate change.  The Commission’s report is clear that more will be demanded of Scotland’s land as part of a huge investment programme to restore peatlands, plant many more trees and manage woodlands as an integral part of the drive towards net zero.  

The report is equally clear that Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of rural landownership presents a challenge to ensuring the benefits of such investment are distributed fairly.  It states that “part of ensuring a just transition must be about making sure the benefits of investment in carbon sequestration are felt as widely as possible. Without careful design and meaningful engagement there is a risk that benefits may flow mainly to large landowners and opportunities for community benefit will be missed.” 

Amongst the many recommendations in its report, the Just Transition Commission calls on the Scottish Government to develop a statutory public interest test for any changes in land ownership above a certain threshold.   That proposal echoes a similar recommendation to Government made recently by the Scottish Land Commission following its own report highlighting the corrosive effects of concentrated land ownership in rural Scotland.  

Anybody who thinks this is much ado about nothing clearly hasn’t been paying enough attention to the rapidly evolving market in Scottish rural estates; a market described with masterful understatement in a recent article in The Scottish Farmer as “rarefied”.  The article notes that only 23 rural estates changed hands in 2020.  Worryingly, for anyone interested in land ownership transparency (which is most of the Scottish public, according to recent Scottish Government research) around half of these estates were sold privately without surfacing onto the open market.  The same article notes that the total value of Scottish estates sold last year increased by 43% to £100 million.   

Through the centuries the Highlands and Islands have seldom been strangers to those eager to sample the rarefied air of estate ownership, often historically funded by morally reprehensible sources of capital. The links between planation slavery and landownership in the region recently highlighted in research by the academics, Dr Iain MacKinnon and Dr Andrew Mackillop, being a case in point.

These traditional ‘trophy estate’ hunters haven’t gone away.  Why would they when private estate sales are unregulated and huge tracts of land can be bought with no questions asked, as long as the price is right?  What has changed is the expansion of the rural estates market to incorporate aspiring ‘Green Lairds’ of various stripes intent on capitalising on investment opportunities presented by the climate emergency.   

According to Evelyn Channing, Head of Rural Agency for Scotland, at Savills, “The ESG agenda (environmental, social and corporate governance) is bringing buyers forward of all shapes and sizes, from small Scottish businesses to large charities and investment companies. As a result, the forestry and planting land market is booming: several new funds in the market have been competing aggressively alongside larger, more established investors from all over Europe and beyond. Other buyers are looking to offset carbon emissions produced elsewhere, by purchasing natural capital.”

This is all great news if you happen to own an estate that you’re keen to off-load.  And proponents of a ‘glass half full’ approach to life might optimistically conclude that at least some of the new players in the green land grab are motivated by the best of environmental intentions and an altruistic perspective on the fate of our shared planet.    

But you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that any consideration of communities’ role  on the new elite frontier of land and the climate emergency seems conspicuous largely by its absence.   Neither does the continuing existence of an unregulated rural estates market with sharply escalating land values chime with the concept of a just transition to a net zero carbon economy.  It’s equally unclear as to where the idea of retaining wealth within communities for their benefit sits with these new market dynamics. 

Increasing community control of land and other assets is essential if we are serious about achieving a just transition whereby the benefits of natural capital are distributed fairly in addressing climate change.    That much is clear from ‘Community Landowners and the Climate Emergency’, a research report by the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development (Inherit) produced for Community Land Scotland and also published last week.  

The report highlights the diverse range of climate action initiatives that rural and urban community landowners are implementing locally, often in partnership with others. They include managing ‘carbon sinks’ such as woodlands, peatlands and green spaces, generating renewable energy to address local electricity needs; improving household energy efficiency to reduce fuel poverty, promoting active travel and low emissions transport, and promoting local food growing and access to healthy and affordable local produce.   This is climate action from the ground up, delivering tangible benefits for the communities themselves and for the wider public as a whole.

In calling for “a national mission for a fairer, greener Scotland” the Just Transition Commission is right to assert that “the imperative of a just transition is that Governments design policies in a way that ensures the benefits of climate change action are shared widely”.   We know that the relationship between Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of rural land ownership and an unregulated estates market is both socially dysfunctional and a structural barrier to delivering on that mission.  Scotland’s political parties know it too.  As the Scottish Parliament Election edges ever closer, the key question is what they propose to do about it.  

Public attitudes to land reform in Scotland

Last week the Scottish Government published research on public attitudes to land reform in Scotland.  The research matters because land reform’s detractors – usually those with the most landed power, and therefore the most to lose – have long tried to put the brakes on the process by arguing that the public cares not a jot for who owns Scotland’s land and how it is used. 

The new research report shows that they could not be more wrong. Its findings, culled from a representative sample of 1,501 members of the Scottish public and a series of 9 workshops and 12 individual interviews, are illuminating.  They show that when considering  ‘land in Scotland’, participants tended to first think of rural land that had not been built on.  From an urban perspective that translates as land being ‘out there’, away from where most people live.  Survey respondents viewed climate change (24%), building on greenspace (18%), and inequality in landownership (17%) as the three biggest challenges for the future of Scotland’s land. Challenges identified by workshop participants and interviewees included concentrated land ownership, absentee landlords, housing developments encroaching on the greenbelt, derelict land, land banking and access rights disputes.    

The research shows that there is widespread public support for diversifying Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of land ownership, a longstanding cornerstone of land reform policy.  71% of survey respondents supported widening ownership of both rural and urban land to include more public, community and third sector ownership, while only 7% opposed that aim.  Other research participants also highlighted the importance of diversifying ownership for reasons of fairness, good stewardship and innovation so as to generate collective benefits.  As the report notes, “Participants felt concentration of ownership was at the expense of the majority of people benefiting from the land, and that it had implications for access to and use of the land, as well as ownership”.  However, not all participants made a link between land ownership and use.   

Other longstanding land reform issues of concern also resonated with the public. 73% of survey respondents did not think there is enough information on transparency of land ownership in Scotland.  44% of respondents were concerned about derelict or vacant land in their own areas, and there was support for tightening regulations to ensure that land does not remain derelict.   Respondents were also strongly supportive of current access rights but thought that there should be more education and clarity about the respective responsibilities of the public and landowners, and on how to settle disputes. 

Very few survey respondents (13%) stated that they had previously been involved in decision-making around land use.  People in the most deprived areas of Scotland were half as likely as others to have been involved, although they were just as interested in being involved in the future.  The findings show considerable public appetite for engaging more in land use decisions. Around two thirds of survey respondents indicated they would be interested in doing so.  The report states that main barrier to that is lack of public awareness of possible engagement routes.   

Crucially, lack of public awareness of what ‘land reform’ means in practice, and of what the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda involves, also featured as key findings from the research.  73% of survey respondents said they knew ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about the Government’s plans for land reform.  However, the report states that “when presented with an overview of the Scottish Government’s aims for land reform and the main elements of the 2003 and 2016 Land Reform (Scotland) Acts, participants were, overall, very supportive of the aims”.   Some research participants were surprised that the legislation had been so recently passed. There was also a lack of public awareness that the Community Right to Buy legislation had been extended to cover urban as well as rural areas.   As the research also makes clear, much of the support for the land reform agenda was grounded in “its potential to achieve wider social aims such as equality and fairness”.  

It’s evident from the research findings that the Scottish public are highly supportive of land reform’s underlying aims even if their awareness of the terminology is somewhat fuzzy.  The public understand that concentrated land ownership can prevent communities from improving and sustaining the places where they live.  They are clear on the need for more transparent information on who owns Scotland.  And they are motivated to engage more fully in land-use decisions if given opportunities to do so in genuinely meaningful ways.    

These findings therefore leave the next Scottish Government and Parliament with several  linked challenges to address if the Scottish public are to get the policy answers to the ‘land question’ they deserve. 

Most fundamentally, there is a need to ensure that the land reform process, defined as changes to the ownership and use of land in the public interest, increases both its momentum and policy reach in the next Parliament.  That means applying appropriate legislative and fiscal policy tools to diversify Scotland’s concentrated pattern of landownership to better serve the public interest.  It also means providing communities with the advice, financial investment and other support to enable them to make the places where they live more sustainable through community ownership and other forms of community-led development linked to land use. 

A second challenge is to demystify the idea of ‘land reform’, thereby making it more relatable to the public in ways that demonstrate the central importance of land in shaping the wellbeing of our rural and urban communities.   Closely related to that, relevant Scottish Government departments should also be encouraged by Scottish Ministers to embrace land reform as a cross-cutting theme of relevance to their portfolios.  

The third challenge is to provide communities with the tools and routes to engage in land use decision-making that ensures their voices are listened to and accommodated in determining particular land uses.  Properly resourcing and connecting community-led Local Place Plans to the wider Planning System is one obvious way to do that.  Having communities as equal partners in the Scottish Government’s recently announced pilot Regional Land Use Partnerships is another.     

No-one should be under any illusion that these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions. Moreover, they require considerable political will and imagination in order to be properly addressed.   Fortunately, we are fast approaching a juncture where such qualities can be held up to the light of democratic scrutiny and choice.   In just a few weeks’ time the Scottish public will go to the polls to elect their next Parliament. The extent to which land reform features in each of the political parties’ manifestos will provide a clear signal as to the coherence and credibility of their respective visions for a greener, more prosperous and ultimately fairer Scotland. 

The Scottish Land Commission’s legislative proposals to regulate concentrated rural land ownership in Scotland.

Last week the Scottish Land Commission published a discussion paper titled ‘Legislative proposals to address the impact of Scotland’s concentration of land ownership’.  It builds on recommendations in the Commission’s March 2019 research report that surveyed peoples’ experience of living under conditions of large scale and concentrated land ownership.  That report made for grim reading, documenting fear of repercussions for “going against the landowner” expressed by some respondents.   

“This fear” the Commission asserted, “was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.  Pause for a moment to digest the fact that this is happening in Scotland.  In the 21st century. 

Little wonder therefore that the Commission’s 2019 report concluded that there is “an urgent need” for formal mechanisms to identify “harmful land monopolies” and to change either land ownership and/or management practice to “protect fragile rural communities from the irresponsible exercise of power”.

Fast forward two years and the Scottish Land Commission’s new discussion paper gives a clearer idea of what these formal mechanisms might look like.  It proposes that landholdings above a defined scale threshold be legally required to produce a land management plan incorporating community engagement.  The Commission also calls for statutory Land Rights and Responsibilities Reviews to address negative effects of concentrated land ownership power that are beyond “normal, responsible management approaches”.  Such reviews are envisaged as being underpinned by a range of enforcement powers including the disposal of land assets in the absence of compliance by the relevant landowner. 

One feature of Scotland’s distinctive rural land market is that anyone with deep enough pockets can buy as much land as they like without the batting of a regulatory eyelid.   The Commission’s third proposal is designed to address that anomaly by applying a Public Interest Test to the acquisition of “significant” landholdings on the basis of one of the following three criteria: being above a specified scale threshold (although it comes to no firm conclusion as to what that threshold should be); accounting for more than a specified minimum proportion of a Remote Rural Area (as defined in the Scottish Government’s Urban Rural Classification) or being an island; or having previously been subject of a statutory Land Rights and Responsibilities Review.  

Coincidently, on the same day last week that the Land Commission published its discussion paper, Parliament debated a motion tabled by Alasdair Allan, MSP for the Western Isles, commending a research report titled Plantation slavery and land ownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons’, written by Dr Iain MacKinnon of Coventry University and Dr Andrew Mackillop of the University of Glasgow and published by Community Land Scotland. 

The report reveals for the first time the close historical relationship between plantation slavery and land ownership in the region in eye-watering detail.  The authors calculate that 63 estates were bought by significant beneficiaries of ‘slavery-derived wealth’, between 1729 and 1939 with most of these acquisitions taking place between 1790 and 1855, the main period of the Highland Clearances.   The report also shows that estate purchases in the region peaked during the period immediately after establishment of a £20 million fund (more than £16 billion in today’s terms) by the British Government under the terms of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 to compensate slaveowners for the loss of their ‘property’ when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. MacKinnon and Mackillop show that estate purchasers who were direct beneficiaries of the compensation fund received £110,080,000 (in today’s terms) and that almost 1.2 million acres (over a third of the total area of the west Highlands and Islands) passed through the hands of people enriched by slavery.  

At first inspection there appears little to link the Scottish Land Commission’s present-day focus on injecting regulatory oversight into concentrated rural land ownership and the moral ambiguities of a bygone age.   Certainly, it would stretch credulity beyond breaking point to suggest that today’s landed elite bear any responsibility for the actions of their predecessors, however reprehensible the latter’s activities – and those of a British Government that compensated them – appear when viewed through the prism of modern-day society.  Similarly, and notwithstanding the abuses of landed power documented in the Commission’s 2019 report, it would be disingenuous to assert that there are no instances of individual private landowners making positive contributions to their local communities.     

However, that misses a deeper point. Scotland’s highly concentrated land ownership pattern is in essence a deep-seated and long-standing structural problem that – as the Land Commission’s 2019 report and new discussion paper both illustrate – produces negative monopoly effects that run contrary to the public interest.  And however unpalatable or inconvenient a truth it may be for some, Iain MacKinnon and Andrew MacKillop’s ground-breaking research shows how slavery-derived wealth helped the landed elite to shape and sustain the structure and associated power relations of concentrated land ownership in the west Highlands and Islands, together with a fetishising of so-called ‘wild’ landscapes, that exist to this day.   In these important respects apparently distant echoes from history have repercussions for the present.    

The Scottish Land Commission’s proposals for legislation to address concentrated land ownership will doubtless be portrayed as dangerously radical by those in whose interest it is to defend the status quo.  Stand by for the rickety old trope that ‘it’s land use rather than land ownership that matters’ to be dusted down and given another hollow airing.     But if the Commission’s proposals do seem radical it’s only because the nation’s highly abnormal pattern of concentrated rural land ownership and absence of public interest-led land market controls make Scotland such a conspicuous outlier by international comparison.   A new Land Reform Act after the May Parliamentary election with the Commission’s proposals at its centre would be a powerful signal that the next Scottish Government does not intend that to remain the case.      

Land Reform and the Economic Recovery

Tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday 2nd June) the Scottish Parliament will debate the next economic steps in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.  This week too, the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery will begin sifting through responses to its call for views on how to enable Scotland’s economy to recover swiftly from the crisis and emerge in a stronger and more resilient state.  It scarcely needs saying that this is an unnervingly uncertain time to be living through as we collectively try to assimilate the social and economic aftershocks of the pandemic and the bewilderingly rapid pace at which our sense of normality has been cut from underfoot.

Against that dislocating background, the case for positioning land reform as a cornerstone and accelerator of economic recovery becomes ever more compelling.  That’s because the issues of how land is owned and used and, crucially, who benefits from these arrangements, are central to determining Scotland’s progress towards becoming a greener, fairer and more sustainable society.

There’s nothing particularly new in that insight.  The overarching argument for contemporary land reform – dating from the 1990s onwards – is that there are deep-seated structural problems with the concentrated pattern of predominantly private land ownership  in Scotland that act as barriers to the sustainable development of the nation as a whole and local communities in particular. These structural problems essentially revolve around the monopoly possession and exercise of power (economic, political and social) as it relates to land as a factor of production. Specifically, who has power; how it is exercised; and in who’s interests it is exercised.

The fundamental relationship between land ownership and use was confirmed by the Scottish Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) in its influential 2014 report, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good, which provided much of the impetus for subsequent legislation and other policy initiatives on land reform in Scotland to date.  It asserted:

Ownership is the key determinant of how land is used, and the concentration of private ownership in rural Scotland can often stifle entrepreneurial ambition, local aspirations and the ability to address identified community need. The concentrated ownership of private land in rural communities places considerable power in the hands of relatively few individuals, which can in turn have a huge impact on the lives of local people and jars with the idea of Scotland being a modern democracy.”

More recently the Scottish Land Commission’s 2019 report on large scale and concentrated land ownership in Scotland connected land ownership, the related exercise of power and unsustainable development outcomes. It stated:

“There is no automatic link between large-scale land holdings and poor rural development outcomes but there is convincing evidence that highly-concentrated landownership can have a detrimental effect on rural development outcomes. These effects arise because landowners have the power to decide who can access land, when, for what purpose and at what price. This power is created by the current system of private property rights and is therefore directly linked to land ownership.”

As defined by the LRRG, the land reform process involves “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”.  In essence, that entails making changes to three elements of Scotland’s land tenure system:  property laws governing land ownership (e.g.introduction of Community Rights to Buy); regulatory laws governing land use (e.g. changes to the land-use planning system; environmental designations); and non-statutory public sector measures (e.g. fiscal measures including taxation, grants, subsidies etc.) to influence how land is owned and used in the public interest.

Land reform has a crucial strategic role to play in ensuring that the economic recovery is a Green recovery; one in which the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development become mutually positively reinforcing to produce a step-change in pursuit of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.   Community ownership of land is a means to directly address the climate emergency whilst simultaneously generating a range of community and wider public benefits as a result of sustainable land use.

There is scope to enhance that capacity significantly through reforms to Scotland’s land tenure system which enable more communities to own land and generate income for community reinvestment as a result of delivering public goods and benefits (e.g. carbon capture) as a consequence of sustainably managing that land.  Similarly, the introduction of a specific Feed In Tariff Scheme for renewable energy production specifically for community-generated renewables (and ensuring provision of interconnector infrastructure throughout Scotland to enable export of surplus energy to the National Grid) would ensure that such investment remains in Scotland, enable the further development of Local Energy Systems, provide for community reinvestment of revenues and contribute to Scotland’s Net Zero emissions target.

Scotland needs a ‘Rural New Deal’ that tackles the economically damaging issues of concentrated land ownership and unsustainable demographic change in our rural areas head on.  Diversifying how land and other natural assets such as forests and marine resources are owned and used will help deliver the climate change mitigation and adaptation, affordable housing, employment creation, and population retention and growth that are essential to the sustainability of our rural places and to delivering wider public benefits.

There’s also a pressing need to ensure that the economic benefits from Scotland’s land resources are shared more equitably within rural and urban communities as a matter of social justice, while also ensuring that wider public benefits generated by these resources are safeguarded and promoted.   Applying a public interest test as regards the suitability of prospective private purchasers of land over a certain scale is one legislative option which would help address these issues.  It’s an option to which the Scottish Government has already signalled its commitment in principle.  Making more sustainable use of vacant and derelict land through community-led regeneration is also a priority for urban land reform in particular.

Beyond legislative change, Scotland needs a reconfigured fiscal system that proactively encourages land ownership diversification as a means of unlocking the full potential of rural and urban communities to both contribute to, and experience, a post-Covid economy that places fairness, sustainability and wellbeing at its heart.   There is merit in exploring the scope for introducing a Land Value Tax and other fiscal measures to reduce inflated land values in Scotland that impede diversification of land ownership and land use as routes towards place-making that links climate justice, community empowerment and sustainable development.  There’s also merit in exploring the scope for introducing a supplementary charge to the Land and Buildings Transactions Tax for private sales of rural estates over specific sizes, with the generated revenue being used in addition to support from the Scottish Land Fund to help finance community buyouts and provide ongoing development support to community landowners.

The emergence of community-led responses to the Covid-19 pandemic further reinforces the urgent need to re-localise the design and delivery of core underpinning elements of the economy including our food systems, energy generation and distribution, community health and social care services, and local transport provision.  That calls for new, more de-centralised governance arrangements with genuine community engagement and empowerment hard-wired into the process of shaping both the design and delivery of these  core economic elements locally.

The ‘Preston Model’ of community wealth-building offers one potentially fruitful avenue to explore how such reconfigured localised governance and delivery arrangements could implement a radically different vision of what constitutes ‘wealth’ at the local level, as measured against a more sustainable set of economic, environmental and social indices than those conventionally used to calibrate economic progress.  A vision in which that wealth is retained within (rather than extracted from) our urban and rural communities and distributed on a substantially more equitable basis than is currently the case.

Many community land and asset owners are playing a key role in the recovery of their local economies from the pandemic.  Some plan to set up incubation spaces for local businesses to support the recovery.  Others have been sourcing food locally, both for shops and for delivery to people who are shielding, vulnerable or self-isolating.  New connections are being made with local suppliers and some Community Trusts are now providing services to vulnerable and disadvantaged people in their communities.  This is resilience-building from the ground up.

These Community Trusts have been able to perform these crucial support functions precisely because, as local anchor organisations, they have the infrastructure and capacity to respond rapidly and effectively to challenges posed to their communities by the pandemic. In many cases that infrastructure and capacity has been developed as a direct consequence of their roles as land and other asset owners.   It’s crucial therefore that Scotland continues to invest in scaling up community ownership as a way of stimulating local economic development, resilience and community wellbeing.  Consequently, there’s a strong case for retaining the Scottish Land Fund with an increased budget of up to £20 million annually to consolidate and further expand its vital strategic function in facilitating more community ownership of land and assets throughout urban and rural Scotland.

The pandemic and its still unfolding aftermath has shone an unforgiving light on the structural vulnerabilities of the economy in terms of the resilience of particular industrial sectors, regional challenges in both urban and rural spatial contexts, ways of working and security of employment, and services provision.  There is clearly no ‘one-size fits all’ solution to these manifold challenges.  Nevertheless, achieving the ‘better’ (i.e. greener, fairer, wealthier) society calls for a focus on equity in the form of emphasising the needs of the least advantaged in society now (intragenerational equity) and on a fair treatment of future generations (intergenerational equity).  Land reform – encompassing changes to the ways in which land is owned and used in the public interest – provides a crucial foundation stone from which to tackle many of these structural problems and propel Scotland towards that better society focused on the common good. That requires bold and imaginative policy thinking, backed by the political will to seize the opportunity to set Scotland’s economic path towards a more sustainable future.  But time is short and ‘business as usual’ is no longer a credible option.

Celebrating 10 years of community ownership of West Harris

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This is the text of a talk I gave at a Burns Supper held by the West Harris Trust on January 25th 2020 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of West Harris coming into community ownership. 

I’d like to thank the Trust for the invitation to come and speak at this evening’s event.  10 years of community ownership is a fantastic achievement and there’s much to celebrate in that time, which I’ll get on to shortly.

I must admit I was flattered and slightly surprised to be asked to speak to you this evening.  My first thought, when I got the invitation from Neil Campbell, was that David Cameron must be off the island this weekend.  It turns out that he is.  But I hope you’ll bear with me in any case!

As some of you know, I have long-standing family connections with Harris.  Both my late parents were Hearachs.  My father, Tormod, came from Finsbay and my mother, Mairi, was from Seilibost.  Neil and I share a connection in that she was our primary school teacher in Vatten Bridge in Skye, longer ago than we probably both care to remember!

I grew up in Skye and lived there until I was 16.   In 1985 my father, my brother and I moved back to Finsbay after my mother passed away.  All of our holidays before then had been spent on the croft there where my father was brought up.  As a kid I always felt that I had a sort of dual island nationality.  In Skye I was known as ‘Calum Hearach’ but as soon as I crossed the Minch, I transformed into ‘Calum Sgiathanach’, which is what my Harris relatives called me.

Much as I love Skye, let me confirm here that I’m a Hearach really!

Aside from my island credentials, perhaps another reason I’m speaking to you tonight relates to my day jobs.

Half of my working week is spent as policy director for Community Land Scotland, the representative organisation for community landowners, of which  –  I’m pleased to say – the West Harris Trust is a member.  So I spend quite a lot of time at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and elsewhere making the case for community land ownership and representing our members’ interests.

By a happy coincidence, Community Land Scotland is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year too, having also been set up in 2010, at a time when the political momentum for land reform in Scotland seemed to have all but disappeared.

You certainly couldn’t say that’s the case now.

The other half of my time is spent working with communities who are keen to follow in the footsteps of places like West Harris by taking the land where they live into their ownership.

In fact, I do quite a lot of that work with Duncan Macpherson, who’s also here tonight.  Duncan often uses West Harris as an example of what can be achieved by communities through ownership of their land, which is always well received and inspiring to the people we talk to.

It’s a real pleasure, therefore, to actually be here to talk about and celebrate what’s been achieved by the West Harris community over the last 10 years.

The story of community ownership in West Harris and elsewhere is – to my mind, at least – essentially one of enabling communities to take control of their own destinies.

Basically, it’s a story about power.  Who has it.  What they do with it.  And who they are accountable to.

But I’m conscious that the Trust’s is not the only birthday being celebrated this evening.  With that in mind, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what Robert Burns had to say about Highland Lairds and the power they exerted over their tenants.

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  And none of it complimentary!

In the late 1700s the Highland’s landed elite were facing the unwelcome prospect of losing great swathes of their still economically useful tenantry who were keen to emigrate to the New World in search of better prospects.  That these emigrants would put a sizeable dent into Britain’s military recruitment was an unequally unwelcome development from the Lairds’ perspective.

It’s estimated that around 12,000 Highlanders emigrated between 1782 and 1803, the year that the Passenger Vessels Act was enacted to raise the cost of travel to North America far beyond the means of prospective Highland emigrants, under the pretext of regulating passenger vessels crossing the Atlantic.

Back in 1786, Burns penned ‘Address of Beelzebub’ upon learning of the landed gentry’s intention to ‘frustrate the design’ of some 500 Highlanders to emigrate from the estates of Macdonald of Glengary to Canada.

In ‘Address of Beelzebub’ Burns portrayed the Highland Lairds and Beelzebub – the poem’s narrator – as kindred spirits. Which gives you more than a hint of where his sympathies lay!

This short extract gives a flavour of his scathing view of the Lairds’ efforts to keep their tenants in their place.

 “An’ whare will ye get Howes and Clintons

To bring them to a right repentance

To cowe the rebel generation,

An’ save the honour o’ the nation?

They, an’ be damn’d! what right hae they

To meat, or sleep, or light o’ day?

Far less – to riches, pow’r, or freedom,

But what your lordship likes to gie them?”

Burns – it scarcely needs adding – wrote the poem before the pendulum had swung away from estate owners actively preventing their tenants leaving the land and towards forcibly clearing them from it.

Harris, of course, was no stranger to the Clearances.

In his book, ‘Harris in History and Legend’, Bill Lawson recounts the remorseless removal of the people from the west side by the notorious Donald Stewart.  He writes:

 “It was a bad day for Harris when Donald Stewart came to Luskintyre as a sheep farmer.  When he became Macleod [of Harris’s] factor nothing would do for him but that he would turn the whole of the machair side of Harris into sheep farms, and send the people away to Canada.  Scarista had already been cleared, but Stewart cleared [the Borves], and in 1838 evicted the last of the people from Seilibost”

Landlordism cleared these people without ceremony or compunction to make way for sheep and cold coin.  Many of them ended up in Finsbay in the Bays of Harris, squeezed onto overcrowded crofts or left as landless cottars to work on the kelp farm established there in the 1790s.

The injustice of that enforced displacement of the people echoes through the centuries in Reverend Alexander Davidson’s testimony to the Napier Commission when it convened in Obbe one spring day in 1883.  He said:

It is most unnatural that man should be chased away to make room for sheep and deer; that the land should lie uncultivated when men are perishing for lack of food.”

Three decades earlier, in 1852, the steamer Celt had travelled from Finsbay to Campbeltown to meet with the emigrant ship HMS Hercules before she set sail that December with 742 emigrants from Harris, North Uist and Skye, on a typhus-ridden voyage bound for Australia.

By then Harris was in the ownership of the Scotts of Dunmore.  In turn, they sold the island to Lord Leverhulme, the ‘Soap Man’, shortly after the end of the First World War.  Leverhulme sold it in lots in 1922 or thereabouts, creating the distinctive estate structure that exists in Harris to this day.

In the 1930s and 40s three of these new estates – in Scarista, Borve and Luskentyre – were bought by the Department of Agriculture to provide land for the settlement of crofting families.  In so doing, the ‘Department’ was copying an approach it had used to great effect in Skye in 1923 to create new settlements in North Talisker using the Land Settlement Act 1919.

That initiative had resulted in families – mainly from the Bays of Harris and also from Lewis – moving to 68 newly created crofts in the area, thereby establishing a population of 400 people where for over a century there had been none.  Many of the Harris folk crossing the Minch in 1923 would have been descendants of the generation cleared from the fertile machair of West Harris to the rock-strewn landscape of the Bays a century earlier. There’s a certain poignance in that.

Back across the Minch, it was as ‘Department’ crofting estates that West Harris remained for the rest of the 20th century.

But by the first decade of the 21st century the pattern of land ownership in the Western isles was beginning to change.

In 2003 the 25,900 hectare North Harris Estate was bought by the community.

That was followed in 2006 by the 37,635 hectare South Uist Estate coming into community ownership.

And in 2007 by the 22,260 hectare Galson Estate in Lewis.

Each of these buyouts was motivated by the idea that the communities pursuing them could best shape their own futures by owning the land on which they lived.  And a major part of that has been about ensuring that there are more people living on the land and prospering from it.

That’s hardly surprising, given that between 1951 and 2001 the population of Harris fell by over half from 3,991 to 1,984 people.

Increasing the population has certainly been a driving force behind community ownership of West Harris.

Back in 2010, after – I think it’s fair to say – a fairly challenging buyout process using the 1997 Transfer of Crofting Estates Act, Murdo Mackay, the Trust’s Chair, outlined the vision for West Harris under community ownership.  He said:

“We want to promote Harris as a great place to live and work and we hope to get more families into the area and create new crofts and bring currently under-used land into production. We are very excited about the fact that control of our own land will breathe new life into the community and encourage people to set up homes and raise families.”

 Well, you’ve certainly done that!

In 2010 there was no affordable housing in West Harris; one of the biggest problems facing any island community. Now four affordable house plots have been sold for private builds and there are ten properties, either already built or under construction in collaboration with Hebridean Housing Partnership.

In 2010 there were no business units to let.  Now there are eight business units and one office for lease across three sites.  They’re all occupied.

There are new tourism facilities generating income for the community.  Seven Campervan hook-ups; five camping spots, and toilet and shower facilities.

There’s new infrastructure.  Pontoons.  Renewable energy generated by wind turbines and a hydro scheme.  All delivering environmental benefits for the community and, ultimately, the planet.

There’s Talla Na Mara, this amazing community building we’re privileged to be sitting in tonight.   A fantastic asset for the community in all sorts of social, economic and cultural ways.

There are more jobs.  The Trust employs six members of staff and the restaurant here in Talla Na Marra has created eight seasonal jobs.  And there’s the employment supported through the business space the Trust provides.

All of these things have combined to make West Harris a better place in which to live and, increasingly, to work.

Most preciously of all, there are now more people living here.

Back in 2010 the resident population of West Harris was 119 folk.  There was only one child under 5 years of age living in the community.

Incredibly, that population has risen to 152 people in just 10 years. There are now seven children under 5 and twenty-two people aged under 18 living here.   And there are ambitions to increase the resident population still further by the end of this year.

Now, we’re all Hebrideans, by birth or inclination.  And we’re not much given to shouting our successes from the rooftops.

But permit me – if you will – to break with that tradition just this once.

Because what the West Harris Trust has achieved over the last 10 years of community ownership is quite simply remarkable.  There’s really no other way of describing it.

And plans are afoot for much more to come: renovation of the school building; additional campervan hook-ups; an extension to Talla Na Mara; more affordable housing; fibre optic broadband; and a community share offer.

That’s an impressively bold agenda completely in keeping with the ambition the Trust has shown since 2010 for the betterment of the community.

Opponents of community ownership – they do still exist, unfortunately – often recite the mantra that it’s how land is used, not who owns it, that counts.

Strange, then, that the Lairds should seem so reluctant to be rid of their estates if ownership is so inconsequential!

Of course, land ownership and land use are inextricably linked in shaping communities’ prospects, as the history of West Harris through the centuries demonstrates so well.

Yet here we are in the Scotland of 2020, still with one of the most concentrated patterns of private landownership in the world.

Most of rural Scotland is privately owned and half of that privately-owned land is estimated to be in the hands of about 400 owners.

I don’t think that sort of land monopoly is a healthy situation for Scotland to be in.

By comparison, the amount of land in community ownership is tiny; 209,810 hectares.  That’s less than 3% of the total of Scotland’s rural land.

Remarkably,  over two thirds of the land in community ownership in Scotland is located here in the Western Isles.

And the roll-call of community landowners keeps on growing: Stornoway; North Harris; Galson; South Uist; West Harris; Carloway; Barvas; Pairc; and Keose Glebe.

All places where community ownership is seen as a normal way of doing things.

Places that will hopefully soon be joined by the Bays of Harris and Great Bernera as community-owned estates.

You’ve shown here in West Harris how decades of decline can be reversed when a community takes ownership of the soil (and machair) beneath its feet.

How strong community leadership, vision, commitment and partnership can deliver huge benefits to an ever-growing community by virtue of owning the land.

So I think there’s much that other communities in Scotland – both rural and urban – can learn from your experience of delivering genuinely transformative change in this glorious place you call home.

West Harris has travelled about as far away from the dead hand of landlordism as it’s possible to get. And you’ve made that journey without leaving.

There’s a tender beauty in that achievement that I suspect Robert Burns himself would have appreciated.

Here’s to the road ahead!

Community Empowerment and Sustainable Landscapes

This is an edited version of the text of a short presentation I gave as part of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Rural Policy meeting on October 29th 2019 on the topic of ‘Taking a place-based approach to address demographic change in rural Scotland’.

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Place-based approaches to rural development are not new.

This is the village of Portnalong in North Talisker on the west side of Skye.  It was created as a consequence of arguably the most radical example of land reform legislation in Scotland in the 20th century.

In 1919 the coalition Government of David Lloyd George passed the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act – celebrating its centenary this year.  Legislation designed to provide smallholdings fit for the heroes returning home from the first world war.

In 1920, as a direct result of the Act, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland paid Norman MacLeod of MacLeod £58,609 (about £1.9 million at today’s prices, according to Jim Hunter) for 60,000 acres of land in North Talisker that had served as a sheep farm following clearance of the area in the 19th century.

And in 1923 families, mainly from the Bays of Harris – where I come from – and also from Lewis moved to 68 newly created crofts in the area, establishing a population of 400 people where for over a century there had been none.  Many of the Harris folk who crossed the Minch in 1923 would have been descendants of a generation cleared from the fertile machair of West Harris to the rock-strewn landscape of the Bays over a century earlier. I suspect I’m not alone in discerning a delicate mix of poignance and optimism within that symmetry of departure and arrival.

Fast forward to the present day and in the grand scheme of things Portnalong, and Talisker as a whole, are doing pretty well.

There’s employment, including at the thriving local distillery.

There’s a resident population which – according to the last census data – seems to have  been bucking demographic trends elsewhere in parts of rural Scotland.   And there’s a primary school that remains open despite previously being threatened with closure.

Head along the road to Minginish and you’ll see – as I did when I visited last summer – an impressive looking community hall celebrating its 10th anniversary as a vital community asset.

That’s not to say that the area is immune to the structural challenges – most obviously a lack of affordable housing – facing many other parts of Skye and elsewhere in rural Scotland. But make no mistake; at a time when skewed demographics lead some observers to contemplate the unpalatable prospect of fragile rural places facing ‘death with dignity’, Portnalong and the wider North Talisker area offer a powerful century-old counter-narrative of ‘rebirth with rights’.  And the most fundamental right of all for a community is simply to ‘be’.

The need for political boldness and policy imagination of the sort that propelled Portnalong and its neighbouring settlements in North Talisker into existence is now more pressing than ever.

So, it may be that a Land Settlement Act from 100 years ago offers important contemporary pointers for the future of rural place-making in Scotland.

Not least regarding how the current land-use planning system can counter negative demographic change by helping to retain and grow existing communities’ populations and by enabling creation of new settlements where it’s feasible and appropriate to do so.

But that alone is not enough.  Contemporary rural place-making also needs to embrace a radical rethinking of the relationship between communities, landscapes and sustainability.

Last year, in collaboration with Inherit (the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development), Community Land Scotland published a research report titled ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’.

 It uncovered tensions between the principles of landscape policy (broadly encompassing natural, cultural and built heritage) and its practice that are vital to account for in taking a place-based approach to development.

These tensions include:

  • An approach that dissects the environment into parts rather than taking a holistic approach to its management;

 

  • An absence of diverse views on what defines a place;

 

  • A continuing drive to single out and protect ‘special’ landscapes;

 

  • A ‘fence and exclude’ conservation culture that treats development simply as a threat;

 

  • A tendency to see landscape matters as the preserve of landscape professionals and institutions.

The research also found a significant ‘participation gap’ whereby communities felt ‘locked out’ of decisions about conservation and its relationship to development that affected their everyday lives.

These tensions and that participation gap matter.  Because if we are serious about place-making as a way to reverse the damaging demographic trends that threaten our most sparsely populated areas, we need to think about our rural landscapes in ways that are genuinely economically, socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable.

That means ensuring that communities’ voices are to the fore in characterising, valuing and managing our rural landscapes, rather than marginal, disenfranchised aspects of these processes.

It also means – and I accept this may be uncomfortable for some – stripping away the ‘wilderness myth’ that shrouds much of Highland Scotland in particular.  There’s a political ecology at play in characterising many of our rural places as ‘wild’ that is beguilingly seductive for all sorts of reasons.

But it masks an inconvenient truth.

Our rural landscapes were never ‘wild’.  They are socially constructed places that have been made and remade – for better or worse – by centuries of human intervention.

That’s not to suggest that we should forgo or somehow downplay and diminish the ecological heritage and diversity of our rural places.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as we hurtle towards the existential threat of climate catastrophe.

Rather, the central challenge confronting us all – policymakers, civil society and communities alike- is how to calibrate the idea of rural place-making to embrace its economic, social and environmental possibilities holistically, in ways that are mutually and positively reinforcing.  Locating community empowerment at the centre of that endeavour is critical to enabling our rural communities – and, by extension, our rural places – to thrive rather than simply survive.

That challenge also necessitates ensuring that land reform in its broadest sense – involving changes to the ownership and use of land in the public interest and for the common good – is hard-wired into public policy as a permanent cross-cutting issue for sustainable rural development rather than an optional extra.

In short, we need to re-connect the relationship between communities, landscapes and power to ensure that the road ahead takes all of our rural communities and places towards a sustainable future.

 

Scotland 2050: Thriving Rural Scotland

The following is the text of a short think-piece I was invited by the Scottish Government to write on the theme of ‘Thriving Rural Scotland’ to help inform discussion on priorities for Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) to address.

Much of rural Scotland faces a depopulation crisis.  Scottish Government funded research by the James Hutton Institute estimates that the Sparsely Populated Area (SPA), covering almost half of Scotland’s land area but containing less than 3% of the nation’s people, will lose more than a quarter of its population by 2046 in the absence of urgent policy intervention.  Zoom in to the regional level and the picture looks equally grim. The Highland Council predicts population growth between 2016 and 2041 in Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh and Ross and Cromarty. However, many of the region’s other places are set to experience continuing population decline over the same period: Sutherland (-11.9%); Caithness (-21.1%); East Ross (-13.8%); Badenoch and Strathspey (-5.3%); and Lochaber (-5.9%).  Head to the Western Isles or the Southern Uplands and you’ll be confronted by a similarly gloomy population prognosis.

Stemming the flow of people from our sparsely populated area must feature at the top of policymakers’ ‘to do’ list if we are serious about creating a thriving rural Scotland by 2050.  That means reframing our relationship as a society with land and landscapes so as to enable our most vulnerable rural communities to flourish as a matter of social justice whilst simultaneously safeguarding our natural heritage and combatting the existential threat of climate change.      Land reform – defined in the Land Reform Review Group’s 2014 report, ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’, as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”  – has a vital role to play in reframing that relationship.   A crucial part of that task involves tackling negative monopolies of power inherent in concentrated rural land ownership that can stymie genuinely sustainable development.  That implies more imaginative deployment of  legislative, regulatory and fiscal policy levers to achieve rural outcomes that contribute to the common good of Scotland as a whole.

The land-use planning system also has an important future role to play in the reframing process.  Some of the groundwork for the system’s future contribution to rural repopulation has been laid in provisions within the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 for which Community Land Scotland strongly advocated.  Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the next National Planning Framework (NPF).  Scottish Ministers must have regard to the desirability of resettling rural areas that have become depopulated when preparing the content of the Framework.  Allocating land for resettlement may now be a consideration for developing both the NPF and Local Development Plans. There is also scope for producing maps and other material relating to rural areas where there has been a substantial decline in population when preparing the NPF.  The Framework must also have regard for any Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement or any strategy for land ownership or use prepared by Scottish Ministers.

These are all helpful provisions in terms of making the planning system fit for the purpose of helping repopulate areas of rural Scotland. However, their effective implementation depends on the commitment of Government and Planning Authorities to steer planning policy towards land use that is genuinely economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.   In short, planning policy that helps deliver the affordable housing, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure and high-quality jobs that are vital to attracting more people to live and work in our currently most imperilled rural communities.  That will require policy imagination and political will.   But be in no doubt that the extent to which these communities’ prospects are turned around will be the barometer of whether all of rural Scotland is thriving by 2050.

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 and Rural Repopulation

Last week the Scottish Parliament passed the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 after three days of intense and increasingly acrimonious debate in the Chamber.  The Bill was originally envisaged by the Scottish Government as a measure to streamline the land use planning system.  Instead, it became a legislative ‘free for all’ as MSPs from all parties weighed in with well over 300 amendments;  the highest total ever tabled for a Bill progressing through its legislative stages at Holyrood and a reflection of the political importance of the planning system as something that both directly and indirectly affects people’s everyday lives.  Not all of these amendments survived the Bill’s protracted and occasionally stormy passage, with  the Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats voting against it becoming law while the SNP and Conservatives voted in favour.

Amongst other things, the new Act sets in statute for the first time the purpose of planning as being to manage the development and use of land in the long term public interest. It sets out issues for consideration in developing both the next National Planning Framework (NPF) which is the long-term spatial plan for Scotland and future Local Development Plans  formulated by Planning Authorities.  The Act also introduces provisions for Local Place Plans, envisaged as enabling communities to have a stronger say in deciding how their local areas are developed and Masterplan Consent Areas to more readily facilitate development in specified areas.

Several amendments that did survive the cull relate to rural repopulation and resettlement, and reflect much of what Community Land Scotland – the membership organisation for Scotland’s community landowners – called for in its evidence submission on the draft Planning Bill back in January 2018.   Community Land Scotland’s proposals for rural repopulation and resettlement drew considerable media attention at the time.  Amongst the more excitable headlines was that of one national newspaper proclaiming “Lairds warn against plans to reverse Clearances”.   Pause for a moment to contemplate the rich seams of irony contained within these words.

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 makes several explicit links between rural repopulation, land reform and the continuing evolution of Scotland’s planning system.  Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the National Planning Framework. Scottish Ministers must have regard to the desirability of resettling rural areas that have become depopulated when preparing the content of the Framework and allocating land for resettlement may now be a consideration for developing both the NPF and Local Development Plans. Preparation of the next NPF will also include scope for producing maps and other material relating to rural areas where there has been a substantial decline in population.  The Framework must have regard for any Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement or any strategy for land ownership or use prepared by Scottish Ministers.  There are also provisions in the new Planning Act about reporting on and improving consultation with communities in relation to the designation of any new National Scenic Areas.

These amendments matter because of the depopulation crisis that great swathes of rural Scotland – and particularly the Highlands and Islands – face.  In 2018 the James Hutton Institute published research indicating that, “in the absence of intervention”, Scotland’s Sparsely Populated Area (SPA), covering almost half of Scotland’s land area but containing less than 3% of the nation’s population, faces losing more than a quarter of its population by 2046; a decline which “implies serious challenges for economic development, and consequences for its landscape and ecology which are poorly understood”.  Similarly grim projections are contained in The Highland Council’s Corporate Plan for 2017-2022 which was updated earlier this year.  Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh, and Ross and Cromarty are projected to see their populations increase between 2016 and 2041.  Yet many other places in the region are set to see their populations continue to spiral downwards during the same period: Sutherland (-11.9%); Caithness (-21.1%); East Ross (-13.8%); Badenoch and Strathspey (-5.3%); and Lochaber (-5.9%).

The rural repopulation and resettlement provisions contained in the new Planning Act can help reconfigure the planning system as an effective policy tool to help address the litany of depopulation facing much of the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere in rural Scotland.  However, the effects of these provisions will inevitably take time to come to fruition, given that the next iterations of both the National Planning Framework and of Planning Authorities’ Local Development Plans lie some way into the future.   They also depend on the commitment of Government and Planning Authorities to drive the planning system towards land use that is genuinely sustainable in helping deliver the affordable housing, physical and services infrastructure and high quality jobs that are vital in helping to retain and attract more people to live and work in our rural places.

The planning system is ultimately a single piece – albeit an influential one – of a policy jigsaw that urgently needs to be assembled for Scotland’s sparsely populated rural places to flourish.  Part of the challenge lies in reframing our relationship as a society with land and landscapes in ways that enable our rural communities to exist and thrive as a matter of social justice while simultaneously safeguarding our natural heritage.

Land reform, defined in the Land Reform Review Group’s 2014 report, The land of Scotland and the common good, as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest” has a vital role to play in reframing that relationship.   However, its relevance as a cross-cutting theme to advance sustainable rural development has yet to fully penetrate the siloed structures of Government if ‘A new blueprint for Scotland’s rural economy: recommendations to Scottish Ministers’, a report issued in September 2018 by the National Council of Rural Advisors is any guide.  That influential document in shaping Government thinking on the rural economy mentions land precisely once in calling for development of “ecosystems services and climate change mitigation actions that reflect best land use-practice”. There is not a single mention of the significance of land ownership as a driver for rural development or of land reform more generally.

Such omissions are perplexing, particularly in light of the Scottish Land Commission’s subsequent research report in March of this year highlighting abuses of power as a result of concentrated land ownership in Scotland.  The Commission’s report highlights “fear of repercussions from “going against the landowner” expressed by some people.  This fear was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.   This is testimony given to the Land Commission in 21stcentury Scotland. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for evidence to the Napier Commission of the 1880s, so shockingly does it collide with our self-image as a socially progressive nation.

It’s clear that rural communities in Scotland’s sparsely populated areas face a crisis of depopulation that threatens their very existence in the longer term.  Provisions contained in the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 offer encouragement that the planning system has an important role to play in tackling that crisis if there is genuine will on the part of Government and Planning Authorities to implement them effectively.  But much more needs to be done.  If we are serious about addressing rural depopulation then land reform in its broadest sense, encompassing changes to both land ownership and land use in the public interest, needs to be front and centre in future rural policy development as a matter of social justice.

By coincidence, there’s an opportunity to start doing exactly that.  A couple of weeks ago the Scottish Government announced the creation of a Ministerial Task Group on Population, chaired by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Culture and External Affairs with a remit to “consider Scotland’s future population challenges and develop new solutions to address demographic and population change”.  The extent to which the Task Group takes up the policy cudgels on behalf of rural communities imperilled by depopulation will provide an early indication of where their needs sit in the policy pecking order.

Scotland’s ‘land question’ is ultimately a question of power

Last week was an important one for Scotland’s ongoing land reform journey. On Wednesday the Scottish Land Commission published the report of its Investigation into the Issues Associated with Large Scale and Concentrated Landownership in Scotland’.  That was followed on Thursday by a land reform debate in the Scottish Parliament, initiated by the Scottish Government on the topic of ‘Land Reform in Scotland – Delivering for Now and the Future’.   Both of these developments are significant because they give strong indications of where land reform might go next in policy and practical terms.

The Scottish Land Commission was created in April 2017 as a result of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 with a remit to ensure that land reform does not stage one of its periodic vanishing acts from Scotland’s public policy agenda as has happened in the past.  That’s a scenario unlikely to occur anytime soon given the substance of the Commission’s report and the political reaction to it.

The report is the most substantial investigation to date into issues associated with large-scale and concentrated land ownership in Scotland.  It follows a call for evidence by the Commission in 2018 for people to share their everyday experiences of living or working in parts of rural Scotland where most of the land is owned by a small number of people.  407 people responded to the call, including landowners and land managers, community representatives and individuals.

Back in 2014 the Scottish Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) broadly defined land reform in its report, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good as “measures that modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”.   That definition is instructive because it confirms the significance of land reform as a multi-faceted issue cutting across individual public policy areas in Scotland and places public interest considerations squarely at its centre.

The Commission’s new report is equally instructive because it contradicts the jaded mantra of land reform’s opponents that it is how land is used, rather than who owns it that matters. It also confirms that Scotland’s ‘land question’ is ultimately a question of power.

The report makes a distinction between the concentration and scale of land ownership, noting that “There is no automatic link between large scaleland holdings and poor rural development outcomes but there is convincing evidence that highly concentratedlandownership can have a detrimental effect on rural development outcomes.  These effects arise because landowners have the power to decide who can access land, when, for what purpose and at what price.  This power is created by the current system of private property rights and is therefore directly linked to landownership”.

The detrimental effects of concentrated landed power on rural outcomes are laid bare in   evidence presented in the Commission’s report. The most frequently identified theme in the evidence relates to the influence of concentrated land ownership on local economic development opportunities.   The report finds that economies of scale – another argument for large-scale landholdings routinely trotted out by advocates of the status quo – appear to be “more theoretical than real and more likely to benefit landowners than communities”.  It also finds that the irresponsible exercise of landed power enables landowners to block business development by determining whether and on what basis land is made available for such activity.

Worryingly, the report also notes that approximately a quarter of those who submitted evidence feel that Scotland’s pattern of concentrated landownership has a negative impact on the ability to meet local housing needs.  It states, “these experiences were all connected by a common narrative in which the power of a dominant landowner to control the supply of housing was a key driver of depopulation and economic decline”.

More troublingly still, the report highlights the corrosive effect of landed power on community and social cohesion.  The evidence indicates fear of repercussions for “going against the landowner” by some respondents.  As the Commission’s report notes “this fear was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.

Much of the evidence regarding other themes in the report also paints a dispiriting picture of the scope for concentrated landownership to skew power relationships between landowners and communities in favour of the former.  The report challenges the “weak” assertion that landscape scale environmental management requires large-scale land ownership.  It also documents the “perceived unilateral approach to decision-making adopted by some landowners (often NGOs) and perceptions of poor land management practices that can arise from this”.

Against that background, the Commission concludes that “there is an urgent need for formal mechanisms to be put in place that would enable harmful land monopolies to be identified and changes in either ownership and/or management practice to be implemented that would protect fragile rural communities from the irresponsible exercise of power”.

To that end, the Commission recommends specific statutory action including the introduction of a Public Interest Test for significant land transfers/acquisitions; requiring land holdings over a certain scale to engage on and publish a management plan; and legislating for a new Land Rights and Responsibilities review process, to take effect when there is evidence of adverse impact.  The Commission also calls for the effects of concentrated ownership to be accounted for in the implementation of the forthcoming Community Right to Buy to further sustainable development established in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.   Other recommendations include promoting more diverse patterns of private land ownership to help achieve land reform objectives and local engagement in land use change.

Unsurprisingly the Commission’s report dominated last Thursday’s Land Reform debate in the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Conservatives expressed disappointment at both the report’s focus and content, questioning the basis of the evidence and reiterating that the focus of policy should be on land use rather than land ownership.  The Liberal Democrats were happy to support the Report’s findings but considered it premature to call on the Government to accept all of the Commission’s recommendations.

The SNP, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens gave the Report a more enthusiastic reception.  Together they ensured that Parliament passed a wide-ranging motion which amongst other things “urges the Scottish Government to support the recommendations of the Scottish Land Commission on how to deliver interventions in the operation of Scotland’s land markets and ownerships that will provide disincentives to the future accrual of large privately owned land holdings and help deliver a more equitable distribution in the ownership of Scotland’s land assets in the public interest”.

The dust is still settling after publication of the Scottish Land Commission’s report.  Nevertheless, important points are already coming into sharp focus. The report and its carefully crafted, evidence-based analysis of the inextricable links between concentrated land ownership, land use and the exercise of power feels like a vital staging post in the next phase of Scotland’s land reform journey.  Viewing the issues of land ownership scale and, particularly, concentration through the twin lenses of monopolistic practices and their corrosive impacts on the public interest has significant policy and practical implications.  Such a perspective underscores the potential for the Commission’s recommendations to contribute to a policy route map away from the debilitating exercise of landed power highlighted in its report and towards a more progressive, socially just and sustainable relationship between Scotland’s people and land.  Parliament has endorsed these recommendations and the Scottish Government has stated its support for them in principle.  In the coming months both will have the opportunity to transform their warm words into tangible policy action.