“The Men Who Own Scotland” and the Land Reform Debate

Last week’s edition of BBC Scotland Investigates, “The Men Who Own Scotland”, provided a whistle-stop tour of land reform in Scotland.  The programme did a pretty balanced job of airing contrasting views on this complex, multi-faceted and deeply contentious issue in half an hour.

The mere fact that “The Men Who Own Scotland”  – the first programme on land reform since 1992 – was screened at all indicates renewed media interest in the ‘land question’, fuelled by the Scottish Government’s separate reviews of land reform and agricultural holdings legislation and the UK Parliament Scottish Affairs Select Committee’s land reform inquiry.

Nobody yet knows where these investigations might lead.  The Land Reform Review Group is currently writing its final report, due to be submitted to the Scottish Government in April.  Meanwhile the agricultural holdings legislation review will rumble on until December 2014 and the Scottish Affairs Committee has yet to announce when its inquiry will be completed.

One of the many interesting aspects of “The Men Who Own Scotland” involved the musings of interviewees’ as to the fairness of half of Scotland’s privately owned land being in the hands of 432 people.  That’s tricky terrain for Scotland’s landed elite to navigate without coming across as either defensive or blasé about the concept. I’m not sure the programme did them many favours in either of these respects.

Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse also featured, talking the talk of radical reform albeit opaquely in advance of the LRRG’s proposals:

I think there are still unfairnesses (sic) in the system……… That’s why we are on a journey in this particular Parliamentary session to try and deliver radical reform……..  I’m confident that the [LRRG] will come forward with radical proposals……..  My party genuinely believes that there should be a fair distribution of land, that communities should have access to land to fulfil their aspirations and we are setting out a vision as to what we want to achieve……..If we don’t see a fairer distribution if land then, as a Parliament, we will have failed the people of Scotland”.

Important policy aspects of the land reform process already appear to be shifting.   Last year Scottish Labour committed to extending the ‘community right to buy’ contained in part two of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 to cover circumstances where there is not a willing seller “if it is in the public interest”.  Last year too First Minister Alex Salmond used his speech to the annual conference of Community Land Scotland to announce a target of 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020 and that the  ‘community right to buy’ would be modified.  Proposals for changes to that right are contained in the consultation document on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill.

Despite all the heady talk of radicalism from the Scottish Government, it’s hard to imagine that anybody is seriously anticipating a “revolutionary moment” as a consequence of this latest stage of Scotland’s land reform journey.  Still, it’s interesting to see how Scotland’s landed elite, in calling for a “mature debate” on land reform, is trying to reframe aspects of that debate, largely to protect its own vested interests.

A key aspect of that reframing is the assertion that “responsible” land use is what matters rather than who actually owns the land.  Of course, it’s absolutely true that responsible land use is a vital ingredient in helping to achieve communities’ sustainability (although determining what constitutes “responsible” might be not be entirely uncontested).  The problem with the “responsible land use” argument is that, considered in isolation, it rather conveniently obscures the intrinsic links between land ownership, power in its various forms and the capacity to access financial and other resources that can be critical in unlocking communities’ development aspirations.

The importance of these links is also why it’s disingenuous to attempt to portray the case for land reform as an out-dated relic driven by ancient historical grievances associated with the Highland Clearances.  The agenda’s moved on even if some of land reform’s detractors haven’t.

A further aspect relates to the notion of what might be termed ‘benevolent lairds’; private landowners apparently dispensing their largesse to grateful communities unable to access other assistance. One might be forgiven for assuming that they offer an alternative, localised welfare state were it not for the fact that, as “The Men Who Own Scotland” highlighted, there are substantial returns to be made from investing in land.  The portrayal of the benevolent laird was taken to cartoonish levels recently in a mercifully short Spectator blog by Charles Moore in which, having compared Alex Salmond to Robert Mugabe, he claimed that the “philanthropists, megalomaniacs and serious sportsmen” apparently underpinning large-scale private land ownership in the Highlands were the financial saviours of its “difficult places”.

Ultimately, as John Hutchison notes in his insightful Herald comment piece on January 15th, the land reform debate needs to move on from simplistic, zero-sum, binary choices between ‘private – good’ and  ‘community bad’ platforms (and vice versa).    It is time for a mature debate; one centred on the means for recalibrating patterns of land ownership and management in support of a more progressive and sustainable relationship between Scotland’s land and its rural and urban communities.   Pretty soon we’ll see what some of these means might look like when the Land Reform Review Group delivers its final report.

1 thought on ““The Men Who Own Scotland” and the Land Reform Debate

  1. I very much agree with your take here, Calum. I’ve seen people describe the TV programme in lukewarm terms, expecting something more radical. I don’t think they realise how hard it can be to get radical stuff on land onto the media, especially at the moment with the Indy vote coming up.

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