‘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.