Scotland needs land reform

I receive regular emails and letters from people on land matters. Quite often, folk will write with tales of how they or their community are having problems with landowners. I thought I should begin to share some of these to illustrate the issues that communities face with the current way in which land is owned in Scotland. The following email has been anonymised and is published here with the permission of the author.

Dear Mr Wightman,

The [*****] Community Council has had land reform on its agenda for many years but has never taken it forward. The portfolio fell to me on retirement of the previous councillor. I think the problem is that our Community Councillors find the subject rather scary and feel they need to inform themselves better. Which is why an independent assessment of the issues would be useful.

The [*****] Estate is owned by [*****], who inherited it from his industrialist father. Their main home is in [*****], but they have several other properties in London and abroad. The house and estate here are very much a holiday home for the family, but there is a caretaker. The estate owner is always civil and friendly at face-to-face meetings, and he supports some local arts projects through a Trust set up for this purpose, which wins him some supporters here. A couple of derelict buildings were restored with grants by his father many years ago and are now used by the community. The estate’s refusal to negotiate over a ransom strip it owns at the [******] [a mothballed, local industrial facility] has been variously blamed for the continuing failure to bring it back into use and relief that it has not been reused to break dirty ships and submarines.

However we have had issues over land access, including the core paths network, and aggressive assertion of property rights over small parcels of land. The Estate claims to be the owner of any land here not otherwise registered in the land registry, and there have been cases of the estate asserting property rights which local people believe it did not have. A local chapel site is a roofless ruin that the community has tried for many years to restore. It belongs to the local authority, as does the surrounding graveyard, but the Estate claims it owns the solum of the building itself (disputed by the Council) and this seems to prevent us taking this any further. The Estate has recently lodged a planning application to build houses on land set aside for development of our primary school – land which has lain as undeveloped waste for many years.

The rents charged for the use of several public assets effectively suck resources out of our area and make some services less sustainable. There have been a number of cases over the years where fly-tipping has occurred within the grounds of [*****] House but not cleared up. Recently he has declined to remove a similar public / environmental hazard from a public open space he is keen to assert his ownership of. The local authority seem unable to either clear this up or serve a notice on the estate to do so.

I am sure these are similar issues to those found in many other Scottish rural communities.