Guest Blog by Brian Wilson (pdf version)

Brian Wilson’s column is reproduced here with kind permission of the West Highland Free Press.

In the great span of history, the most significant of  the recommendations put forward by the Scottish Land Reform Review Group will – if acted upon – prove to be the 60th and last. It is worth quoting at length:

The Review Group recommends that the Scottish Government should have an integrated programme of land reform measures to take forward the changes required to modernise and reform Scotland’s system of land ownership.

“The Review Group considers that there is a need for a single body with responsibility for understanding and monitoring the system governing the ownership and management of Scotland’s land, and recommending changes in the public interest. The Group recommends that the Scottish Government should establish a Scottish Land and Property Commission”.

Setting up new quangos is not, of itself, a radical device. But in this case is it an absolutely essential one. What this recommendation will, if acted upon, establish is both the continuity of the land reform process and the principle of interventionism in how the land of Scotland is owned and managed. And recent history confirms that these are two underpinning essentials.

The critical importance of this report is that it destroys for ever the myth that land reform, whether within Scotland’s current constitutional status or beyond, is too difficult or impossible because the powers do not exist. That is the alibi which has brought the process of land reform to a grinding halt for the past decade and it has, as this report confirms, never been true.

As the report bluntly states: “At present, the Scottish Government has no integrated approach to land reform and Scotland has not had a land reform programme for ten years”.  What an indictment! In other words, since some of  the programme for which the ground was laid prior to devolution in 1997-98 was implemented, there has been a complete dearth of original thought or action to follow. I have been bemoaning that for years. Now it is confirmed.

As a result of initiatives in that earlier period, feudal tenure was abolished, rights of access established, the crofting community right to buy introduced and the Scottish Land Fund created. But, as this new report recalls, the Sewel Report which laid the ground for all that (and much more if it had been fully acted upon) was explicit in warning that land reform must be an ongoing process rather than a few piecemeal actions.

Once the devolved government of Scotland fell into the hands of people who were only too happy to park the whole question of land reform, whether through disinterest or hostility, the process ground to a halt. I have no idea whether the other 59 recommendations in this latest report will be acted upon, but if only the 60th survives then at least there will be an ongoing reminder that political inaction is the product of neglect rather than necessity.

There is much to be praised and welcomed in the new report but we don’t have a clue how much of it will be turned into reality.  The process by which this point has been reached has not been particularly encouraging. The Review Group was set up in 2012 to head off the mounting criticism of inaction on land-related issues and was generally seen as a kicking into touch device prior to the referendum.

The rather puzzling choice of Dr Alison Elliot, a former Kirk moderator with no hinterland in the subject, to chair the Review Group did not inspire confidence.  Last May, an interim report notable only for its monumental blandness  was greeted with universal derision. At that point, two of the three Review Group members resigned and the Scottish Government realised that it had a significant political own-goal in the making.  The personnel was revamped, notably through the introduction of John Watt as a Group member and Robin Callander as an adviser.

As a result, a final report has been achieved which bears absolutely no resemblance to the interim report, other than the presence of Dr Elliot who presumably agrees as much with the one as with the other.  Whether they wanted it or not, the current Scottish Government now has a programme of action on its hands and with it, a moral and political obligation to pick its low-hanging fruit without further delay.

Recommendations in the report which commend themselves to common sense and early action include the reform of Scotland’s compulsory purchase legislation with a public right of pre-emption; “a more integrated and ambitious”  programme of land acquisitions for forestry; a “strategic framework to promote the continued growth of local community land ownership”; a more “solution-focused and less risk-averse” approach to EU state aid rules; the establishment of a National Housing Corporation charged with acquiring sufficient land to meet house-building needs.

The important point to remember about all of these is that they could have been done years ago, if the political will had existed.  Instead, the ubiquitous mantra of “we don’t have the powers” was deployed to hide behind.  Equally, the proposed abolition of the District Salmon Fishery Boards, to be replaced by accountable bodies representing diverse interests, and the long-promised extension of right-to-buy to tenant farmers have never needed constitutional change in order to deliver them. That is the truth that has now been laid bare and inescapable for this and future Holyrood administrations.

The recent report by the Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons recommended the need for a proper Land Register as the essential building block of land reform and this new report emphasizes the need to  speed up the current snail-like progress towards that objective. The Scottish Affairs Committee also stressed the need for beneficial as well as nominal ownership to be revealed and, in all respects, the two reports are entirely complementary and should be treated as such.

The interventionist nature of the Review Group proposals is confirmed by the observation that implementation of a Land Use Strategy process “will lead to reductions in the current flexibility in rural land owners’ choices over how they use their land. The Group recommends that the Government ensures that the necessary mechanisms are in place for the successful implementation of the Land Use Strategy in the public interest”.

This proposal, if acted upon, strikes at the power of landlords to be the sole arbiters of how land is used, misused or under-used; whether or not there are people living on it; and therefore, to some extent, what its market value is.   There is not the slightest doubt that such interventions will be resisted by the landowning fraternity who will defend the sacred principle that ownership through inheritance or wealth give them the right to do what they like.

Let’s hope that the stomach exists for the fight, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  We need safeguards to ensure that the issue of land reform never again goes away. The proposed Scottish Land and Property Commission should become the guardian of Scotland’s conscience and ongoing guarantor against the backsliding and evasion which have characterised the past decade.

31 Comments

  1. The abrogation of its own principles and motives on radical land reform, that was part of the basic genesis of the SNP, is essentially nothing less than a sheer utter disgrace. Perhaps nothing indicates that any better than the way the party buried the 1997 report by the Scottish Land Commission( I was a member), an organisation called together by Alex Salmond in the first place. There was indeed enough legislative faculty within the devolution settlement to have enacted, substantial, meaningful reform of land tenure, but the SNP wilfully and cogently refused to take up the potential and change Scotland for the better. We can only wonder why, but I suspect, looking at the original composition of the LRRG, that the SNP Government have been traduced and suborned by the land monopoly capitalists, whose ancestors arranged the Treaty of Union in 1707, with their colleagues in England. My suspicions are enhanced at the early ministerial rumblings about one small section of the Report that mentions land value taxation( OMG how I hate that term) and it makes me wonder just how much societally created Land Rental Value is accruing to MSPs through their ‘property investment portfolios’ that they would lose if LRV went to the public purse instead.

    Radical land reform could have inspired people to see the potential ahead for independence. It could have given the SNP a pedigree of performance to take their strategic case forward. Instead, they have demonstrated all the acuity of forward vision of a flea on a dog’s arse.

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    • I share you scepticism, Ron. Why were ministers so quick to reject the LRRG’s recommendations on Land Value Taxation, a system that would destroy the windfall profits from property speculation? What proportion of MSPs hold property portfolios? Probably many times more than the rest of the population. Otherwise, very little reason for the SNP to stick with a system of local government finance that was cobbled together by the Westminster Tories after the poll tax fiasco 23 years ago, dependent on unrecognisably out-of-date valuations and absurd exemptions, discouraging legitimate development while rewarding neglect and under-use of land and buildings.

      LVT would do the opposite. Eventually, if levied at 100% by a Scottish government as an alternative to deadweight taxation on work and enterprise, it could put the Scottish economy in the fast lane where claims and counter-claims about £1000 per head surplus or £1400 per head deficit would shrink into petty insignificance. We would then no longer need to worry about imposing arbitrary limits on the size of individual landholdings, or legislating against vacant or derelict urban land, when LVT would automatically penalise the holding of surplus land.

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      • John, the Scottish Government has not rejected the LVT recommendations. it has, however, said that it has no plans to remove the agricultural exemption from non-domestic rates. There is a lot in the report on urban matters and a number of sensible fiscal recommendations.

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        • Andy – I was going on David Ross’s report in the Herald last Saturday (24th May), which said:
          “There is a call for Crown Estate Commissioners to depart Scotland and their powers devolved while “serious consideration” should be given to introducing a system of land-value taxation, which could be an alternative to the council tax. However, ministers quickly ruled this out.”
          Maybe that was incorrect or badly phrased – do you know?

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          • It is incorrect. Read my blog from Friday which explains the situation.

          • Andy – yes, he does indeed seem to have got it wrong if the issue of exemption from business rates was what he was actually writing about. I suppose it’s wise not to believe everything you see in the papers!

          • I would agree John, that the press report, gave the wrong impression and we do indeed have to treat what even experienced journalists say with some caution. As you are aware from other discussions we have had in other fora, both myself and Prof Sandilands have been in communication with John Swinney over the land rental issue for some time. Personally, I think John Swinney ‘gets it’ but the the failure to engage comes from elsewhere in the Party. However we should take some comfort that LRV/LVT is perhaps not off the menu and keep following through on the argument for it.
            The LVT/LRV issue notwithstanding, the other substantive criticisms of the SNP I made in my initial post remain and I am especially disappointed with how one-time reforming firebrands such as Roseanna Cunningham and Rob Gibson seemed to have fizzled out into murk of stasis.

  2. Mind you , if brian wilsons party had grasped the nettle in 2003 and passed the Actual Right To Buy, all this would be ancient history, and farm tenants would not be in the dire straits they find themselves with runaway rent reviews etc.

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    • I agree Hector, the Labour Party are not exactly innocent bystanders on this one. We only have to look at the privately owned ‘national’ parks they ushered in to glean an inkling of their failure.

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  3. Roger Sandilands

    Hear, hear, Ron.
    How radical can “land reform” be if it is mainly confined to buying land – at public expense – for local community groups mainly in rural areas? The great bulk of land values lies in our cities. With continual investment – much of it at public expense – in social overhead capital (the transport and communications network, schools, hospitals, parks etc) land values increase constantly. They also increase because population and economic growth create demand for land while its supply is fixed. Unearned income results for the owners of land, and speculative holdings are encouraged, leading to boom and bust.
    Currently the bulk of state revenues comes from the taxation of earned incomes and regressive VAT . These discourage work and enterprise.
    If instead our central and local governments switched to the collection of the annual rental value of all our land – rural and especially urban – then there could be corresponding reductions in destructive and unfair taxation of our earned incomes.
    The rental value of our nation’s land is a communally created value. Basic ethical principles suggest that the value of what the community creates should belong to the community. Meanwhile, we have a just claim to the fruits of our own work and genuinely productive enterprise.
    Therefore, abolish taxation and collect instead the value of the benefits we each enjoy from our exclusive tenure or ownership of land, whether for our housing or commercial or industrial needs.
    This would release our productive energies and enterprise. With increased incomes demand for space would increase, creating a naturally buoyant and principled basis for the revenue needs of a benevolent state while leaving us to maximise our earned incomes.
    This is the rational way to achieve genuine land reform and a more dynamic and equitable economy and society.

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    • a key post indeed Roger and one I hope that is being read by politicians looking at this blog. The collection of annual rental value of land would solve or alleviate all the problems you outline and of course it is an important item of consideration in the immigration debate too, but in relation to the problem of land hoarding and the intensely concentrated private land tenure that impacts on so negatively on of Scotland’s socio-economic performance and social demography, it would bring about a de-concentration and extensification of tenure without expensive and totalitarian state expropriation.

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  4. Finger pointing and blaming one former administration or another will do nothing but entrench positions. We clearly need to know how we got to where we are but please please please stop looking back and look forward to how these excellent recommendations can be enacted.

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    • track records and current form are the mainstay of bookies life support. The above horses have persistently, cogently and deliberately refused to perform—why should we bet on them now? They will only go as far as we whip them—we are now in process of the flogging they so richly deserve for eating all our hay and doing nothing.

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    • The wonder is not how they will be enacted, but IF. The totality of the historical track record and established pattern of behaviour suggests that either nothing will happen or a token gesture of appeasement leaving the special interests intact will be made. Only a continued process of name, shame, blame and publicly embarrass offers any chance for change.

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  5. Slurry Stirrer

    Fair enough comments above from Brian Wilson. A little extra detail is perhaps needed regarding the governments inaction over tenants right to buy. The government were pushed hard by NFUS to drop this and the Landowning elite made a promise to let significant tenancies if it was dropped. ARTB was off the agenda and in the following 11 years the landowners broke their promise. Now they are kicking and screaming like a petulant child. This broken promise needs to be given more emphasis, because who knows what the next lie will be. Unfortunately when the landed elite engage with ‘the rest of us’ there seems to be an instilled(at public school)inability to speak the truth.

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    • well said SS, sophistry, prevarication and mendacity are liberally sprinkled over this issue—- and that’s before we get to the Labour and SNP politicians who have reneged on their own policies!

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    • it’s case of yet another SUD—sheer utter disgrace.

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  6. I have not been reticent in my criticisms of the SNP over this issue and’ je regret rien’ about that, but since this blog was written by a prominent Labour member who has been in government, perhaps we could ask him to expound and expand a bit on the Labour track record and projection on /for land tenure and use?

    Why does he and his party appear to support the neo-tribalist, quasi-kibbutzist collectivism of compulsory antagonistic community buy-outs and ownership, but steadfastly and cogently when in power and initiating the 2003 land reform legislation, did not give the national community state-owned national parks and national nature reserves? Brian Wilson , like me, is old enough to remember the scathing indictment of Labour -run Scotland/UK that was the title and satire of the 7:84 Company in pointing out that 7% of the population owned 84% of national wealth. That’s wealth, not just cash and much of that wealth is held as land; and we know in Scotland we have an extremely imbalanced distribution of land in private hands. So why did he and his ‘socialist’ colleagues not do more about that inequality of wealth and land distribution and what are they hoping to do about it in future? Right now, the 7:84 Company could just as well make the same scathing indictment of SNP-run Scotland, but this not a point scoring exercise, just a measure of the failure of the political class to deal with the primary, fundamental issues of a land tenure system less democratic than that which pertains in Mozambique. Core to these primary and fundamental issues is the private monopolisation of societally created annual rental values of land as Roger Sandilands has so eloquently outlined above. So, where does Brian Wilson and/or Labour stand on the Land Rental Value issue?

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  7. If it was 7;84 twenty years ago, it must be 3; 95 by now.
    Labour made such a mess of the 2003 act that many hundreds of younger tenants are no longer farming, many hundreds more are being rackrented to ruin, and some are no longer with us.
    What is your comment on that brian.?

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  8. To my mind the elephant in the room in all this is the emerging tension between family farms and “agri-biz”.

    While “land reform” is a banner your average Scotsman/Daily Record reader can engage with, he/she has no idea that the real problem might be the sort of “creeping clearance” brought about (doubtless unintentionally) by the winner of an award for Arable Farmer of the Year 2011. This is a very far cry from mithering about Danes and Dukes shooting grouse in the Highlands that articles in the Guardian go on about.

    I think there has to be some sort of very high level enquiry about the respective merits and demerits of “family farming” vis a vis “agri-biz”. I’m sure it can’t be as polarised as saying one is good and the other is bad and it’s a question of striking where the balance lies.

    It also demonstrates IMO that it IS about use, not ownership in that it’s totally putting the cart before the horse to decide upon small scale ownership if what is required to deliver a desired outcome (after it’s been investigated) is large scale ownership. Or vice versa.

    Without prejudging, I suspect there’s an interesting parallel to be drawn with crofting (and Ireland). Granting of entrenched rights to family farms (crofts) in 19th century did NOT prevent subsequent depopulation in 1920s & 30s as Jim Hunter’s book “Claim of Crofting” eloquently shows. So what can we learn in the 21st century?

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  9. For Ron Greer..I was wondering if it was possible to get some advice from you about the affects of small hydro schemes on the river ecosystems involved?I am sorry I have no other way of contacting you.I am on torq@blackisleberries.co.uk

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  10. It is the same arguement as between the lowland sheep farmers like patrick sellar and the occupants of strathnaver etc 200 years ago.
    Mr Sellar had a get rich quick scheme involving wool production, which he wished to pursue at strathnaver with the blessing of the laird.
    The ancient occupancy rights of the locals in strathnaver never entered the equation, and they were brutally evicted.
    Mr mc gregor cares not a jot that his desire for the shiniest , biggest machinery and multi thousand acres of land has led to the eviction of farming families of long standing who employed ten times more people. He is unconcerned about the local school or the community as long as he gets more land.
    Sellars sheep farming ultimately failed, leaving behind a desert landscape, just as mcgregors model will ultimately fail as the soil fertility built up by generations of family farmers who farmed for the next generation becomes exhausted and weeds take over.
    Mcgregors operation is an anomaly caused by the single farm payment, low grain prices ten years ago, and the failure of the 2003 act to grant limited partnerships security of tenure.
    If you drive past one of his farms, you will see the deserted packhouse, built by a tenant, and now lying empty which was up to 2008 the centre of a bustling, thriving business employing 12 people.
    The manure from the 26,000 hens kept there raised the soil fertility to an incredible level, which he is now benefitting from, not the tenant who made it so.

    This is the story of scottish agriculture down the ages where the tenants have no rights to occupy as they do elsewhere in europe, and they give and the landlord takes.

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    • hector, I get the parallel between Sellar and MacGregor – it’s a very interesting historical analogy. What I’m less convinced about is the alternative and whether rural Scotland will necessarily “flourish” if you limit the size of holdings etc. I’m not saying it won’t – the jury is out (I don’t think it’s even heard much the evidence) – but the lesson of history here is crofting (and Ireland). The changes made in late 19th cent. may have given a breather but did not usher in prosperity and 100 years of decline continued. In the last 30 years, some crofting areas like Skye have now prospered but others like the Western Isles are still just bumping along the bottom economically. I’m not saying crofting’s bad – I think it’s quite good – but equally I think it’s only a part of an equation and “it’s the economy stupid”. The notion that, if we got up to Mozambican levels of % >1 acre smallholdings, then everything would be sweetness and light is hopelessly optimistic. Or at least I’d like to see some sort of credible study saying it’s not.

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      • Neil, “Prosperity” is a relative term.
        If a family has a roof over their head and food on the table, they are more prosperous than an evicted farmer living on the roadside, which was the situation in ireland and the western isles pre 1886.
        Social policy must play an important part in all this, not pure economics, otherwise mcgregor will end up farming all of scotland.
        Limiting the size of holdings is fraught with difficuilty, but if tenants are granted full security and ARTB, that will help. Subsidy should also be capped at 100,000 euros.
        Taking the farm i alluded to, it provided a living for 12 families and the farmer, in an area where jobs are scarce.
        Now it employs half a man, but the imputed rent is now maybe 3 times more, which goes into the bank account of someone who neither lives or spends money locally.
        That is the formula of rural decline which we have faced for 300 years, with country peoples livings being extracted and squandered in far off places.
        Time for change.

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  11. Long overdue, land reform is something we really need to get our teeth into, particularly the reclamation of spoiled land, where the mineral rights are still retained by our feudal overlords.

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  12. Well Ron, I could not express my views on this any better than directly quoting from your comments above:
    “Radical land reform could have inspired people to see the potential ahead for independence. It could have given the SNP a pedigree of performance to take their strategic case forward. Instead, they have demonstrated all the acuity of forward vision of a flea on a dog’s arse.”

    Precisely. However, things are finally stirring. After the referendum, there will be no ore room for excuses. In the meantime, the scandal of the SNH, and its politically biased pseudo-science that achieves very little, is emerging. They have a large part to answer for, in legitimising the huge ecological damage to rural Scotland. likewise, the scandal of what has been happening in the islands, particularly on Rum Island, where large sums of public cash have sunk without trace on “Development” projects, which were never really intended to be more than window dressing to keep people quite. The details that emerging are very bad. millions spent on a country house restoration, while the islands only road is full of potholes and impassable in bad weather, and the whole thing in the hands of a clique of “Incomers” with a voracious appetite for public cash, and little or no skills in spending it.

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  13. More grist to the agri-biz vs family farms debate in this article – http://tinyurl.com/mhjmywy

    “Land reform” allows unscrupulous politicians magnificent photo ops on wind swept Hebridean beaches cutting ribbons to claim the credit for another X,000 hectares of rock and bog being brought into community ownership but to my mind this agri-biz swallowing up good land for short term gain thing is a far more potent issue. I don’t trust George Monbiot but if there’s even a grain of truth in what he says, then it’s worth having someone more credible looking into the issue.

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