This blog is the second in a series of blogs about the Scottish Government’s consultation – Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation (see this page for details). It follows a previous blog that provided an overview of the proposals.
This blog provides a short and preliminary examination of the issue of scale and concentration of landownership and is prompted by discussion in the online meeting last night with the Minister and her team,
In the introduction to the consultation paper, the Minister states in her introduction that “we are driving forward reform to historically iniquitous patterns of landownership.”
On page 6, it is stated that “The first three proposals we put forward are aimed at tackling the issues associated with scale and concentration of land ownership in Scotland.”
As was discussed in my previous blog, these three proposals are focussed on large-scale landholdings. I will blog further on what this might mean but for the moment I want to flag up potential issues with the statistics used by the Scottish Government.
Landholdings over 3000ha
Page 7 of the consultation paper contains the following claim,
As of May 2022, Registers of Scotland data indicates that 386 of the 1.86 million titles in the Land Register of Scotland had a total land area of over 3,000 hectares. These titles cover 1.62 million hectares of land, equating to 20.2% of Scotland’s total land mass.
I asked Registers of Scotland (RoS) what the basis of these figures was.
They replied as follows (Land Reform Team refers to officials in the Scottish Government)
The methodology agreed by the Land Reform Team was:
For each Title on the Land Register
Measure the footprint of all rights/extents displayed on the title plan, regardless of the type of interest
where the total footprint is over 3000 hectares.
As non-ownership rights are included, the area figures and title counts may be an over-estimate.
Customer may not be interested in leases
When programmed and executed, this methodology returned
Number of titles over 3000 ha: 386
Land mass covered: 1,616,976 ha
Area of Scotland: 8,007,825 ha
% of Scotland’s land mass: 20.2%
I have analysed the Land Register data and found 231 holdings covering 1,531,640ha. So the extent is in line with the Scottish Government’s figures but the number of holdings is not. This is almost certainly because the RoS exercise included wind farm leases and other types of interest that overlap with ownership.
The number of titles is thus greater (386 compared with 231) and the area is also 6% greater than my own figures. Both datasets include almost all of the National Forest estate and so are also both overestimates of the extent of large-scale landownership on the Land Register.
In any event, the Land Register only covers 48.9% of the land mass of Scotland. The majority of Scotland’s land is still registered in the Register of Sasines. Despite this, a Government official claimed last night that the majority of large-scale holdings are on the Land Register and thus their figure is reliable. In fact the opposite is the case.
I have been researching landownership since 1994 and am currently updating my Who Owns Scotland website and so have analysed a more comprehensive dataset of landholdings that includes those still in the Register of Sasines.
My preliminary analysis is illustrated below where landholdings over 3000ha are coloured blue where they are on the Land Register and red where they are on the Register of Sasines. (this map does NOT include ALL holdings over 3000ha – this is research in progress).
In total the map shows 358 holdings covering 2.86 million ha of Scotland (35.6% of the land mass). Of these, only 30% of the land (covered by 130 landholdings) is on the Land Register with the majority (70%) comprising 228 landholdings still in the Register of Sasines.
So the Scottish Goverment say 386 holdings covering 1,620,000 ha (20.2% of Scotland)
I say 130 holdings covering 872,833ha (10.8% of Scotland) from Land Register
PLUS 228 holdings covering 1,988.939 ha (24.8% of Scotland) from the Register of Sasines
giving a TOTAL of 358 holdings covering 2,861,772 ha (35.6% of Scotland)
(My data remains preliminary and does not include some known large scale holdings. it will be finalised in September.)
Tackling Scale and Concentration
The one substantive policy question I wish to address in this blog is why scale and concentration matters and what to do about it.
As discussed in the consultation paper, it is proposed to define large-scale holdings as those over 3000ha, comprising more than a defined % of an administrative unit (such as a Council ward) or comprising more than a defined % of a permanently inhabited island.
I don’t propose to discuss this definition here but to concentrate instead on the rationale lying behind focussing on large-scale holdings and how this is being defined.
A definition of large-scale being landholdings over 3000ha in extent begs an important question. Is the threshold of 3000ha to apply to a single parcel or to an aggregate of parcels? An aggregate of parcels would arise where, for example, an owner owns five landholdings across the country each of 1000ha thus potentially exceeding the threshold of 3000ha.
In response to my question on this last night, the Scottish Government stated that their proposal is for a single parcel and that an owner who owned 2009ha in Aberdeenshire and 5ha in Lanarkshire would not be covered by the proposals.
The answer was further reinforced by the Chair of the Scottish Land Commission, Andrew Thin who emphasised that their advice was based on local concentrations of power over land.
So as things stand, aggregate ownership is not regarded as large-scale even it exceeds the 3000ha threshold. The Scottish Government takes the view (based on advice from the Scottish Land Commission) that it the key impact of scale and concentration is the potential negative impact that arises from large landholdings in local areas. Where power is concentrated in the hands of one owner over a large area, it can thwart local priorities.
The Scottish Land Commission’s research and subsequent advice was based upon the impact that the concentration of power can have in a local area and in so far as that analysis goes, it is fine.
BUT, consider this.
If Scotland consisted of 100 landholdings of 80,000ha each, that would be a significant issue in terms of scale and concentration.
If Scotland consisted of one million holdings of 8ha each, that would, on the face of it not pose the same issues.
Except that it would if 100 people or entities each owned 10,000 of these 8ha holdings.
The Scottish Land Commission recognises the issues associated with the former but ignores the issues associated with the latter.
And this is where the question of aggregate holdings is important.
This is a live issue with me as I am, on a daily basis, researching and documenting the ownership of land in order to relaunch my Who Owns Scotland website in September. What I am finding (and this is no surprise) is that there are a number of owners who are accumulating landholdings across Scotland, buying more and more land but typically in individuals holdings that fall below the 3000ha threshold.
If (as the Scottish Government states) it wishes to see a more diverse pattern of landownership with more opportunities for citizens and communities to own land (see page 2 of consultation document) then it needs to be just as concerned with the accumulation of landownership and the resulting concentration that arises as it is with the impacts at any particular local level.
If someone already owns 3000ha as an aggregate total of their ownership, then acquiring more will exacerbate the existing inequalities and lead to more concentrated landownership. Yet this phenomenon is absent from both the Scottish Land Commission’s advice and thus the Government’s analysis of the problem.
Over ten years ago I published an analysis of private forest ownership in Scotland (see 5th document on this page). It showed a remarkably concentrated pattern of ownership in this sector and a stark contrast with the rest of Europe (see graph below). Over 44% of private forests in Scotland are over 100ha in size and account for over 94% of the forest area. Across Europe most forests are small-scale and less that 1% are over 100ha in size. Over half of Scotland’s private forests are owned by absentee owners and a third don’t even live in Scotland.
My current research suggests that the situation has got worse (I will publish a final analysis later this year). If it has got worse, then it is because of the rapid accumulation of land by a few individual owners.
Yet, there are no proposals to deal with this.
This blog has been supported by donors to my defamation crowdfunder who kindly donated their eligible refunds to my work on land reform.