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Knapdale Beavers and Land Reform

Reading Time: 7 minutes
Knapdale

Good times are coming for the Knapdale Beavers, who have sculpted their permanent mark on the stunning ancient deciduous forest. They will become a protected species in May 2019, in a long awaited and controversial move. Much of this area though flanked on both sides by huge areas of privately owned land is in the ownership of Forestry and Land Scotland which, along with Scottish Forestry was established on 1st April 2019 replacing the dissolved Forestry Commission. Together they have multiple roles which include the management of National Forest estate, the enhancement of biodiversity, promotion of public awareness of the outdoors, support of the rural economy and regulation and support for landowners.

In communities from Eigg to Ulva and many more, the land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 set the ball rolling for the buyout of land, financially assisted since 2016 by a Scottish Land Fund worth £10m. Together with conservation charities such as the John Muir Trust, we start to see a groundswell of support for progressive rural land use in Scotland.

Only in 2015 was legislation passed which allowed Action Porty (Portobello) and Save Bellfield, the first community group to use the community right to buy powers in an urban area to purchase the former Old Parish Church in Bellfield Street as a Community Hub.

In spite of the significant beneficial changes to land use vast inequalities of wealth and power surrounding land ownership remain with increasing awareness of the effects in towns and cities, as well as rural areas. These divisions have deeply imbedded roots from the feudal system and significantly, in the Enclosures and Clearances movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. A turning point for land issues in Scotland began in 1997 when the Labour Government was elected to Westminster on a manifesto which included both devolution and land reform. Upon election, a Land Reform Policy Group (LRPG) was formed leading to a series of reform measures. In 2012 the SNP Scottish Government commissioned an independent review of land reform.

The LRPG essentially broadly defined land reform as measures that;

“modify or change the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest”

One grassroots initiative supporting further reform was “Our Land” created by Common Weal, Women for Independence, Scottish Land Action Movement, Radical Independence, land reform campaigners Andy Wightman and Lesley Riddoch. In July 2015 Lesley Riddoch highlighted the collective aims of Our land;

“… to highlight the problems of dereliction in cities and emptiness in the countryside that flow from an elitist system of land ownership that allows a handful of individuals, quangos, insurance companies and trusts based in offshore tax havens to dictate the price, availability and use of land in Scotland – from the remotest islands to the busiest city centres………”

Our Land estimated that 50% of private land is owned by 432 people, from large sporting estates to empty buildings. 40-50% of the cost of new builds is the cost of land and this essentially leads in large measure to insecurity of tenure and inability to increase living standards in our communities. In other words, the scope and depth of land issues burrows into the everyday lives of our communities and goes well beyond beneficial community buy out and rewilding projects, whilst not undermining them in any way.

With a new Land Reform Bill in the offing following the LRPG report, there was an expectation of defined measures for the forced sale of under-used private land, a new regime of penalties for failing landlords and the establishment of a powerful Land Commission amidst other significant reforms.

Amidst the optimism, one journalist, James Cusick set the scene in The Independent in October 2015 with the ominous reminder that the ruling class will not give up centuries of power and influence easily;

“It is now over 40 years since the 7:84 theatre company took to the stage to remind Scotland that the landlords of their glens were still likely to be ruling-class absentee owners. And as one of the songs in “The Cheviot, the Stag and Black, Black Oil” warned anyone trying change that history would face powerful resistance………

Perhaps the accusations of “timidity” by reform campaigners and “absence of certainty and clarity” by Scottish Land & Estates, the group representing land owners goes some way towards placing the SNP in the middle of wildly conflicting interests as the draft bill was announced. Lawyers advising the Scottish Government on the reforms insisted that “good land owners” had nothing to fear. However Cusick noted that the Scottish press still raged with headlines about siege, revolution and vengeance for the Highland Clearances. Meanwhile, Scotland’s land continued to be marketed as a desirable commodity for wealthy clients around the world as an investment.

The act was given Royal Assent on 22 April 2016, having been voted through Holyrood by 102 votes to 14. The legislation included new protections for tenant farmers and an end to tax relief for sporting estates, accompanied by a new Scottish Land Fund. However, amendments on the restrictions of the amount of land that one individual can own and prevention of land ownership via offshore tax havens, were voted down by some SNP and Conservative backbenchers. Land reform campaigners were underwhelmed and the new act seen essentially as a foundation for further reform.

The disappointment was summed up by Andy Wightman; “The Green (Scottish Green Party) bid to clamp down on the use of tax havens goes to the heart of understanding who owns Scotland… There is an urgent need to ensure transparency in who profits from Scottish land.”

And Jean Urquhart an independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands at the time echoes a sense of urgency; “One amendment that was voted down today would have created an open and public register of landowners in Scotland. The secrecy surrounding who owns Scotland’s land has to end to allow meaningful land reform to take place. Unfortunately it seems that every time the big landowners threaten legal action, the Scottish government backs down.”

The Scottish Land Commission, an executive non-departmental public body became fully operational on 1 April 2017 but pressure continues apace for further reform from the grass roots, the opposition and from within the SNP. In March 2017 the party’s spring conference unanimously backed calls for new taxes on ownership, with an amendment from Helensburgh SNP which stated that the government “must include exploring all fiscal options including ways of taxing the value of undeveloped land” in its gradual land reform programme.

Sean Bell reported for Commonspace in March 2019 that Andy Wightman had re-asserted in Holyrood that access to information about land ownership is “fragmented, expensive and complicated” and essentially easier for business than public use. Andy could not see the achievement of the Scottish Government’s target to provide a register of public land ownership by the end of 2019.

Andy Wightman produced a detailed and costed report on Land Value Taxation (LVT) on behalf of the Scottish Green Party, with LVT proposed by the Green MSPs as a method of raising local government finance to replace the current Council Tax, by means of taxes levied on the underlying value of the land rather than any buildings on it . Researchers for The Scottish Land Commission also concluded that there was a strong case to debate LVT “as a means to diversify ownership and raise productivity”. Mure Dickie wrote for the Financial Times on December 10, 2018 that “Economists extol Land Value Tax as efficient and difficult to evade.” He added, however that the report warns that while Land Value Tax is “extremely attractive in theory”, international experience has exposed practical obstacles, including the difficulty in dismantling centuries of land ownership rights.”

We return to the theme of strong resistance, deep roots, power, wealth and acquisition. And for a moment, let’s step from the land to the sea, where Greenpeace’s Unearthed investigation project released figures from a study showing that, in 2018 Just five families on the Sunday Times Rich List hold or control 29% of the UK’s fishing quota. While the Scottish Greens would aspire to a more radical programme of land reform and use, the SNP are a Social Democratic Party, gradualist in nature, diverse in make-up from the grass roots upwards, to the cautious leadership. The power and ownership rights and lasting sense of entitlement from the few, versus the welfare and quality of life of the many, is the big issue and for many including the business friendly Scottish Government, the elephant in the room.

The Scottish Greens recently assisted the passing of the Scottish Government budget, by securing an agreement that will allow local authorities to raise council tax by almost 5% in the coming year, with councils also being given powers to introduce a workplace parking levy or a new tourist tax for hotel stays. Were the Greens “bought cheap” because of this, as expressed by Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie and in light of their radical manifesto? Another means of boosting Scottish Council funding came from a joint paper from Unison and the Jimmy Reid Foundation from the STUC conference in April 2019. It recommends moving towards a “more progressive” system which would shift the burden onto property and land owners rather than Council taxpayers. The current response from The Scottish government was that its own reforms would “empower” Councils. So the Council Tax remains in place in the meantime and the pressure to introduce more radical changes becomes enmeshed in the top down culture of the Scottish Government and opposed at every turn by the SNP hating opposition within Holyrood.

At the Scottish Land Commission launch in 2017 the stated aim by Roseanna Cunningham MSP Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform was that there must be; “…a strong and dynamic relationship between its land and people, where all land contributes to a modern and successful country, and where rights and responsibilities in relation to land are fully recognised and fulfilled.”

Ms Cunningham stood in the firing line between Scotland’s beavers and the strong lobby of farmers who opposed the move and it would seem churlish to be disdainful of any acts of reform, regardless of the caution and seeming inertia surrounding the entire project.

It is impossible to place a wedge between urban and rural, environmental and economic issues, all subject to the inequalities of wealth and power manifest to a strong degree in land mis/use. The bottom line message about gradual and organic change for, say, tenants living with constant insecurity of tenure, is that they will have to wait and rely essentially on grass roots action.

Living Rent is one such organisation , a tenants union with a stated aim to; “ … redress the power imbalance between landlords and tenants; and ensure that everyone has decent and affordable housing.” Resistance is strong, organisations such as Living Rent and Revive, a recently formed coalition for Grouse Moor Reform are examples of many ways in which resistance is strong against the hegemony of the powerful land ownership too. There is progress. Too much to document.

 

By Val Waldron

 

You can read more Ungagged Writing here or hear from more left voices on our podcast

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