Our Land – Your Voice

“The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs who deserved no better”. – Betsy Mackay (quoted by John Prebble in “The Highland Clearances”)

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Last week, I took part in the Scottish Government’s virtual public meeting on their Land Reform for a Net Zero Scotland Consultation. This was the only virtual meeting of the series, with the remainder being held in various rural locations across Scotland. About 120 people were in attendance to hear Andrew Thin from the Scottish Land Commission, Janet Mountford-Smith, one of the Scottish Government civil servants charged with coordinating this consultation and the Land Reform Bill as well as Government Ministers Màiri McAllan and Lorna Slater whose remits lie within this Bill. After presentations by all four, the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions. Unfortunately, they chose not to record this virtual meeting though we were assured that the Scottish Government took notes throughout.

Our hosts said repeatedly throughout the evening that the Scottish Government was “entirely open” to suggestions on how to enact Land Reform – and repeatedly encouraged folk to respond to the Consultation – it’s clear that they’re not working from an entirely blank slate here. Several proposals are being made and some of them, we clearly must object to.

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To take them in order:-

1. LARGE LANDHOLDINGS

The Government has indicated that it wishes to subject large landholdings to additional regulations – particularly around the use and sale of their land including subjecting sales or transfer of “large” estates to a public interest test which could set conditions on the sale (including breaking the estate into smaller lots and/or offering local communities first refusal on purchasing the estate) or even blocking the transfer altogether. Their definition of a “large” estate is 3,000 hectares (approximately 7,400 acres or about half the size of Dundee) with secondary possible definitions around estates exceeding a specified percentage of the land area of an island or local authority ward.

3,000 hectares is a huge area. If you allocated an equal share of land to every Scottish resident then we’d all get about 1.2 hectares each. 3,000 hectares is equivalent to 2,500 “shares” of land. Despite Scotland’s incredibly concentrated land ownership patterns, 3,000 hectares is also extremely large as estates that size cover only 20% of Scotland’s land area.

So why set the threshold so high? The presenters said that it was set to “account for the costs and the benefits to the public and to the public purse”. What the Scottish Government are essentially saying is that they don’t want to apply the additional regulations they’re proposing to 80% of Scotland’s land because they don’t want to have to pay to enforce those regulations. I did ask why they weren’t proposing to use land taxes and fines for noncompliance to fund this enforcement and I didn’t get a satisfactory answer – I certainly intend to make this point forcefully in my own consultation response. It cannot be right that these extra responsibilities – particularly environmental responsibilities – are bypassed because the landowner only owns an estate a quarter the size of Dundee. A hectare abused is a hectare abused regardless of whether or not the owner also owns another 2,999 along with it. The Land Management Plans should be applied to all landowners and all areas of the land they own. If that means more paperwork for someone with a large estate – that’s the price of owning a large estate.

The proposal is also not clear how it’ll deal with a landowner who owns several estates. They did given the hypothetical example of someone who owned a 2,999 hectare estate and a 5ha one somewhere else saying that the extra five hectares shouldn’t mean that the larger estate is subject to additional regulation. I somewhat disagree, based on the principle that monopoly ownership of land by a few people is inherently detrimental regardless of whether it is a single large estate or multiple smaller ones. I also worry about landowners splitting and transferring a single, large, contiguous estate into lots technically owned by multiple companies each headed by the same person. If the Duke of Dunroamin split his 6,000 hectare grouse muir into three “separate” 2,000 hectare estates owned by Dunroamin Holdings Blue Ltd, Dunroamin Holdings Red Ltd and Dunroamin Holdings Green Ltd, each of which the Duke was the sole Director and beneficial owner, would that land be subject to the additional restrictions of a “large estate”?

From our conversations at this meeting, I’m not sure if they’ve considered that. Note: I say “Duke” deliberately because very few people seem to want to talk about the extreme gender inequality in Scottish landownership alongside (and, because of inheritance laws, because of) the extreme concentration of ownership in general.

I do welcome the proposals to identify the “beneficial owners” behind companies and hedge funds who own land but I want to see the rights and responsibilities extended to a personal level too. If you, personally, collectively own more than a set threshold of land (which should be a LOT smaller than 3,000 hectares) then you should be included. And that includes if you own shares in or are a beneficiary of a company that owns land. If the threshold is 500 hectares and you own 50 per cent of a company that owns 1,400 hectares of land in Scotland, then you own the equivalent of 700 hectares and should be, for tax and regulation purposes, a “large landowner”.

2. SUBSIDIES ONLY FOR REGISTERED LAND

This is not only agreeable but should be tautological. Indeed, I’d go further. Land that does not have a provable and registrable deed of ownership should be considered to be Common Land regardless of any unproven claims to the contrary or history of use by estate owners who, as it turns out, have been illegally squatting on that land for generations after one of their ancestors enclosed or otherwise stole it. Until then, the least that the Scottish Government can do is withhold subsidies and support linked to land that is not on the Land Register or from landowners who have not registered their ownership of said land. It’s good to see at least that this principle applies to all estates, not just the “large” ones.

3. A LAND USE TENANCY

The stated purpose of this proposal is to allow landowners to be more flexible with how their land is used – in particular to make it easier to allow certain types of non-agricultural land use to occur on agricultural land. I haven’t yet been able to tease out the devils in the details of this proposal and I can certainly see it swinging both ways. Perhaps it’ll prevent landowners from “being forced to” evict tenant farmers from land in a new wave of Clearances when they want to convert that land partially to carbon storage? Perhaps it’ll just enable and encourage misuse of land such as embedding cross-subsidising of land in the same way that loss-making grouse muirs are sustained almost entirely by subsidies granted to maintain sheep on the same land.

4. SHOULD LANDOWNERS BE TAX-REGISTERED IN THE UK/EU

The short answer here is Yes. The longer one is “Why the EU?”. The Scottish Government has a principle of non-divergence from EU rules despite Brexit (the idea being that this will enable an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU somewhat faster than if we have to reverse post-Brexit divergences) and the EU does not allow discrimination between national citizens and other EU citizens resident in that nation.

There’s a massive issue with this proposal that was brought up by Andy Wightman in the meeting and that is that there are many places in the UK and the EU that are tax havens almost explicitly designed to enable shell-companies to be created for tax-registration purposes. It makes very little difference if an absentee landlord owns a large estate in Scotland despite living on a Pacific island somewhere and if that same landlord is the Director of a Maltese holding company that owns the same estate. I don’t think this restrict is or maybe even can be enough to prevent absentee landlordism in itself. Instead, we may have to consider more stringent ownership criteria such as having a demonstrable connection to the land (i.e. Does the Duke of Dunroamin actually live on Dunroamin Estate?).

Regardless, we need to ensure that there is no tax advantage created by the type of ownership of a piece of land. Scotland’s land or property tax should be charged on Dunroamin Estate at the same rate regardless of whether the Duke lives there, lives elsewhere or whether the estate is owned by him directly or by his holding company in Malta.

CONCLUSION

Despite being “completely open” to suggestions from the public on how to reform land, the Government already appears to be going down a path that, like previous attempts to reform Scotland’s land, will actually do very little if anything to address the systemic issues involved. I want to take the offer to help at its face value though (not that I am paid enough to be a Scottish Government Policy Developer and this goes double for the unpaid citizens being asked to propose ideas in this consultation especially in a consultation as long and complex as this one) and I’m not going to hold back with my recommendation on behalf of Common Weal.

Volume matters in this consultation though. Your voice is absolutely required to help drown out the voices of the landed and privileged who would seek to entrench their position even further. Please consider submitting your views to the consultation. Despite its length, you do not need to answer every question. If there is only one question in the whole thing that you feel that you have an opinion on, submit that opinion.

Please also consider joining Common Weal’s Campaign Centre where you can join our Consultation Club – a monthly online meeting where folk can discuss their consultation responses and get help filling in theirs. Once we’re done with this one, we’ll be looking at other public consultations where we can start to have and impact and shape public policy.

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