Land reform – this is the chance

Robin McAlpine

Something interesting is happening in Scotland – Scottish Land and Estates seem perhaps a bit nervous, and Scottish Land and Estates is never nervous. So what is Scottish Land and Estates, why is it nervous and what does this all mean?

Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) is the lobbying body of the dukes, lords and billionaires who own Scotland, represents the owners of big landholdings. Its purpose is to ensure that Scotland continues to run its land affairs in their interests, that any talk of ‘equity’, ‘justice’ or ‘reform’ is quashed and that the subsidies keep flowing.

SLE is incredibly influential in Scotland. It has the ear of government – when the previous First Minister set up a commission to plan the economic recovery from Covid she chose the chief executive of one of the biggest players in SLE, demonstrating the closeness of the relationship.

And certainly over the last decade the Scottish Government has huffed and puffed a lot about ‘land reform’ but done very little. In fact, it has done next to nothing, despite there barely being a moment over that decade when it wasn’t claiming to be on the case and pursuing land reform.

Why? Why say you’re doing it but then not doing it? This is because there is very substantial pressure on the issue of land reform, both in the SNP and in the Labour Party. Not only that, there is very substantial public support for fairer land distribution. I’ve done fringe meetings at SNP conferences on many subjects but the ones that get the biggest turnout are always about land reform.

So this should be straightforward based on two facts. First Scotland is a democracy. Second it’s two biggest political parties both nominally support change and there is genuine, strong pressure inside their parties for change which is very much supported by the public. Add that together and you should get, well, change.

But those conditions have been true for quite a while now and the land reform movement in Scotland is centuries-old. Yet frankly since some modest reforms in the post-war years and up to the 1960s when a more radical Labour Secretary of State for Scotland made some changes, progress has virtually ground to a halt.

Why? Because I have already invoked the words ‘duke’, ‘lord’ and ‘billionaire’. I would argue that none of the three of those categories of people are consistent with democracy – certainly not the first two and while we can argue over the latter, there are few billionaires who do not routinely bend the rules in democracies or who haven’t benefited greatly from outsourcing to non-democracies.

Either way, they don’t do their business by standard democratic means. They don’t start political parties obviously ‘cos no-one would vote for them. A regular citizen doesn’t get anything like the insider access they get so they don’t have to waste time with petitions or protests. They just… pick up the phone and problems simply go away.

What has been happening over the last ten years is that the means of making their problems go away was to get politicians to run a never-ending series of pointless commissions, inquiries and parliamentary procedures which went nowhere. Rather than say no to land reformers they were simply tricked with make-busy nonsense.

This was hardly an uncommon strategy for that administration – there had been pretty significant pressure on them to do some local democracy reform and it is not only the case that endless ‘local governance reviews’ trundled on with the goal of getting nowhere and doing nothing, I now know for a fact that that was the explicit purpose of them.

The difference with land reform is that there were a couple of Cabinet Secretaries who actually did want to address land issues in various ways. In fact I know of two separate occasions on which land issues were raised in cabinet by members and were strenuously rejected from above (I have double-sourcing for both). 

That’s because even at fairly senior levels in the SNP there is strong support for land reform, land taxation and more equitable rural development. It required a barrier to protect SLE’s interests and that barrier had been in place in the last administration.

It isn’t now. There is no-one in the Scottish Government that I can see who wants to block land reform. I’m not suggesting everyone is eager or enthusiastic, but some are and no-one is fundamentally against change. This is a very big shift.

In particular the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and the Islands Mairi Gougeon is genuinely keen to see progress made on fairer land distribution in Scotland. And as best as I can tell, she’s neither kidding nor posing. This is genuinely the most propitious moment for land reform since the 1960s. 

And it’s not just in the SNP. The excellent Scottish Labour backbencher Mercedes Villalba has introduced a Members’ Bill which would put in place a ‘presumed limit’ of 500 hectares on how much land a person can own, sell, or transfer without triggering a public interest test. That is a very strong public statement – ‘we think five square kilometres of our country is enough for any one person to own and you need to give us a very good reason to think otherwise in any individual case’.

For a land reformer this isn’t just exciting, this is potentially thrilling. There are two radical women in the Scottish Parliament finally shaping up to do something about Scotland being the most inequitable country in the developed world for land ownership, and at the moment there seems no-one in a position of power in the government determined to stop them.

And that is why SLE is having sleepless nights, and that is why it is ‘urging’ the appointment of a Junior Minister to ‘help out’ poor Ms Gougeon because of ‘how busy she is’. I’m sure they’d probably be OK with it if it was, say, Fergus Ewing (who wasn’t exactly known for hostility to big land owners). Basically any older conservative who will explain to this young upstart woman why protecting dukes and lords is in her interest.

But there’s something in this you need to focus on, and again you can find it in the phrase ‘dukes, lords and billionaires’ – these people are absolutely minted. They have the dedication, the self interest, the contacts and the resources to campaign hard and effectively against the potential of change. 

This is my point; who is on the other side? In reality the main proponents of and campaigners for land reform are Common Weal and the Revive coalition of which we’re a part, along with dogged individuals like Lesley Riddoch and particularly Andy Wightman. All of us together (along with Global Justice Now and a few others) formed the Our Land coalition precisely because there was a big hole in campaigning for land reform.

But Common Weal was effectively providing the resource and the secretariat for it and bluntly we’re also the main policy and campaigning front on issues like opposing the privatisation of all of Scotland’s energy resources and banking reform and one of the key players in a whole load of other areas like local democracy, energy transition and a National Care Service.

We simply don’t have the capacity or resource to support all of these campaigns all of the time, and we certainly can’t compete with the time and resource available to SLE to campaign against all of this. So yes, please do become a regular donor and help us do what we do. But it won’t be enough.

So let me put it as straightforwardly as this; Mairi Gougeon and Mercedes Villalba need people at their back if they are not to be picked off by the power and self interest of the remnants of Scotland’s old aristocracy and any billionaire who fancies a chunk of the nation. Our Land was mothballed because frankly there was no sign of progress six years ago and we’re all busy.

But there are signs of progress now and if we do not jump on and support vociferously and wholeheartedly these women’s efforts, this moment may pass and it might be back to another 50 years of the rich treating Scotland as their plaything.

Don’t let them. Write, shout, contact, support, donate – if you care about land reform, whatever it is you can do, now is the time to do it.

6 thoughts on “Land reform – this is the chance”

  1. Hello Robin,
    Please can you share any sources you have and a list of historical land reform documents if you have them. I’ll then formulate a summary with the beginnings of a resolution to take this up with the SNP Climate and Environment Group. This group has representation from across Scotland. I think I could get support from my branch and all, if not most, of the branches who have representatives on this group.

    1. Robin McAlpine


      The stuff that has actually happened was mostly to do with things like creating what is now Forestry and Land Scotland and nationalising tracts of land, and then there was a bunch of stuff in the 60s around hydro and various things in the north. I suspect Andy Wightman’s work is your best bet for more historical info – The Poor Had No Lawyers is as good as any I suspect. But if it’s forward-looking, the main document on land reform from here was produced by us and the New Economy Foundation is your best bet. This is basically a full menu of things you can do to reform land, all within the power of the Scottish Parliament. You’ll find it here – /policies/our-land/. And if you’re interested in land tax there is the Annual Ground Rent team, but I prefer our solution to land tax (because it reforms Council Tax at the same time). The details of that are here – /policies/a-property-tax-for-scotland/.

      We also have loads of supporting material – look for “Work the Land” and “Back to Life” in the policy library, and for a bit of a vision of what it could look like, have a look at “Mosaic of Life”. Or, just as easily, drop me an email (robin@common.scot) and we can help. Conference motions would be great and I’m sure they’re really help Mairi out. I’m on leave for two weeks a week on Monday but I’ll be back well before the deadline for motions if I can help.


  2. Great news. And more power, much more, to Mairi Gougeon and Mercedes Villalba. I’ve come to the conclusion that land reform is fundamental to tackling the extreme inequality in our society and building the resilience we will all need as the climate worsens.
    Land is far to precious a resource to be held by so few people in Scotland.

  3. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for pointing out an opportunity to push forward with the land reform agenda. Can you share insights on how you know “endless ‘local governance reviews’ trundled on with the goal of getting nowhere and doing nothing, I now know for a fact that that was the explicit purpose of them.” I (and no doubt many others) did suspect this but have no real evidence.

    Any updates from Susan Dyer also welcome,

  4. Can we call it the ‘hollowing out of local government’?
    Please: who or what (body, group) could or might do for the local government abandoned ruins what this piece is hoping for in land reform?

  5. A golden opportunity to empower community councils at the same time.
    When land comes into public ownership it usually ends up with the Council who are usually keen to sell it off at a bargain rate. Which enriches the already rich.
    There’s even a process whereby people can simply privatise land called adverse possession.
    We need to reform land so that intestate, unowned or land given to the public sector is offered on first refusal to the community councils, preferably backed by a scheme for self-build housing.
    Land reform could get community councils out of the doldrums they are currently in while encouraging and empowering communities to run their area instead of being servants to the local laird.

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