Below we examine Scotland's land use for Our Common Home.
The Common Home Plan needs three things from Scotland’s land. It must capture carbon and store it in the ground, it must support a diverse and thriving wildlife and it must be productive and supply us with food and the organic and renewable materials which will replace the harmful materials we currently use. But land is also crucial to social justice; land ownership in Scotland is more concentrated than in any other western nation and a very small number of people own almost all the private land. In the future Scotland will rely heavily on what its land produces and if this essential supply chain is in the hands of very few owners it will perpetuate increasing inequality and inefficiency. So land reform is essential.
First, we should introduce modest land taxes. Much of Scotland’s land is not used productively but instead is traded for profit like stocks and shares. Land taxes discourage that but encourage productive use of the land. This will motivate large owners to sell to many smaller owners. We should also move to a full, national system of land planning – within a town or city every change in land usage requires planning permission and land is zoned for particular purposes. The same should apply to rural land as well; it should be zoned for purposes such as forestry, agriculture or rewilding and landowners should either use it productively or sell it to someone who will. Laws could be passed limiting the size of landholdings when they are sold, breaking them up into smaller units.
But it will also be necessary to use Compulsory Sales Orders (forcing some landowners to sell some of their land) and Compulsory Purchase Orders (where land is purchased publicly with fair compensation given to the owner). The aim is not to have a Scotland where a small number of private landowners are replaced with one large state owner; rather, land bought up by the state should be developed and then sold to small investors in plots of perhaps 25 hectares each. Simply diversifying land ownership in Scotland will result in a flourishing of innovative uses of land. Currently close to one fifth of Scotland’s land is managed intensively for the sole purpose of shooting grouse, when instead we could have thriving rural communities using the land for productive economic activity.
Many people instinctively think that Scotland’s scenery is ‘natural’, but it is nothing of the sort – it has been made the way it is now by centuries of human activity. In fact, if Scotland was ‘natural’ it would be about 98 per cent forest. But the forest was felled for timber crops and cleared for agriculture. This process became intensified with the widespread introduction of sheep farming on the hills (sheep are very destructive grazers, wiping out most plant species). It is this which has left so much of Scotland a ‘green desert’, lacking trees, shrubs, any diverse plant life and the many animal species which would live there if the plant life returned. This is not only bad for biodiversity, it is very bad for capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the land, particularly by trees. Exactly the same problem is caused by deer – Scotland has far too many deer for the amount of woodland we have (or, more accurately, far too little woodland for our deer population). Establishing woodland in Scotland is much more expensive than in Norway because it is almost impossible to get trees established without widespread installation of deer fences. As we reforest the land this problem will decline, but initially a deer management strategy will be an important aspect of our land management strategy.
So our land isn’t ‘natural’, nor is it well stewarded by humankind. To change this we need to replant Scotland and manage our land properly. We should set a target of 50 per cent forest cover – Scotland currently has perhaps the best potential for forest in Europe but the lowest level of forestry on the continent. This must be properly planned, and a mix of three main types. The dense plantations of sitka spruce which are so common in our landscape are mono-crops and not good for wildlife or the long term health of the land. But fast-growth conifers are a crucial timber crop, so the trick is to plant mixed conifers and to intersperse those plantings with other more diverse tree crops. This will be a mix of native and other broadleafs such as oak, beech, willow, alder, hazel, ash and birch. The conifer will start producing timber crops in a couple of decades and the broadleaf planting will provide very high-quality timber for generations to come. This will also give us an opportunity to promote native species such as Scots Pine, which have suffered a precipitous decline due to deforestation. There will also be some planting of very fast-growth crops such as willow for coppicing, which is cut every year like a shrub and produces a lot of biomass for heating and other uses. Finally, our hillsides and wet areas are not suitable for crop harvesting but should be planted with trees and shrubs to capture carbon and enable rewilding, though peat bogs are incredible stores of carbon and must be protected.
We have had bad forestry practices in the past and as we replant we must do it well, planning carefully for different environments, to accommodate different species and to ensure that Scotland’s landscape remains among the most beautiful in the world. This forestry will then remove massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and replace large amounts of materials like concrete and steel in construction and plastics in manufacturing. To do this we must begin to use wood much more innovatively. It is an exceptionally adaptable material which can be cross-laminated (thin strips layered with the grain running in opposite directions, making it very strong and light) to make structural beams almost as strong as steel. Cross lamination can be used to make highly moulded products that can replace plastics in many products. Paper and cardboard products will replace a significant amount of plastic packaging and the cellulose from wood is the basis of bioplastics. To develop these industries we need to invest in advanced processing industries.
We must also invest heavily in a new generation of land managers, an entire workforce (at least 20,000 people) trained to replant our forests and carefully manage our land resources. This will require substantial up-front investment, but that investment will be easily repaid by the productive outputs of that land. Through targeted investment, we can realise a thriving rural economy for Scotland - land-based industries and wood processing facilities will create many new jobs, with product development and manufacturing powered by local renewable energy resources. We should be able to reverse the depopulation of rural Scotland, bring it to life, and use it to fuel the transition to the better society the Common Home Plan envisages. We will capture the carbon we have released into the atmosphere, allow wildlife to return and flourish and make Scotland a truly beautiful place to live. But we must move quickly on this; simply providing the cellulose insulation needed to achieve thermal efficiency for Scotland’s homes will require rapid action to make these developments happen.
Finally, it is easy to forget that over 80 per cent of Scotland’s landmass is underwater. Our seas are part of Our Common Home too and we must treat them better. When we allocate fishing rights we must start to allocate them based on which fishing businesses have the best environmental practices and we need to find new ways of handling fish farming to reduce the harm they do to wild fish stocks.
To get all this done we need a National Land Agency with a national land strategy to make it happen, linked to an ambitious industrial strategy for rural Scotland.