Mercedes Villalba MSP and Dr Georgia Grainger
The question of land ownership has been core to Scotland’s political landscape for centuries, and the lifespan of the Scottish Parliament so far can be tracked in land reform announcements. But, despite what appears to be widespread support for a more democratic, equal system of ownership, Scottish land ownership remains extremely concentrated. There are only 2,641 land titles over 500ha in Scotland, but these amount to approximately 59% of Scotland’s land mass. Within that, 621 companies own 21% of Scotland’s total land; while public sector bodies (including local authorities) own approximately 11% of Scotland’s land. Despite feudalism being officially abolished in 2004, our system continues to reward wealth and private interest with power over our natural resources, while depriving communities of democratic choice and accountability.
Government shifts towards incentivising sustainable development have offered some hope, but they have also laid the way for the Green Lairds, who buy up Scottish land to offset emissions generated by large corporations. This private investment has been seen as something to celebrate by some in Government, but it should raise concerns about the potential for the next wave of capitalist exploitation of our natural and community resources – the creation of ‘ecological dead zones’ of sitka plantations is a step backwards, not forwards. And, even where they are genuinely engaging in sustainable measures, the concentration of this power in the hands of so few leaves Scotland open to the whims of individuals, and denies communities the right to engage in their own decision-making.
There are many steps that need to be taken to democratise our land ownership, with many groups and individuals already working in this area. Taxation is likely to be a vital part of redistributing the wealth contained in inherited estates, and increased support for community trust purchases will help communities without access to capital to bring local land under democratic ownership. Two vital strings in this bow of land justice are the presumed limit on land ownership and the public interest test. The Scottish Government have proposed watered-down versions of these, in the form of a public interest test applied to transfers of land over 3,000ha, but no overall limit on the amount of land an individual can hold.
But, we need to go further. The Land Justice Members’ Bill introduces a public interest test for land ownership over 500ha, introduced either at the point of transfer or – vitally – when communities raise concerns about land ownership. Large land holdings in Scotland do not transfer rapidly, for many it will be upon death and inheritance that they will change ownership, leaving us waiting decades for reforms to kick in. We need mechanisms where land ownership can be challenged through community-led initiatives as soon as it ceases to be beneficial to the people of Scotland. In recent weeks we have seen announcements about a new ‘playground’ for the ultra-rich at Loch Tay, with a huge estate: the Scottish Government’s land proposals would leave no space to challenge this now the land has been purchased. We must empower communities to challenge this kind of ownership at any stage: a landowner that can prove they are acting in the public interest would have no problem, but ownership designed to exploit our environment, history, and communities must be able to be addressed.
The First Minister has already been asked if the Government would lower their 3,000ha trigger for a public interest test to 500ha, and has said they would ‘seriously consider’ it, but we need to make sure this happens. The public interest test that is brought in will also be crucial to protecting our local democracy as well as national goals: we cannot allow private corporations to greenwash the long-term impact they have by concentrating capital and power. So, this proposal is open to consultation with the intention of putting forward a robust outline of what should be included in the ‘public interest’, to better meet the needs of Scotland’s democratic future, not its feudal past.
Though these proposals only form part of the necessary land reforms in Scotland, and are complemented by the vast array of developing campaigns and work in the field, they have the potential to trigger some significant positive changes. In addition to helping diversify land ownership, ensuring land is managed for the public good, and establishing a framework of accountability for land ownership, this proposal also has the ability to empower community democracy. By including community consultation as a significant part of the public interest test, empowering communities to initiate a public interest challenge, and widening community access to purchasing land, this proposed legislation would encourage the development of more democratic community groups with the intention of engaging with these structures. Though our local authorities are large and do not enable access to community-level democracy, groups developed to manage land have the potential to lead the way with local democratic engagement and transforming their local communities.
If you also agree that we cannot have an equal Scotland until we address land ownership, then you should respond to the consultation. By gathering opinions of all kinds, we can push for the public opinion to be heard on land reform. Join us in holding the Government to account and calling for radical changes to land ownership, sooner rather than later, to address inequality and unaccountability in our society.