Land Reform in Scotland

Please buy Andy Wightman’s definitive book “The Poor had no lawyers”! It explains why Scotland needs land reform– our history means that 432 families own half the private lands in Scotland, and just over 1200 landowners hold 2/3 of Scotland’s lands. Land is a central question relating to employment, housing, rural communities, food, timber, environment, energy, transport links, recreation – and independence.

How did the big landowners get the land in the first place? Andy Wightman defines 6 land grabs before the modern era. If the phrase “Mugabe-style land grabs” is appropriate, it applies to how the establishment stole, cheated and murdered their way to obtain and retain their land. In an independent Scotland, we can join all other “normal” countries who have control over their own land, and use it for the benefit of their own people.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 introduced a legal framework for land access, community right to buy and crofting community right to buy. The Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003 amended the law relating to agricultural holdings to provide for new forms of agricultural tenancies. Abolition of Feudal Tenure in Scotland came into force in 2004, and only because of the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The Scottish programme for government was the first serious wide-ranging attempt to address the nature of landholding in Britain since David Lloyd George’s budget of 1909. The Scottish Government established the Scottish Land Reform Review Group (LRGG) in 2012 to “enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland”. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 extended the Community Right to Buy to communities of any size, including, for the first time, those in urban areas. It also introduced a new community right to buy land which is abandoned, neglected or causing harm to the environmental wellbeing of the community. The Scottish Government introduced the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 to make the ownership of rural, urban and marine land and property serve the public interest and the common good through increased transparency, accountability and democracy. It includes:-

  • Community Right to Buy for Sustainable Development permitted Scottish Ministers to compel landowners to sell if they decide that the sale will further sustainable development in the area. There are large estates in Scotland that are currently owned through charitable companies (such as Mount Stuart Trust on Bute and the Applecross Trust in Wester Ross) that were set up decades ago to avoid tax. The target is 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020.
  • a ‘Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement’, setting out its objectives for land reform
  • a Land Commission to take forward the land reform process and prepare a strategic plan
  • new regulations to require persons who control land to be identified, with information obtained to appear in the Land Register of Scotland
  • removal of sporting rights exemption from rates, which are to be re-valued. Sporting rates were abolished by the Conservative Government in 1994 and the non-domestic rates (NDR) on over 90% of Scotland were abolished back in the 1950s on sporting estates. It is clearly inequitable that, whilst most corner shops, pubs and hairdressers all pay NDR, the multi-million pound assets outside the villages and towns of Scotland pay virtually none with all “agricultural” land (including sporting estates and woodland) removed from the valuation roll altogether. The proceeds will treble the Scottish Land Fund – which is used to help support community buyouts of land
  • Companies are not allowed to own land in Scotland unless they are registered within the European Union in order to stop Scottish land being owned by firms registered in offshore tax havens – this was dropped
  • further powers for Scottish Natural Heritage to control deer management
  • new protections for tenant farmers against eviction.

The big landowners have been described as “the greediest benefit claimants in the whole country” as agricultural subsidies and forestry grants are weighted so that the largest estates receive the largest handouts, and windfarms alone give them over £1 billion per year. The Duke of Roxburghe stands to make around £2.5million a year from his windfarm scheme in the Lammermuir hills, while the developers expect to earn almost £30million annually.  The Earl of Moray gets about £2m a year from a windfarm on his Doune estate in Perthshire. A windfarm which could bag the Scottish Tories’ Environment spokesman Sir Jamie McGrigor £8million would be visible across more than 25 miles of iconic landscape above Loch Awe.

Who are these big landowners? The truth is, we don’t yet really know, as the Land Register often holds details only of nominees, and it is difficult, or impossible, to know who the actual owner is. But Swiss, Danish, Malaysian, Middle Eastern and Americans – none of them British taxpayers – feature prominently. The 10th Duke of Buccleuch (who is also the 12th duke of Queensberry) can claim he is a simple tenant farmer. All the duke’s land in the UK and properties in Cyprus, Germany, Russia, Ireland and Luxembourg are owned by Buccleuch Estates. In 2008 Buccleuch Estates had total assets of £275 million and a turnover of £63 million. But Buccleuch Estates are wholly owned by Anderson Strathern Nominees Ltd – which has a total value of just £4, made up of 4 £1 shares owned by 4 Edinburgh lawyers. The Buccleuch family are directors of this company, but do not own any shares in it.

Tenant farmers and local communities had no rights, as can be seen by the case of Alastair Salvesen (billionaire and Scotland’s third richest man), who was able, on the basis of his Human Rights, to evict an East Lothian tenant farmer, Andrew Riddell, whose family had farmed the land for over 100 years. Andrew committed suicide after gathering his final harvest. Andrew Stoddart and his family was forced to quit Coulston Mains farm, East Lothian after working it for 22 years.

Not all landowners are respecters of wildlife. The RSPB regularly reports on birds of prey being illegally shot or poisoned. Landowners are subsidised to lay waste to vast acreages of land by slaughtering all manner of wildlife, both ‘legally’ (e.g. stoats, weasels, foxes, corvids) and illegally (raptors, mountain hares). There is a gruesome picture of a mound of culled mountain hares. Gamekeeper George Mutch was convicted for trapping a goshawk and then battering it to death on the Kildrummy Estate in Aberdeenshire.

Tax avoidance runs into the “hundreds of millions”, as agriculture, hunting and fishing are exempt from business rates. On top of that, inheritance taxes “are almost voluntary” and don’t even apply on land owned by Trusts, who instead pay a sum every ten years that again “can be avoided in various ways”. The unregulated nature of land ownership leaves the door open to money-laundering and creative accounting through off-shore firms.

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