Hoarding land must end to build a fairer Scotland

The news that Scotland has the lowest productivity in north west Europe as a result of a decade of Tory cuts is not surprising.

A succession of statistics in recent months have demonstrated that the broad shoulders of the UK do not carry Scotland, but actually throw a dark shadow – which makes it harder for us to see the reality of modern life in other small nations.

Scotland has the lowest state retirement pension in north-west Europe too, and that situation will worsen if the current UK Chancellor decides to make pensioners pick up the tab for the pandemic.

Using the same comparators, Scotland is also the most unequal country with the lowest GDP per person.

People want facts about independence, not just opinions, and these facts are fully sourced and incontrovertible.

Being part of the UK is bad for our health and our wealth and that has been the situation for a long time. Brexit just makes it even worse.

Back in 1966, the Economist published a statistic which caused a stir when a small radical theatre company in Scotland took the figures as their name: 7:84 (at that time 7% of the population owned 84% of the wealth).

They had a number of highly successful productions but none more so than The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil which presented, in a hugely entertaining but eye-opening way, the facts about land ownership in particular.

Things haven’t got better. Today some 67% of the land of Scotland is owned by just 0.025% of the population which is, once again, the worst figure by far in our European neighbourhood.

Yet there is no sign of that changing. In fact, a recent bulletin from the upmarket property consultancy Galbraiths enthusiastically promoted once again the benefits of buying big bits of Scotland in a lengthy piece which managed to omit any mention at all of the word “community”.

Instead it waxed eloquent about the earning potential of a new source of land-based income, natural capital and the opportunity that existed to cash in on issues such as re-wilding, afforestation and carbon capture.

The issue of course is that earning potential.

Stripped of fake 19th-century guff about loss-making estates being a charitable means of supporting the employment of an impoverished tenantry, this is all about an arc of exploitation.

200 years ago, it started to profit from sheep at the expense of people, then moved on to deer, then subsidies for growing trees and other crops, and having got into renewable energy and tourism, it is now eagerly anticipating a bonanza from climate change mitigation, biodiversity action and green Covid recovery.

Those issues are driving renewed demand for large chunks of Scottish land in what is an unrestricted market – and drawing in sack loads of money from very wealthy individuals, investment funds and even charities. Already there are official warning bells ringing.

Indeed, in its final report in March, the Scottish Government’s Just Transition Commission pointed out that “part of ensuring a just transition must be about making sure the benefits of investment in carbon sequestration are felt as widely as possible” and that there was “a risk that (such) benefits may flow mainly to large landowners”.

The community downsides are obvious. It will make no difference that all the shots about what happens in much of rural Scotland could be called by new “green” lairds rather than the more old-fashioned sort.

Consequently the minimum statutory right now required by affected communities is guaranteed participation in the decision-making process about who owns what and how it is used, with the ability to veto as and when required.

The last land reform legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament recognised that the rights of property were not absolute, but existed alongside the rights of communities and individuals and must be exercised in that way.

Now Scotland needs to go further – both in ensuring that such a balance is enforced, and in securing more ownership for communities themselves.

The recent Climate Assembly also addressed these issues, as has the Scottish Land Commission.

The Climate Assembly wants more action by communities on climate issues by means of what it calls “rapid and decisive action” on land reform, whilst the Commission recommends a public interest test for all “significant land transfers”.

The individual downsides are great too. On Tuesday, the Welsh Government announced a new radical approach to address their second homes crisis, tackling both affordability and availability.

We have the same problems, and perhaps even more acutely in some spots.

Last year, figures indicated that almost 50% of house sales in the Western Isles and Argyll & Bute were cash transactions – which suggest both an external and older purchaser – and anecdotally I now hear in the same areas stories of properties selling within days to people who have not even visited them, and always at or above the asking price.

Depopulation and decline are driven by a variety of factors, but the lack of affordable housing is a crucial one, and the current massive imbalance in land ownership is a major contributing factor to the shortage.

Young people must be able to stay and build families where they work, and older people need to have the choice of retiring in their own communities. Presently both are being priced out of where they have a right to be, and are needed.

Scotland will always be a welcoming nation, and we are enriched by those who seek to live among us.

But we have got to recognise that to be a modern progressive country, we have to ensure that all our citizens share and benefit from a sustainable, wellbeing economy.

That cannot be done if one of the key generators of wealth – the land – is hoarded so jealously and selfishly by a very small number of people.

Changing that is vital if we are to build the fairer independent Scotland we need.