Scotland’s land problems just get worse…

by | 20 Apr 2022

Recent stories about land ownership in Scotland give further cause for dismay. Will we ever get our awful relationship with our own land sorted?

First published by Common Weal

Sometimes it feels like Scotland’s relationship to its land can’t get much worse but then Scotland somehow manages to prove that wrong. It has gone far past the point of ‘we need to talk about this’, it is time to take action. Thankfully Scotland has everything it needs to take action effectively and quickly. Unfortunately we’re not using them.

This land problem is exemplified by a number of recent stories. Some are just dispiriting – the discovery that both a computer game and the Oscars used the idea of giving away plots of Scotland’s land as a novelty prize. It takes a nation with some real self-esteem issues to allow that to happen.

But some of the stories are absolutely infuriating. For example, just when it looks like perhaps, maybe we’re starting to get to grips with land issues in Scotland by recognising that the deforested ‘wet deserts’ of much of Scotland’s countryside are an issue that Scotland should tackle through forestry and rewilding it turns out to be a move that is actually making things worse for rural Scotland.

When the Scottish Government incentivised tree planting with public money you might have imagined that this was going to be good for rural Scotland, but in reality the scheme came out as another pseudo tax-scam for large landowners and investors.

If you want to harvest some public money in Scotland then you can buy a big bit of land (or, conveniently, you may already have one) and then just throw up some trees. The perhaps inevitable result? Land prices in rural Scotland have increased sharply, further pricing local communities out of the ability to access the land around them.

But Scotland’s land isn’t all novelty prizes and tree-planting subsidy-fishing, it is also corporate greenwashing and carbon offsetting scams. Another recent development is that the majority of Scotland’s land sales are now to corporations which want to be able to claim they have ‘offset’ their environmental damage by using land as a carbon sink.

‘Carbon offsetting’ is one of the great scams of our era. It allows the worst polluters to keep polluting but to manipulate the ‘net data’ by claiming they are doing other things which mitigate their pollution. They get both the PR and all the tax and regulatory benefits and still manage to slow the pace of change towards a genuinely non-harmful business model.

But Scotland’s land isn’t all novelty prizes and tree-planting subsidy-fishing, it is also corporate greenwashing and carbon offsetting scams

This is the Era of the Scam, the period in history where we openly celebrate the ‘hustle’, where we seem to admire people who create a glossy fictional version of achievement more than people who actually achieve things. The pitiful relationship between Scotland and its land is just chancer culture in panoramic mode.

So it is that Scotland sees a more active debate about its land than we’ve had for a while, but that isn’t actually helping as much as you might think. It has created a kind of mini-industry in obfuscation and confusion, in making what is really quite simple into something complicated.

Prime culprit is the Scottish Government. Land reform is a very popular subject among the SNP grassroots and rage at inequitable land ownership has been woven through the culture of the SNP since before it was the SNP. So the Scottish Government feigns interest in ‘doing something’ and spends lots of make-busy time huffing and puffing about doing something.

It has had at least three rounds of this – big words, drawn-out consultations or inquiries, legislation containing the most negligible reforms possible and repeat. Meanwhile in reality it is the KPMGs and PWCs of this world who are really influencing land policy, designing the very scams they will then advise their own clients to take advantage of when ‘tax planning’.

The best current information is that the latest round of performative land reform in Scotland has a bar set so low in terms of Scottish Government ambition that it is mainly going to turn out to be an evidence-gathering process (not that you’d know that from government statements).

And of course the vested interests themselves are pushing hard through their networks – the Scottish National Investment Bank was initially designed by Benny Higgins who then went on to become the Executive Chairman on Buccleuch Estates and SNIB recently (inexplicably) gave a big loan to a London-based tree-planting consultancy for big landowners. (Higgins was appointed by the Scottish Government to produce the emergency plan for economic recovery after Covid.)

But sometimes land reformers can be their own worst enemy, often wanting to invent grand schemes or complicated systems where straightforward policy tools are all that is needed.

In fact, just about this time last year Common Weal and the New Economics Foundation jointly published a report which attempted to try and put this unproductive discussion to bed. Land reform is not unheard of, a dark art, a practice Scotland has to make up from scratch as if it has never happened before.

None of the policy tools needed for land reform are desperately innovative or unusual – they don’t need to be because the tools work when they’re used

Not only is land reform possible, it is perfectly normal. One of the things the report does is tackle the claim that land reform is against the rules European Convention of Human Rights by citing case studies of land reforms which have taken place under the ECHR and explaining how they worked.

This is all drawn together in a table on page 26 which sets out the various options Scotland has to address land issues. None of them are desperately innovative or unusual – they don’t need to be because the tools work when they’re used.

What we need to do is make a decision to act. Once we do that it is only a question of how much, how fast. There are moves which will create change over generations (for example altering inheritance law), there are moves which will create change overnight (compulsory purchase) – and there are plenty in between.

We can have simple, straightforward approaches to land tax (like Common Weal’s Property Tax proposal) or more complex ones with convoluted formula. We can tweak agriculture subsidies or we can radically reform them. We can us planning reform, land ownership eligibility rules, compulsory sales orders and much more.

In the absence of any real action, reformers risk investing their time on reinventing the wheel while landowners tighten their grip on Scotland. All the while the public hears flowery language from government which gives it the impression that something is happening when it isn’t.

Scotland’s relationship to its own land is feudal and frankly embarrassing in the 21st century. Changing that relationship doesn’t need more grand schemes or magical solutions, it needs effective use of the tools we already have and the will to use them.

Until then Scotland will continue to be plaything of the wealthy and the home of land-scammers who see Scotland’s glorious countryside as just another mechanism to get them off the hook of properly reforming their planet-trashing ways.

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