Ground-level campaigner: Andy Wightman, researcher and author
Scotland’s land reform agenda has led to community buy-outs. But Andy Wightman says that new legislation has still not cleared land ownership obstacles holding back regeneration.
Only in Scotland could a German artist become laird over a long-standing community by buying an entire island. In what sounds like something straight out of a children’s book, the self-styled ‘professor’ Marlin Maruma bought the Isle of Eigg on the international market in 1995 for £2 million. There was little red tape involved. ‘One guy on Eigg said he faced more checks and balances when he went to buy a washing machine on credit than the German artist did when he bought the island,’ says Andy Wightman, a writer and researcher on land issues. Maruma was the latest in a succession of controversial private owners, who locals accused of stifling development. Indeed, years of bad blood with residents had culminated in the mysterious torching of the previous laird’s Rolls Royce.
In Scotland, a vast amount of land – and power – is concentrated in the hands of a few landowners: a quarter of the country’s privately owned rural land belongs to just 66 people, and millions of acres are held in offshore trusts. Wightman, the author of Who Owns Scotland, which charts this skewed pattern of ownership, argues that these landowners ‘are a critical player in the whole question of rural development. For development to take place, you need access to land’.
Wightman’s interest in land issues was first stoked by images of BBC presenter Terry Wogan and snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins planting trees in Caithness. They were among a number of celebrities to take advantage of a Thatcher-era scheme which allowed woodland investment to be written off against personal income tax. During his forestry degree at Aberdeen University, Wightman says he questioned why it was that they should be doing this: ‘Why not the farmers and the communities there?’ He adds: ‘That question wasn’t regarded with any great joy by the professors, who were in hock to the forestry industry.’
The establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 kicked off a debate over the way land was owned and managed in the country, and two pieces of legislation soon followed. One – enacted only last year – abolished the country’s 12th century feudal system of land tenure, which gave lairds powers over even freeholders’ properties. The second piece of legislation, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, had at its core the notion of the community’s right to buy. The act allows community bodies in settlements of fewer than 10,000 people to register an interest in a particular piece of land or property, and then buy it if it comes on the market. Wightman says the idea of community right-to-buy was the result of the experience of places such as Eigg, where the community bought the island after Maruma decided to sell.
Nonetheless, Wightman argues that the Act was a ‘cop out’. ‘The idea of giving communities the right to buy wasn’t the obvious solution to me at all,’ he says. ‘It’s no more appropriate than saying that if your school is failing, the community should take it over.’ The problem with Eigg, Wightman believes, was that ‘8,000 acres of land were being sold on the international market with absolutely no regulation’.
Furthermore, Wightman argues that the Act does not address the fundamental problem of Scotland’s highly concentrated pattern of land ownership. ‘Half of the country hasn’t been on the open market for 100 years,’ he says. ‘What was being termed community right-to-buy, was really great-grandchildren’s community right-to-buy. Why put communities in a state of limbo for decades when they need the land now?’ Only Scotland’s few crofting communities, he adds, can attempt to force their laird to sell up.
Nevertheless, Wightman says that the legislation offers real practical opportunities for communities to start planning their future. And if communities are clever, he adds, they can ‘begin to turn the tables on the land market a little bit’. He says that a community in a small town wanting land for a new community centre could register an interest in five or six parcels of land. If the parcels of land are owned by different landowners, he argues, the result could be that ‘those landowners sit down and say: ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got a buyer here for an acre of land. If I don’t sell it now, someone else might (sell them the land they need)’.’
Take-up so far has been slow – across Scotland, there have been just 20 applications to register an interest. And the rhetoric of ‘land reform’, Wightman believes, makes the law seem irrelevant to many communities.
‘Ex-mining villages in central Scotland really do need economic regeneration,’ he says. ‘They can now get into the whole community business game, but they haven’t a clue that this has anything to do with them.’
Problems notwithstanding, Wightman believes that, should the community right-to-buy be introduced to England and Wales, it would have an ‘invigorating effect on community development’. He argues that, because there are greater demands on land south of the border, a community right-to-buy would see far greater use in England than it has in Scotland. ‘This isn’t just to do with crofters in the north-west of Scotland,’ he says. ‘This could be of real benefit to people of towns and cities, if they pick up the challenge.’
1985: Graduates from Aberdeen University with degree in forestry. 1993: Becomes self-employed writer and researcher. 1996: Publishes Who Owns Scotland. 1999: Publishes Scotland, Land and Power. 1999: Becomes a director of Caledonia Centre for Social Development. 2000: Becomes a member of the Scottish Land Fund committee.
Source: Regeneration & Renewal magazine