Report calls for reform of ‘unhealthy’ land ownership in Scotland

The Guardian, by Severin Carrell 

20.03.19

Commission set up by Scottish government recommends new powers to split monopolies

Scottish land ownership rules must be radically reformed to reverse the concentration of the countryside in the hands of a small number of ultra-wealthy individuals and public bodies, a major review has warned.

The study by the Scottish Land Commission, a government quango, says that in extreme cases where landowners abuse their power they could face compulsory purchase or community buyouts.

The commission, set up by Scottish ministers who are likely to look closely at its conclusions, found that major landowners behaved like monopolies across large areas of rural Scotland and had too much power over land use, economic investment and local communities.

It found that about 1,125 owners, including Highland lairds and major public bodies such as Forest Enterprise and the National Trust for Scotland, own 70% of Scotland’s rural land, covering more than 4.1m hectares (10m acres) of countryside.

That includes 87 owners whose holdings total 1.7m ha, with some estates owned by the same family for more than 400 years. Scotland’s two most powerful private landowners – the Danish clothing billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife Anne; and the Duke of Buccleuch – each own more than 80,000 ha (200,000 acres), spread across multiple properties.

Describing the worst effects of that monopoly power as “socially corrosive”, the SLC warned: “In some parts of Scotland, concentrated land ownership appears to be causing significant and long-term damage to the communities affected.” The eventual goal of the commission would be to break up many large estates.

The commission, which has not singled out any specific landowners, said owners in many areas had a positive impact, increasing the vibrancy of communities and investing in the local economy. Some were selling off land, increasing diversity of ownership.

However, in the worst cases, owners were demolishing cottages, planting large-scale conifer forests, damaging the environment by focusing on deer stalking and grouse shooting, converting homes into holiday lets or cutting the amount of land available for small tenant farmers.

One crofter complained about an unnamed conservation charity keeping the village she lived in “like a museum” and refusing to allow her to build a home on her croft. As a result, she lived in a caravan for several years.

Among a series of recommendations that will be bitterly resisted by many landowners, the commission has called on ministers in Edinburgh to introduce:

Legal powers to subject large land sales to public interest tests in special cases in order to stop owners having excessive power.
A requirement for owners of large estates to draw up management plans that involve local communities.

Powers to investigate cases where landowners abuse their power, which could lead to compulsory purchase or community buyouts.
New ways to increase the number of small and privately owned estates, farms and forests.

Hamish Trench, the commission’s chief executive, said large landowners did not need to behave badly for their power to be an issue. Concentration of ownership decreased economic opportunities and diversity. “That is an unhealthy position to be in,” he said.

The Competition and Markets Authority, the UK government agency that investigates monopolies, told the commission Scottish land ownership patterns met the test for monopoly power. That included bodies such as the Forestry Commission, which owns 638,600 ha and the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation charity, which owns 76,000 ha.

“It is fundamentally about changing the system to a more productive and dynamic system of land ownership, and change is needed across [all] these sectors,” Trench said. In rural Sweden, he said, there are strict rules about protecting the public interest in land sales.

Sarah-Jane Laing, the executive director of Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, said many already upheld the policies recommended by the commission. She said there were already significant community buyout powers still to come into force from previous reforms.

Accusing the commission of focusing too narrowly on ownership rather than land use practices, she said: “We want to see more detailed and compelling examples to support the report’s claim that concentrated land ownership is damaging fragile communities. The stereotypical view of landowners held by some simply do not reflect current-day reality.”

Scottish ministers are already under heavy pressure to speed up land reform. The Scottish Green party MSP Andy Wightman told Holyrood last week that Scotland’s land ownership registry was badly out of date and only covered 33% of the country’s land area.

“Land reform to date has tinkered at the margins for too long,” Wightman said. “If Scottish ministers approve these recommendations, then we could be on the brink of resolving the central problem of Scottish land ownership, namely the centuries-long persistence of hegemonic landed power.”

Calum Macleod, from Community Land Scotland, the membership organisation for community landowners, said the proposed reforms were essential. “The whole land reform agenda needs to be framed very explicitly around public interest arguments, and land being owned and used for the common good,” he said.

Scotland’s top landowners

Church of England

The Church of England has quietly become Scotland’s largest private forestry owner. In December 2014, its investment fund bought 13 forestry plots, and two in Wales, for £49m, doubling its forestry holdings to 13,215 ha. One 300 ha plot had recently been converted from farmland.

A commercial plantation’s uniform blocks of spruce and conifers are disliked by conservationists but loved by investors because they attract grants and offer reliable profits.

The Church Commissioners, the body that runs the church’s investments, insists community engagement is an important part of its decision making. But a sale of that size could trigger new tests proposed by the SLC to involve local people in a management plan or even prove the sale was in the public interest.

Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen

Late last year, a Danish clothing billionaire, Anders Povlsen, and his wife Anne, became Scotland’s largest private landowners after buying a small 1,100 acre estate near Aviemore. They already had six estates in Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland, and Glenfeshie, one of the most famous estates in the Cairngorms.

They now own 89,000 ha (220,000 acres) across the Highlands, where they champion re-wilding, heavily restricting deer and sheep grazing. Povlsen, reputedly worth £4.5bn, also spends heavily on community facilities.

Ecologists applaud their habitat restoration but their acquisitions could easily trigger the SLC’s proposed public interest test as even the most beneficial owner could stifle local enterprise by controlling policy.

Duke of Buccleuch

The Duke of Buccleuch, who was Scotland’s largest landowner until overtaken by the Povlsens last year, has been downsizing in the south-west of Scotland. He put 3,626 ha (8,959 acres) of farmland near Langholm on sale last year, reportedly valued at more than £19m.

The SLC wants major landowners to start selling off land but Buccleuch Estates said the 18 plots on sale could be sold as a single package. The plight of their tenant farmers caused controversy. One elderly couple, the Telfers, face eviction because they cannot afford to buy their farm. Buccleuch also said the farmland could be converted into forestry: a valuable commodity for investors.