Why land reform is still on my agenda
The National, by Patrick Harvie
Among the many financial crooks of this world, there are few that test the limits of my patience as much as tax dodgers. These are people who think it is beyond them to contribute to the financial pot we use to pay for our public services. They reap the benefits our state provides, and happily move their profits elsewhere without giving their fair share back. They choose to ignore the common, shared responsibility we have for the welfare of our society in order to enjoy every last bit of their wealth by themselves.
That’s why I find the decision to reject the Green amendment to the Land Reform Bill in Holyrood this week so disappointing. At the moment, we have very little knowledge or control over of who owns Scotland or where they pay their tax. Last year, Private Eye magazine published estimates that 750,000 acres of Scottish land is held in tax havens, meaning we can find out almost nothing about the owners. The amendment I proposed this week in Parliament was an attempt to bring these owners into the light of public scrutiny, and achieve the transparency that all parties claim to want.
Our proposal is simple. Scotland should make it impossible for any legal entity that is not registered in a member state of the European Union to own land in Scotland, meaning we could make use of the EU’s drive to tackle laundering and secrecy. With this law in place, proprietors registered in tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands or Jersey simply wouldn’t be allowed to register ownership of land in Scotland. They’d have a comfortable five years to make arrangements for their existing landholdings. The vote on this proposal was a chance for us to make sure that overseas entities which own Scottish land are subject to real transparency.
The EU proprietor proposal is not some vague, last-minute attempt to tinker with a bit of decent legislation. It’s been part of the package of proposals since the Scottish Government decided to put land reform on the agenda. The proposal was first put on the table in 2012 by our very own Andy Wightman, a formidable land-reform campaigner and Green candidate for the Holyrood election this May. In 2014, following a recommendation by the Land Reform Review Group, the proposal was included in a public consultation on land reform, with a whopping 79 per cent of respondents supporting it. Despite receiving strong public backing, the proposal wasn’t included in the draft bill.
Since then it’s been a Green priority to get the proposal back into the Land Reform Bill before it’s passed. During the first stage of debate on the Bill, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee itself recommended that transparency measures in the legislation should be tougher, and called for a package of measures including this rule on non-EU ownership. Yet in committee scrutiny last Wednesday, the SNP members reversed this position and blocked our amendment.
The reasons the Government has given for its opposition to the proposal are puzzling. They say the proposal wouldn’t lead to full transparency of land ownership. It certainly wouldn’t be perfect overnight, but it would be a huge step forward. The Government also says the amendment may lead to companies moving their assets to trusts, which could be another means of avoiding scrutiny. But legislation on trusts is fully devolved to the Scottish Government, so any loopholes can be dealt with here at home.
It is no secret that the Scottish Greens and the SNP have common ground, but not on everything. From our shared platform in the independence referendum to Nicola Sturgeon’s principled stance on the refugee crisis and the Scottish Government’s moves towards more ambitious reforms to private rented housing, the Greens have worked in support of the SNP’s policies on many occasions – and often made them stronger.
On land reform, it’s not ministers but the SNP membership who can still lead the way. At their autumn conference, members challenged the Scottish Government to make its land reform agenda stronger, and called for their party leadership to put forward a more radical proposal. I commend them and all the other campaigners around Scotland who are relentlessly pushing the land reform agenda further. This pressure must continue as the Bill goes through Parliament.
At the moment, Scotland’s land ownership system is one of the most unequal in the whole world. It plays into the hands of tax dodgers, big business and the extremely wealthy. We must not shy away from proper reform at the last minute. I urge the SNP ministers and MSPs to listen to their members and to the Scottish public, be bold, and choose to take the stronger action that’s clearly needed.