The Scottish government has published its Land Reform Bill, based on a pledge by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she first took office. “Land reform” is an iconic aspiration for the Scottish Left whose mythology is steeped in a grievance retro-culture relating to the folk memory of the Highland Clearances. It is unfortunate for those trying to run Scottish estates as modern businesses that this socialist faux-romanticism now holds the reins of government north of the Border.
In 2003 Scottish Labour passed a Land Reform (Scotland) Act with a similar ideological motivation to the new SNP proposals. Now the nationalist government is tightening the screw on landowners, its mindset displayed in the statistically meaningless assertion that half of the privately-owned land in Scotland is controlled by 432 people, an emotive mantra that ignores the extremely low value and viability of vast tracts of the Scottish landscape, rendering it ineligible for comparison with English acreages.
The main provisions of the Bill are to establish a Scottish Land Commission, with confiscatory powers, to extend the existing right to buy, to remove the exemption from business rates granted to owners of sporting estates by John Major’s government in 1994 and to increase controversial public access to private land (“the right to roam”).
The proposed Land Commission is yet another public body affording ministers increased powers of patronage to appoint cronies. It will be composed of five Land Commissioners, a Tenant Farming Commissioner, all appointed by ministers, a Chief Executive and a full supporting staff. The exclusion from appointment of those who have served as MPs, MSPs, MEPs, councillors, or local authority employees during the previous 12 months says it all: who seriously believes that one year is an adequate firewall between government engagement and public appointment?
The appointees will be awarded “such remuneration as the Commission may, with the approval of the Scottish Ministers, determine”, plus pensions, allowances and gratuities. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the practices of the overblown Scottish public sector will recognise in this the potential gestation of yet another dripping roast. A principal function of the proposed Commission would be “the right to buy land to further sustainable development”.
The most sinister aspect of the draft legislation is the failure, in a 118-page document, to define the weasel term “sustainable development”. The word “sustainable” is routinely employed by politicians as a kind of punctuation, to amplify and lend supposed credibility to some flimsy or downright antisocial concept. Would a landowner in a beauty spot resisting on behalf of the local community the imposition of wind turbines, for example, be deemed to be obstructing sustainable development? When compulsory purchase has been determined upon by the Commission, an “independent” valuer would be appointed – by Scottish ministers.
This legislation is an attack on private property rights, potentially bringing it into conflict with European law. On this the SNP government has form: the minimum pricing of alcohol law, although passed by Holyrood, is currently mothballed under legal challenge in Europe. Increasing the burden on sporting estates by imposing taxation will threaten the viability of some enterprises and the livelihoods of their employees. It is, quite simply, anti-business, even if the businessmen wear tweeds rather than pinstripes.
Community buyouts have not been such a conspicuous success as to justify their extension. In 2002 ownership of the island of Gigha was transferred to its 98 islanders by a £4m buyout with public money. By the end of last year the new ownership body, the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust (IGHT), had racked up crippling debts of £2.7m, leaving the community bitterly divided.
The Scottish far left has criticised the legislation for not going far enough, since it omits, for example, to impose a cap on the amount of private land permitted to be owned by one individual or company. But this is only a Bill, not an Act. There is no knowing what more extreme measures may be inserted into the legislation in a leftist-dominated Scottish parliament, with Labour MSPs anxious to be seen outflanking the SNP on the left. This plan to penalise rural business, violate property rights and transfer land ownership from the competent to the incompetent is another retrograde initiative by doctrinaire Scottish socialists.