Scotland’s Land Speculation: ‘Risks & Opportunities’

The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. – Helen Keller

Hoy and hills of Sutherland from Orphir Image credit Bell

Land grabbing, speculation, or investing to decarbonise – whatever you want to describe it as, Scotland’s land is being bought up at an ever increasing rate by the new ‘Green Lairds’.

As reported in The Insider back in 2020, BrewDog bought 2,000 acres of grazing land to plant trees and offset its global carbon footprint.

BrewDog reported the carbon footprint of its business worldwide as 67,951 tonnes of CO2 equivalent

Other speculators have joined in buying up land at such a rate in Scotland that prices are rocketing beyond the range of community buy outs.

Government bodies have been slow to react.

Rhoda Grant, Labour MSP in the Highlands and Islands, led a debate in the Scottish Parliament last week Green Lairds & Tory Cuts to Benefits: This Week’s Politics where she called on bold action to be taken by the Scottish Government.

Mairi McAllan, Scottish Government Minister for Environment and Land Reform, assured this week’s Scottish Land Commission Conference that the government had an ‘unwavering commitment to land reform.’

Top of the Minister’s vision for land reform in Scotland is ‘community ownership’. Speaker after speaker on the first day of ‘Land Connection 2021’, declared support for community buy outs and empowerment through increased local decision making. But the key phrase used was, ‘Risk and Opportunities.’

And that is the vulnerable stage we are at right now as the land grabbing continues – the risk for communities who are priced out of the market as large corporations and wealthy individuals seize the opportunities of the financial incentives of owning large tracts of Scotland’s land.

‘People are at the heart of our environmental ambitions,’ said Mairi McAllan, which is good to know. Politicians are elected by the people and a government pledged to continue with land reform in Scotland. Putting Human Rights at its very core.

But it has all been so very slow. And what is happening now with land speculation has all been so predictable. The warning signs were all there.

Scottish Land Commissioner, Hamish Trench stressed the importance of new governance structures – revisiting those ideas. He said we need a ‘transformation that benefits Nature and People.’ – A Just Transition.

The Scottish Land Commission is doing invaluable work looking in detail and engaging with communities about how to better use the land for all of us – not just the few Green Lairds.

You can find a series of their documents here: Scottish Land Commission publications.

Land matters because we all use and need it. The way we own and use land influences many parts of our lives: the price and availability of housing, our access to greenspace, effects of derelict sites in the heart of our communities, our ability to meet our climate targets, and whether people have the means and confidence to build businesses and communities.

Scottish Land Commission

There are opportunities for Scotland, as a whole, if a sovereign wealth fund was set up based on natural capital. Basically taxing those big Green Lairds buying up our land and using those new funds as a future pot of money – what didn’t happen with our vast reserves of oil – learning from those past mistakes and creating a natural wealth fund.

Common Weal has produced excellent work on Land Reform and how we can manage it more effectively. They also suggest the use of tax and of Citizens Assemblies to localise decision making.

Their paper Our Land picks out the following key points:

― Scotland has some of the most unequal patterns of land ownership; just 432 families own 50% of Scotland’s private rural land.

― Landowners have benefited greatly from unearned rises in land prices which have greatly exceeded gains made elsewhere in the economy.

― As well as unequal ownership by individuals, over 750,000 acres of Scottish land is owned by companies registered in offshore tax-havens.

― Scotland should rethink land taxation via a Land Value Tax or, preferably, a flat rate Property Tax.

― Whilst currently outwith Scottish Government control, consideration should be given to how inheritance tax and land subsidies would be reformed upon independence.

― Complete the Scottish Land Register, ensuring that it is open, transparent and free to access. Only land that is properly registered should be eligible for tax breaks and subsidies.

― A hard cap on the amount of land an individual can own should be introduced. The legal basis for doing so is discussed.

― Scotland should form a Land Agency to ensure that regulations are enforced.

―  Reformed local democracy and Citizens’ Assemblies can help democratise land use.

These are all things that can be done now. We can do this in Scotland but we need to pick up the pace because land reform has been on the agenda of the Scottish Parliament since its reconvening in 1999. It really is time now for the Scottish Government to make good on its vision and take bold action.

The Scottish Land Commission Conference is being held virtually from 4th to 6th October – all events are being recorded and will be available on YouTube.

Fiona Grahame

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