Class war comes to Holyrood

Class war comes to Holyrood

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 13, December, 2014

THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN some people in the SNP who have objected to the principle of private ownership of large areas of land. There are those, like the SNP Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee, Rob Gibson, who believe that land reform should be about righting historic injustices, going back to the Highland Clearances.

Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has signalled her intention to introduce a new Land Reform Bill, taking forward some of the recommendations of the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group.

The previous Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive legislated for land reform in 2003; providing for community buy-outs when an area of land, or a whole estate, came on the market. At that point £10 million was put in the Scottish Land Fund, and there were a number of high profile cases where communities came in and purchased the land on which they lived.

Press reports in recent weeks would suggest that not all community-owned estates have been as successful as might have been hoped. Certainly there has been a drive to maximise income from public funds, such as subsidies for renewable energy projects. It rather proves the point that, regardless of ownership, the economic viability of a Highland or Island estate is not guaranteed.

Few would object to a mixed pattern of land ownership in Scotland, some being held by individuals, some by family trusts, some by corporate interests, and some by communities. It has always seemed to me that what is important is not who owns the land, but rather how that land is used, and in particular the level of economic activity and employment that is supported.

The SNP’s new proposals provide that there will be “powers for Ministers to intervene where the scale of land ownership or the conduct of a landlord is acting as a barrier to sustainable development”. A new Scottish Land Reform Commission will be established which will be given the power to advise Ministers on this very matter. Business rates will be reintroduced for shooting and deer stalking estates, which the SNP anticipates will raise an additional £7 million per year.

Over and above this, there are changes to succession law planned, which will give descendants an automatic right to claim a share in heritable property, including land and buildings (at present such rights only extend to moveable property).

A lot of what is proposed is so vague it is difficult to properly understand what its likely impact will be. There are, as yet, no definitions as to the conduct of a landlord, or the scale of land ownership, which might amount to “a barrier to sustainable development”. Indeed, it is difficult to see how such a power for Scottish Ministers could amount to much more than a charter for Human Rights lawyers.

It is difficult to imagine much enthusiasm in rural Scotland for the establishment of yet another quango, in this case a Land Reform Commission, to poke its nose into the activities of rural businesses. And the proposal to levy business rates (again it is not clear whether these are to be on shooting and deer stalking estates only, or on sporting rights more generally), will simply take money out of the rural economy and potentially cost jobs.

The proposed Succession Bill is unlikely to affect many large estates, which are usually owned by perpetual trusts, or by incorporated bodies, and therefore rarely change hands. What it will affect are smaller family farms, the economic viability of which will be seriously adversely affected if they are compelled to break up into smaller pieces. Various commentators have already pointed out the negative impact that such policies have had on the sustainability of agriculture in countries like Ireland.

All this has a hallmark of a central belt government which simply doesn’t understand rural Scotland. It is driven by a political, ideological agenda, which objects to the principle of private individuals owning large areas of land, rather than any concern as to the health of the rural economy.

It is class war brought to Holyrood.

Scottish Conservatives will be arguing for an evidence-based approach to land reform. Community ownership has its place, as part of a mixed pattern of tenure. But it is certainly not a panacea, as recent events have shown.

What the Scottish Government should be doing is concentrating on supporting rural businesses, removing barriers to economic progress, and championing the very many successful, diverse, community-focussed Scottish estates and the contribution they make to tourism, agriculture, bio-diversity and employment in many parts of the country. That is the case the Scottish Conservatives will be making in coming months.


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