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Scotland: is it time to run for the hills?

Scottish landowner Joe Gibbs assesses what’s in the newly published Land Reform Bill.

Trailed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as ‘radical reform’ to make Scotland’s land ‘an asset for the many, not the few’, at first sight, the first major Land Reform Bill produced by the SNP in government contained plenty to set lairds’ knees a-knocking.

At the heart of the Government’s intentions is the increase in community-owned land from 500,000 acres to one million acres. Since the restitution of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, more than 20% of its Acts have related to rural land reform. Never mind that 82% of Scots live in urban areas covering only 6% of the nation’s landmass; land is the issue of moment, or so politicians have decided. And how much easier it is to whack the well-upholstered landed posterior than to tackle issues afflicting education, health and social services, housing, law and order, local government and transport, all of which come under the Scottish Government’s purview.

As for upsetting those landowners, there are constant reminders that only 432 of them control half of the privately owned land in Scotland. That hardly amounts to electoral clout, even if you count the employees dependant on their bosses’ bankroll.

The SNP’s new Bill promises to keep the pilot light burning on this issue by establishing a Scottish Land Commission to support commissioners who will hold land reform constantly under review. The most radical proposal is the ability to compel landowners to sell communities ‘where the scale or decisions of landowners are acting as a barrier to the sustainable development of communities’. How on earth that will be interpreted in the real world is anyone’s guess.

It might mean the relinquishing of a few yards of cycle path or it may be a way of getting closer to that target of one million community-owned acres. Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead’s opponents have cried ‘land grab’, but he protests it’s ‘about sorting out those areas where, quite clearly, economic development… is being hampered by who owns the land and how it’s managed’.

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Elsewhere, the abolition of sporting rates by John Major in 1994 to bring the country into line with the rest of the UK is reversed—not unexpected from a party that wants to make Scotland as different as possible from its neighbour. The successful character assassination of red deer by Scottish Natural Heritage and environmental groups, transforming them from monarchs of the glen into vermin on the ben, will apply to deer-forest owners by extension. Failure to comply with a deer-control scheme will leave an owner open to a fine of up to £40,000 or three months in clink—penalties that apparently ‘better reflect the damage that may be done to the environment where failure to comply with deer-control scheme leads to over-grazing and trampling’.

For all its rhetoric and ideology, this Bill is not a great threat to lairds, but it was well into gestation by the time the new, much more left-leaning First Minister stepped up to the plate. She may follow it up with something feistier.

The greater the misery poured on landowners, the more they must wonder whether it’s worth the candle. Stagnation in the upper reaches of the property market since before the referendum suggests that such doubts exist. One Inverness-shire estate that has been for sale for two years has had its price slashed from £15 million to £3 million. Land reformers, of course, will be cock-a-hoop if values decline. Communities looking to purchase will have to find fewer readies, owners too far in hock may be forced to divest and rich investors who prop up the market may be frightened off for good.

And, if current measures won’t bust up the big land holdings, let’s not forget other delights mooted by the Land Reform Review Group, such as changes to the law of succession to ensure division among heirs, capping the land that can be held in one ownership and land value tax. Then, it’ll be time to run for the hills—if you still own them.

Joe Gibbs runs the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival at his home in Scotland (August 6–8,