Tartan in Tatters? Thoughts on the Scottish Land Reform

In a rickety boat bobbing along on a cool and calm loch, fishing rod in hand. Crabbing off the harbour edge. Good pub grub. Purple speckled moors. Cottages with rustic charm and squeaky floorboards, surrounded by sheep. Friendly locals at a stereotypical country pub. Wet and rainy walks in coats and wellies. Highland cows and Aberdeen Angus. Rock pool searches and cave discoveries. This is what comes to my mind when I think back to the many, many occasions I’ve spent time in Scotland. What images pop up for you when you think Scotland?

Scotland Highland Cows

Well, back in June you undoubtedly caught wind of the Scottish Government plans for a Land Reform Bill, so perhaps that’s what is now coming to mind? A bill that would change the Scottish land as we know it.

Three months later and the proposition is still being so widely discussed (and, now I’m just throwing this out there, I’ve yet to speak to someone who agrees with it…)

Apparently half the privately owned land in Scotland is in the hands of 432 people, and apparently this is a problem. Yes, apparently…

The Scottish Government want to put an end to the tax relief currently in place on shooting estates, which was put into practice 11 years ago. The extra money they would gain from these taxes would be used in the Scottish Land Fund, trebling it (£3m to £10m every year from 2016), and then using it to support communities buying out land. They have a target to double the amount of land owned by 2020 from 500,000 acres to one million acres. Yep, that’s a lot of land.

Ending the tax exemption on shooting estates is only going to make a lot of the sites unprofitable and would cause the loss of jobs, e.g game keepers, which are more often than not local people holding these positions. Shooting estates too easily carry negative preconceptions and are too easily misunderstood. Think of the tourism they bring to Scotland, with a large wealthy visitor base from all over the world, people often come purely because of fieldsport but are willing to spend the big bucks during their trips.

Visit Scotland long logo

Conservation and the environment are benefited, too. Whilst they are kept as they currently are, that land is being looked after and it won’t be being built on so plants and wildlife can thrive, and still call it their home. Their rolling hills and vast areas of grassy green are the stereotypical image of picturesque Scotland and is often what tourists actually expect to see. They love the idea of these big, traditional estates often passed down generation by generation. A community owned area is definitely less of a pull.

Visit Scotland bridge

They contribute to local employment- jobs that don’t need degrees, often provide training and even encourage youth applicants. All these attributes could be put into jeopardy with this land reform bill.

I, along with  many others it seems, do not feel that increased community land ownership will be a positive outcome. When I think about the communities I’ve lived in, or experienced… Well I wouldn’t want them to be in charge of our phenomenal rural landscapes that’s for certain. The Cotswold village I live in couldn’t even get fibre optic broadband without masses of debate, controversy, time wasting and, of cause, press coverage. Yep, true story. Complaints were made, less than polite letters put through people’s doors, arguments at the pub… It got nasty and old people got hurt. Well that bit is a lie, but still… The fact is communities don’t have the knowledge and skill needed to understand our rural lands needs, they only have ideologies and images of a future that may not be for the best. Not everyone appreciates the countryside; wildlife, habitats, ecosystems, the importance of rural landscapes. Some people are big fans of urbanisation and increased building of large volumes of houses, shopping centres, increased transport and roads.

However, better rights for tenant farmers is an issue being addressed in the bill, and I do believe that this is something that does need to be looked into…

Scottish Conservatives have gone as far as to call this a “Big Brother-style land grab”. Murdo Fraser, from the Scottish Conservatives has said: “People living in rural Scotland want to see a strong economy, more jobs created, better broadband and local services improved.

“Instead the SNP is ignoring the evidence and pursuing an ideologically-driven agenda which will jeopardise the rural economy

“These proposals would lead to greater government interference in land ownership and an increase in the tax burden on rural businesses.

“The Scottish government has been warned that this will cost jobs, but has ignored those warnings…”

This definitely sounds like what came to my mind back in June… Of course I have tried to understand the intentions of the Scottish Government. Aileen McLeod, Land Reform Minister, said: ” Through the Land Reform Bill we want to ensure that future generations have access to land required to promote business and economic growth and to provide access to good quality, affordable food, energy and housing.” I just can’t bring myself to believe her… and so that brings me back to Murdo Fraser; is this just ideologies? Desire to have the power of the land back? Could this be start of the end for the stunning rural landscapes Scotland is famous for?

Only time will tell I fear…

(Images from Visit Scotland website)

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