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‘The case against land reform in the Scottish Field magazine’

Richard Bath, the editor of Scottish Field magazine, chose to publish an article in the magazine’s September edition, written by Professor Jim Hunter, entitled ‘The case for Land Reform’. The article was written to satisfy an idealised agenda for land and property redistribution in Scotland, despite the consequences and legality.

Our Chief Executive Douglas McAdam’s full response to the article, which was published in the Scottish Field’s October edition entitled ‘Land Reform: Rural Scotland deserves a mature debate on the best use of land, based on facts not spin’, is available to read in full below: 

Land Reform: Rural Scotland deserves a mature debate on the best use of land, based on facts not spin

Question the people on the streets of our towns and cities about the issues that matter to them and they are highly unlikely to bring up the pattern of landownership in rural Scotland.  Ask those living and working in the countryside and they will be more concerned with the everyday challenges that rural life presents.

This has not however deterred a small, yet vocal clutch of zealous career land reform activists from waging an aggressive campaign against those who own and manage rural Scotland.

These activists were provided with their best opportunity yet to unsettle what works in rural Scotland, via the formation of the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) and yet despite members of their ranks having an influential involvement in that process, which includes deep potential reform, it is still not extreme enough for them.

The activists have revved through the gears, none more so than historian Professor Jim Hunter who resigned from the LRRG and has since spearheaded an onslaught against landowners demonising estates despite having visited many as Vice Chairman of the LRRG and complimented them on their operations.

A favourite and once again inaccurate sound bite is that ‘half of our country is owned by fewer than 500 people’. Whilst it may be true to say that some individuals and organisations; be they private, community or charity do have large landholdings, the reality is that there are many thousands of landowners, farmers and other property owners across rural Scotland, who anything from a few acres upwards, all of whom are working to ensure that benefits – social, environmental and economical – are delivered from their assets. The facts again show rural people trying to work towards a common goal, and that is a thriving, social and economic environment.

A constructive, modern discussion on land reform should consider the use of the land and the desired outcomes, before land ownership. There are, of course, large scale private landowners in Scotland as there are in most other developed countries. But does big mean bad? It’s an argument that does not stand up to scrutiny.  Large Scottish estates are regularly commended by Government for the contribution they make to communities and rural economies in terms of agricultural production, provision of affordable housing, wildlife conservation and biodiversity management, renewable energy, environmental stewardship and commercial enterprises, let alone the major input they have to Scotland’s tourism offering. The sporting estate activities that the land reformers try to stereotype are worth £350 million to the Scottish economy and form part of a land management sector that generates well in excess of £1 billion worth of business for Scotland each year, supporting thousands of livelihoods in the process. The land management sector has a hugely positive impact on rural Scotland and our fragile communities.  The assertion that this country is somewhat hindered by its landownership pattern simply doesn’t stack up.

The true substance of the debate is clearly more complex than the radicals portray. 

Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead has now appointed some new faces to the LRRG.  Based on the many detailed submissions received from those with an interest in rural land, our hope as landowner representatives is that all of the serious effort Scottish Land & Estates and our members have put in to date is not ignored, since this would surely call the entire process into disrepute. 

Anyone who reads our members’ submissions to the LRRG  in full cannot fail to conclude that community empowerment and engagement alongside partnership working rather than division are intrinsic to our collective vision and the future success of our rural communities and economy. 

This reality is a world away from the picture reformists try to paint.  Rather than recognise the sincere and thorough submissions of those living and working in the countryside and engage progressively, they prefer to ignore the facts and cherry pick emotive quotes out of context in an effort to misrepresent them and undermine the process.

Governments and decision makers have for years tried to encourage positive, sustainable land stewardship through subsidy incentives to ensure our rural places do not descend into rural wastelands and that real benefits are delivered. Assertions that such subsidies are nothing short of landowners’ personal pocket money are totally unfair and unfounded.  Again I would reiterate that stewardship rather than ownership is what fundamentally matters to get rural land use right.

Historic arguments around events such as the Highland clearances are often mooted in an attempt to rally those with a peripheral knowledge of the subject into demonising modern day landowners for perceived historic ills. While I am not saying that we can’t learn from history, nor should we ignore it – it has little relevance to a discussion about Scotland’s future.

Forcing an absolute right to buy would do nothing for the farming industry as a whole, as agreed by a majority of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association’s own members and the NFU Scotland. No new entrants would have access to farms if they were not available to let and the very suggestion of such a measure becoming law would mean many landowners withdrawing from farm rental altogether – again disastrous for the next generation wishing to enter the industry. We have a vision for agriculture and we are sure it is a vision shared – a dynamic, market-led, flexible farming sector with a meaningful role for tenant farming and pathways into the sector for new entrants.

The Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont has called for Absolute Right to Buy, it is therefore unsurprising that Ian Davidson MP has backed this position by commissioning the most radical land reformists to write a report that forms the remit of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, which he Chairs, to bring an end to apparent “tax avoidance and subsidy milking” by landowners in Scotland. These unfounded allegations will be strongly refuted by Scottish Land & Estates as they completely misrepresent the fact that landowners, crofters and tenant farmers alike, receive payments to enable the delivery of public goods while carrying out normal, business tax planning practices.

Finally, with regard to many of the false assertions made by Jim Hunter in last month’s Scottish Field, landowners and their representative body are not in fact ‘defending the status quo’. Quite the opposite. While our members and I welcome the current mixed pattern of land ownership in Scotland, we do not believe the best policies are in place for our rural places and we have made extensive comment around how we believe these can be improved.  Landowners, land managers and their representatives are desperate for the government to listen to those who actually live and work in the countryside rather than be blindsided by those using emotive rhetoric to win over public opinion by unsubstantiated and un-evidenced  assertions on social media and in the press. It should be about facts not spin.  We will not run from real debate and we will put our shoulder behind measures that will truly work for rural Scotland. That is why those in the vanguard of this debate should recognise the role that estates play in this country and seek collaboration rather than confrontation.

The key agenda for the land reform activists is wealth and property redistribution at any cost, but does this really represent the view and desire of mainstream Scotland, many of whom are also property owners? I would suggest not.

Read ‘The modern face of Scottish Land ownership’ at www.scottishlandandestates.co.uk/landreform

Douglas McAdam is Chief Executive of Scottish Land & Estates

Follow us on Twitter: @ScotLandEstates 

 

 

 

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