Thoughts on the Land Reform Debate This Week

LAND REFORM BILL: I spoke in tonight’s debate and, with Green colleagues, voted for the Bill, however, more is needed;

Reform Bill shows we need a bolder Holyrood

The limited nature of this legislation demonstrates that we need a bolder Holyrood with more Green voices. Andy Wightman

Scottish Greens are pledging to keep up the fight for bold land reform following tonight’s approval of the Land Reform Bill, which does not contain strong action on tax dodgers and derelict land.

Earlier this week, Andy Wightman, land reform spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and MSP candidate for Lothian, revealed that companies owned by the Buccleuch Estates use tax havens in the Cayman Islands. An amendment to the Land Reform Bill, by Green MSP Patrick Harvie, aimed at restricting ownership by companies using British Overseas Territories such as the Cayman Islands, was today voted down by SNP backbenchers and the Conservatives.

Patrick’s amendment aimed at giving local authorities the ability to tax vacant or derelict land was similarly defeated.

An amendment by Green MSP Alison Johnstone, insisting that ministers report by 2017 on a review of rights for tenant farmers, was accepted unanimously by the parliament.

Andy Wightman said:

“The limited nature of this legislation demonstrates that we need a bolder Holyrood with more Green voices. With a government majority it’s simply baffling that the SNP – whose own membership has been agitating for radical measures – have passed up the opportunity to deliver real reforms.

“The Green bid to clamp down on the use of tax havens goes to the heart of understanding who owns Scotland. As we have seen this week with the uncovering of the complex corporate affairs of the Buccleuch Estates, there is an urgent need to ensure transparency in who profits from Scottish land.

“It’s also disappointing to see an opportunity missed on derelict land. Taxing such land could generate hundreds of millions of pounds, which Greens would use to tackle Scotland’s housing crisis. The SNP are promising a consultation but this is action they could be taking now. Their reluctance speaks volumes about their desire to control from the centre rather than empower at a local level.”

You can read John’s speech below:

“I, too, thank the many people who have been involved in the good work to get us to this point.

The policy memorandum says:

“Land, both rural and urban, is one of Scotland’s most fundamental and finite assets”.

As Johann Lamont and other members have said, it is important that we do not simply view the issue as one that relates to misty glens. Whether a person is the subject of ill treatment by an absentee landowner, a laird or a multinational corporation that has polluted the ground, the issue is relevant to them.

The policy memorandum goes on to say that land is

“linked to ideas of well-being, social justice, opportunity and identity and is key to … success and development of its people and communities alike.”

Although we may have different views on the meaning of “well-being”, I do not think that anyone could argue with that statement.

The policy memorandum also says:

“Scotland as a modern nation needs the ability to frame the governance of its land for the 21st century”.

Not many modern nations have 50 per cent of their rural land in the hands of such a small number of owners. Nonetheless, I would argue that we have the ability to make progress. The questions on which we will be judged are whether the legislation progresses land reform and whether it is the next step in this Government’s programme of ambitious land reform.

Land rights and responsibilities are often tagged. The Scottish Government is also a landowner. I must say that its stewardship of a farm in Knocknagael in Southside, Inverness and of the disease surveillance centre in Inverness are not the best examples of the kind of land ownership that I would hope for.

People have alluded to the principles regarding human rights. I was not privy to the evidence taking in that session, but I cite the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s comments:

“the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights places a duty on ministers to use the maximum available resources to ensure the progressive realisation of rights such as the right to housing, food and employment … viewed through this broader human rights lens, land should be seen as a national asset with key questions arising of how to strike the most appropriate balance between the legitimate rights of landowners and the wider public interest.”

That is a topic that is challenged and on which there are different opinions in here.

SPICe said that our land pattern

“reflects historical forces and events of the second half of the nineteenth century”.

I am keen that, in all our legislation, we tackle elites and the growing inequality that exists in our country, whether that be in wealth, health or whatever. To do that, we must understand the power of landowners and the connection with housing—the tied housing and the poor housing standards that have been alluded to, and the blacklisting that took place across estates in the Highlands.

I travelled a smoky journey south on Monday as moor burning was taking place for grouse shooting. There were bulldozed tracks—straight lines—into the hills. I do not know whether my colleagues are equally exercised about the mass slaughter of hares that took place there the other day.

I come from deepest rural Inverness-shire, where people wrestle with any concept that anyone can own a deer or a salmon. I spoke at a rural conference recently where I heard a landowner commend the millions of pounds that the grouse moors have brought into the Angus glens then berate the very notion that any contribution to the public purse should come from that. I am delighted to see the changes on shootings that the bill will introduce.

The crofters have been mentioned. There is a lot of legislation in that area. We can go back to 1882 and the battle of the Braes, Màiri Mhòr and the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886. Under the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act 1919 returning soldiers who had contributed to the country felt largely abandoned and abused. I know that a number of tenant farmers have been subject to abusive treatment. Therefore, I am delighted that a Scottish land commission will be established.

I am also delighted for another category of people: the small landholders. My colleague Alison Johnstone secured agreement for an amendment that calls for a review. I am delighted and very grateful that the Government accepted that amendment.

Scotland and, indeed, the planet face challenges in how we house and feed our communities. Population is a factor in that. I warmed to what my colleague Rhoda Grant said about repopulation. We need that. On how matters would improve, Màiri Mhòr said in her poem:

“And the cold ruined houses
will be built up by our kin.”

It is not just derelict land that will see buildings demolished. The Highlands are covered in townships where people have been abandoned, very much for the reasons to which Mr Russell alluded.

We are at the end of a long line, whether that be through the levellers of England, the battle of the Braes or the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886 and all the people who have contributed to bringing us here. Professor Jim Hunter is worthy of comment—his counsel is always wise—as is Lesley Riddoch and Andy Wightman, who I hope will grace this chamber in a few months’ time.

On Patrick Harvie’s amendments about the registration of non-EU entities and British overseas territory entities, which did not enjoy support, Andy Wightman reported on Twitter:

“Corporate lawyers will be dancing in the streets of Georgetown, Grand Cayman tonight.”

That is the case. That will remain the case unless we stop the dance. Future legislation needs to be done on that.”