Whatever the result of the elections to Holyrood due in May, it’s clear that 22 years of devolution have established land reform as a perennial theme—a mantle taken up by various parties and under varying parliamentary arithmetic, passing from Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions to SNP majorities.
It has survived the Conservative Party’s caricature of a government-sanctioned, “Mugabe-style land grab,” as well as the landlords who decried it as an act of “Leninism.” The success of community ownership alone has helped instil a popular consensus around land reform as a worthwhile and positive endeavour.
But for all that has changed in Scots law, for one of the most influential voices, we’ve only just got started. Andy Wightman has spent decades scouring the Register of Sasines, documenting who owns Scotland in books and maps, and sits as an Independent MSP in Holyrood (having recently parted company with the Scottish Greens). While a new parliament giving Scotland “full power” over its land laws was the essential “prerequisite” for action, he believes that “the opportunity for fundamental reform has not been fully embraced by any Scottish administration yet.”
Wightman draws attention to how contemporary community landownership still operates on the private side of the old public vs private divide—to be eligible for support, community trusts must be registered as either a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation or a Company Limited by Guarantee. “This kind of market-assisted land reform will never tackle… concentrated… private landownership… since the opportunities for acquisition and the grossly-inflated values will always frustrate community endeavours,” he tells me. “It should not be left to communities operating in a global property market to fix or reform Scotland’s land problems.”
Indeed in spite of the reform and buyouts, ownership of Scottish land overall remains grotesquely concentrated. Tax breaks still reward private companies more than councils or communities in managing the vast job of reforestation, and offshore havens shelter other land at the expense of the public coffers—and so the public good. As for urban centres, 29 per cent of households in the capital are still living in poverty solely due to housing costs, according to a recent report by the Edinburgh Poverty Commission. “There is clearly a lot of—and a growing—interest in community ownership within urban communities,” Ian Cooke, company secretary of Action Porty, says, “although not necessarily using the [existing] mechanism.” He believes specific reforms to deal with the particular challenges in the urban context are needed.
As Wightman outlines in his book, The Poor Had No Lawyers, truly progressive reform should transcend the old binaries of ownership—my land or yours, private or public—and perhaps move towards a model of land that is not “owned” in the way we’re used to. We could start thinking again in terms of the great, expansive “commons,” an ancient concept steadily strangled by the legal systems that enshrined private property. “We must remember that community ownership is not new,” Wightman says. “Scotland’s Royal Burghs received grants of common good land from the Crown as early as the 12th century, and by the end of the 16th century fully half of Scotland was held in some form of common ownership or use.”
Things have not “always been this way.” And for Wightman, the future of land reform “lies with a much-expanded concept of community ownership by extending municipal, co-operative and crowdsourced models of ownership” to cover “assets including forests, energy and infrastructure.”
And herein lies the rub with Scotland’s supposedly “radical” land reform journey. The measures so far have not transformed the big picture: some have merely dragged Scotland’s anachronistic land laws into the 20th century as the rest of the world has entered the 21st. Most changes have worked within the old paradigm, treading carefully—maybe even neurotically—around established property rights.
But the reforms are nonetheless profoundly important for disrupting an order that once seemed immovable. After 400 years, the old laws began to take on the same inevitable quality as the landed estates they helped to preserve. They became ossified traditions rather than working social mechanisms. The very act of abolishing or updating them changes the terms of debate: what was once immovable is not only possible, but real, and the old excuses crumble in turn.
Scotland today, tomorrow the world
This small nation’s land reform story has necessarily been shaped by its distinct historical problems; few other countries will have to contend with overturning feudal ideas like “vassal” and “superior.” But Scotland’s direction of travel clears a path for others to follow suit, where costly and over-concentrated landownership are problems—in truth, most developed economies.
The politics looks promising too. The popularity of community ownership, like devolution itself, has shown that any loss of faith in politics today is, as much as anything, alienation from power that feels remote. Put it another way: when you offer people the chance to have a greater say over how their locale is run, even when it is tied to bureaucracy and form-filling, it turns out that a large number will take it up—and with few regrets. To date, no land has “fallen out” of community ownership.
Many small communities, long oppressed by the way Scotland’s property was owned and regulated, have found they can achieve mastery over their own affairs by taking ownership of the land that their families might have trodden for hundreds of years. The reforms invite Scots—and anyone looking on from elsewhere—to think of land law, and to some extent even property rights, for what they should always have been: not practices to entrench a privileged elite, but rules that all of us can be invested in, if they give us a shot at the freedom that ownership can confer. More than that, the reforms reveal that these rules are something that should be socially negotiated—and something we have the opportunity to change through the democratic process. Today, even if Scotland’s landownership remains heavily concentrated, the law governing it belongs to us all—and who knows where that might lead.
Edited and abridged version of a longer article that first appeared in Prospect and is reproduced in this form with permission
Further reading: Severin Carrell, Stringent tests, The Guardian;
Images courtesy of Rob Bruce