Review: Who Owns Scotland’s Land? So much owned by so few…⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Who Owns Scotland’s Land? So much owned by so few…

New York Times Main Theatre, Charlotte Square

10.00 (23 August only)

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5 stars)

This was a very well-chaired and extremely thought-provoking session, produced in partnership with Quakers in Scotland. The four speakers were under strict instructions to speak for no more than five minutes: they kept well within time and put their particular points of view clearly and succinctly before the session was opened to questions from the floor. This too was very well-controlled and extremely respectful: was this somehow the Quaker influence making itself felt in the packed New York Times Theatre? – even at 10a.m. people were fully present and deeply engaged in the subject. Some of the audience obviously felt extremely passionately about some things, but no-one either in the panel or on the floor descended to abuse of each other.

Hearing from each speaker gave a number of angles from which to view the question: the main messages that came over were that change is happening in some areas where previously landowners have been arrogant and intransigent; that some of the new models of land ownership, especially community land ownership, are being studied by traditional landowners, including local councils, and the existence of community land trusts is bringing previously uninvolved and uninterested landowners to the table to discuss how land management can be improved to bring maximum benefits to everyone – not simply profits.

Andrew Thin, chair of the Scottish Land Commission, pointed out that land reform is not just needed in rural areas – Glasgow has the highest percentage of waste and derelict urban land in Europe. He believes economic growth needs to accelerate in all parts of Scotland, and believes that land reform is necessary to enable all areas to realise their full economic potential. Social cohesion is greatly threatened today, and he feels that inclusion, and respecting people’s rights, have to be Holyrood’s priority. Property rights must not be allowed to trump all other rights, and the Land Commission was set up to help the government achieve these aims. He directed us to the SLC website, and urged us to attend SLC public meetings – there’s one every month somewhere in Scotland – and emphasised that land reform needs to be done BY people, not TO people.

Agnes Rennie, publisher and former member of the Scottish Land Review, spoke of her first-hand experience of the Galston estate on Lewis which became a community-owned trust in 2007. Previously the estate had not employed any local people: now fourteen people, mainly women, are employed on the estate, and local authorities and health boards are coming to the Trust to see what can be done by community ownership. The Trust looks outside itself, working with privately-owned estates and other community-owned trusts, sharing resources and information. Agnes was most interested to visit Portobello’s Bellfield last year [it’s a community centre which was the first urban community buy-out] and discover how much they and the Galston Trust had in common. She emphasised that this journey is one we must take forward together.

Sarah-Jane Laing is Executive Director of Scottish Land & Estates [SLE], and might have been expected to be strongly opposed to the views already heard. SLE represents rural businesses and owners of estates of all sizes, and also some community trusts. She agreed that planning, taxation, farming and tree planting needed to be developed on a “we” basis, not an “us and them” one. She had personal experience of growing up on a council estate which was built on land acquired from the Roxburgh estate, and spoke out affirmatively of the ethos of long-term stewardship she believed Roxburgh practised. She believes that political clamour must be allied to an alteration in the mindset of major landowners – how can they contribute both locally and over a wider area? – and that

concern about the management of land was more relevant than concern about ownership. She emphasised the importance of increasing the social and environmental potential of both rural land and urban wasteland, not for profit but for the benefits to the community and the environment. She didn’t feel that fairness of ownership was important – it’s divisive, when what needs focused on is US and WE.

Alastair McIntosh, author of Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, spoke last. He emphasised the central importance of fairness, and the power both of ownership and participation: he spoke of the recent Land Commission report which spoke strongly of the power of landlords to keep their tenants in subjugation by their fear of retribution if they spoke out or tried to bring about reform. He instanced his involvement with the Eigg Trust, which took six years to bring the island into community ownership, and spoke of the cultural and spiritual wealth ownership brings. The second generation of Eigg children is growing up, a model for our future. The four ‘drivers’ he saw as essential to land reform are social/ affordable housing built on communally owned land; using renewable sources of energy to provide an income which goes straight to the local community; encouragement of enterprise, with entrepreneurs free to work and grow their businesses; and empowerment – people change when they CAN DO.

Sally Foster Fulton, Chair of Christian Aid Scotland, chaired the session firmly and fairly, and when she invited questions from the floor said she would invite questions from men and women alternately to ensure a good gender balance, which was much appreciated. The questions and comments, and responses from the panel, ranged from allowing land to people dispossessed during the Scottish diaspora, grouse moors, the Buccleuch estates, the lack of affordable local authority housing stock and how to persuade the royal family to change the way their estates were managed. It was impressive to see how tactfully yet definitely some of the subjects were handled. Alas, we had to leave the session, but were invited to continue the conversation elsewhere – I hope this too will be handled in the same respectful way the differing opinions on the platform were expressed.

Mary Woodward