Do we really know who owns Scotland?

PLMR Scotland’s Lynn McMath and guest contributor Andrew Ferguson, look at the contentious issue of land reform north of the border and what changes may be ahead as new legislation is brought forward at Holyrood.

The question ‘Who owns Scotland?’ has become something of a hot potato over the last year or so with an inquiry into the issue held by Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee and new legislation on Land Reform on the programme ahead for Holyrood.

There are currently 432 landowners who own half of the total private land in Scotland. Some of Scotland’s most picturesque landscapes fall under this total.

Much of this land is inherited, passed down through the generations but there are also private individuals and conglomerates from across the globe who have bought up highland estates as investment opportunities.

Currently estate owners have access to range of subsidies from within the UK and also the European Union. For example, a buyer for a £11.4 million estate in Argyll would immediately qualify for £12,000 per week in public money.  Alongside such subsidies, the rates of taxation are low.

Details on who owns the land are not centrally held and this is in marked contrast to many countries within the EU which has a Directorate in place to try and harmonise the information on land ownership across its members. This issue of subsidies as well as taxation and clarity of ownership is the focus of the Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry.

On the flip side though, according to Scottish Land & Estates who represent landowners, the estates owned by their members bring £279m to Scotland’s economy and support 5,919 full-time jobs. This is through a mixture of farming, sporting activities and tourism. They also say their estates bring social and environmental benefits both directly in terms of their own commercial outputs and by supporting ancillary business.

At Holyrood, the SNP government, Scottish Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens have all expressed views that land reform should be a priority. They want a more transparent system of ownership and for Scotland’s land to benefit a greater percentage of Scots, including greater community ownership.

It’s a view shared by Community Land Scotland, an advocate group who believe that the state of land ownership in Scotland is ‘unacceptable’ and the current ownership patterns acts ‘against achieving greater social justice and the progressive realisation of human rights’. However, community ownership faces substantive difficulties in becoming realised. State funding for communities ‘buying out’ private ownership of land is severely limited by EU legislation, as individual member states cannot directly offer agricultural investment due to the common market agreements.

This may well be something that the Land Reform Bill will address as a stated objective is to have 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020. The proposed legislation with also look at rates exemptions for sporting estates and ministerial intervention “where the scale of land ownership or the conduct of a landlord is acting as a barrier to sustainable development”.

The SNP say the objectives of the Land Reform Bill are ‘radical’ and there is no doubt that change is ahead. The Bill is currently out to consultation and no doubt views from both sides will be impassioned, a sign that Scotland’s greatest asset is a commodity still very much in demand.

Lynn McMath heads the PLMR Scotland office in Edinburgh. She was a former press advisor to the Scottish Shadow Cabinet.
Andrew Ferguson is a 4th year Politics student at Strathclyde University.

Related links
PLMR Scotland Blogs
PLMR Planning Services

*Photo (of Loch Lomond) Credit: Paul Tomkins / VisitScotland / Scottish Viewpoint

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