I was keen to attend this Not-for-profit (NfP) Land owners workshop as I carried
out an elementary survey of non-profit-distributing property associations in the Highlands
at a time when the topic was not so lively and exciting. Since I was first involved, the
sector has grown considerably and now covers a diverse range of organisations, which are
learning from each other. However, even today this part of the civil society the social economy - is not well
understood by our elected representatives, policy makers, academia, public servants or a
sizeable proportion of the development profession.
I was also briefly involved with the Laggan Forestry Initiative, which has perhaps
still not been properly born as a joint forest management venture. Their situation raises
the issue of how communities and other civil society organisations can work together with
the statutory sector. The challenge is to convince people of the need for a
re-interpretation of the role of the state in the management of public land through such
agencies as Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission and then to act in
accordance with the new understanding.
The social land sector as a whole is faced with several challenges. This is due to the
way in which the sector has grown and increasingly diversified to meet these new
challenges and needs.
Government Recognition as a Representative Voice
Having spent the last 2 to 3 years capacity building, NfP groups must now develop a
profile and a presence in public policy making. If the social land sector is not
recognised within the next year by key ministries in the Scottish Executive and by the new
Parliament, it will have missed an opportunity, with the likely result that the government
will recognise only one body as the representative voice of landowners in Scotland
the Scottish Landowners Federation, whose members own 7 million acres. It has a
membership of around 4,000. However the social land sector owns half a million acres in
the Highlands and a further quarter of a million acres elsewhere in Scotland. It has in
excess of 1.2 million members within the social land sector umbrella. It is essential to
argue for official recognition from the government as a representative voice, for this
Debate on the Proposed Legislation
The concept of community land ownership is currently fashionable, but many political
commentators define community very narrowly as local people in a particular place
and fail to appreciate the complexity of a sector which includes conservation
organisations, crofting communities, co-operatives, housing associations, faith
organisations, national sports associations, partnerships and consortia, as well as local
community property associations.
The current proposals certainly do not recognise the complexity and diversity of the
social land sector. Therefore NfP groups also face the challenge of trying to influence
the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the proposed community-right-to-buy.
The Scottish Office Land reform Policy Groups recommendations
seem to be designed to deal with acute symptoms as displayed in the high profile cases of
Eigg and Knoydart, rather than addressing the underlying causes. They also appear to be an
exercise in containment in the way they restrict the right-to-buy to communities which are
able to meet very narrow conditions.
To be eligible under the proposed right-to-buy legislation,
groups will have had to register an interest beforehand. Furthermore, the right appears to
be restricted to those who live and or work on the land (i.e. tenants and employees).
A further restriction is that a community will only be able to invoke the right-to-buy
when property is on the market. Much land in Scotland changes hands only rarely: a quarter
of estates over 1,000 acres are still in the same family hands as in 1700, and half
of the Highlands has not seen any change in ownership since the last war. Any registration
of interest may be on behalf of the great-great-grand-children of those alive today.
So the challenge is to amend the proposed legislation to allow a high degree of
flexibility over the eligibility criteria, sufficient to cover cases which cannot
currently be predicted, and so allow for the variety and experimentation within the sector
which has attempted to integrate social, economic, environmental and democratic needs in
diverse ways. It is interesting to note that the White paper advocates that the
right-to-buy legislation should only be exercised where the community members constitute a
voting majority on the community trust. In which current situations is this the
case? Certainly not in the cases of Eigg and in Knoydart.
A further challenge stems from the fact that many politicians have shunted the debate
to the Highlands as if the issue of land ownership does not affect the rest of Scotland.
However, the campaign for land reform was always intended to be a national movement. The
social land sector has to go on reiterating demands for a rigorous critique of the current
Vision into Public Policy
The new Scottish Parliament will have much more time to discuss and debate issues and
to build visions of the Scotland of the future. The challenge for social land sector is to
grasp new opportunities and create a vision of the contribution that the sector can make
and inject it into public policy.
There is currently great disillusionment with the state sector. Michael Forsyth, as
Secretary of State for Scotland, proposed that the Laggan Forestry Initiative should be
allowed to buy the solum to 3,000 acres for £75,000, while
the Forestry Commission (FC) should continue to own the trees, but the FC objected. There
are lots of opportunities to be explored, such as partnerships between the private,
public, community and voluntary sectors.
My advice to the NfP Landowners Group is:
The organisations represented at this workshop have already begun to react to the
opportunity. May you and the social land movement grow and prosper.
To keep the agenda of land ownership in the public eye, in the absence of more big land
buy-outs, all the diverse parts of the social land sector which are affected must speak
out tenants groups, housing associations, sports associations, etc. We need to
generate a head of steam to allow us to question the fundamentals of the status quo, and
not just the solutions which have been proposed so far by the Land Reform Policy Group,
civil servants or one or two interested politicians.
We are insufficiently aware of our history of social land ownership in Scotland, which
dates back over 150 years to the club farms of the 1820s. When John Murdoch advocated the
setting up of the Commercial Land Company in 1875, he was driven by the Chartist vision of
the National Land Plan. In the current land reform debate many civil society organisations
have allowed themselves to be diverted by the bad landlord issue. We need to
celebrate the coming together of the three strands of the social land ownership movement
These three diverse strands of civil society are now entwined in sustainable
development and must be part of the vision of the future.
We also need a more fundamental analysis of how to right the wrongs of the status quo.
Rising land prices are putting land beyond the reach of local people. At the same time at
least one firm of land agents is trying to persuade Japanese investors that they can
achieve a 9 percent return on their capital by buying Scottish farms and taking advantage
of the governments Farm Woodland Grant Scheme.
We need public debate on such issues as a universal right of pre-emption in the public
interest. This could be vested in the state, which could then exercise it on behalf of
groups in the social land sector. This would save individual groups having to invoke this
right on each occasion they wished to acquire land, which had come on the market. It has
also been proposed that a community should be able to identify land in advance, and that a
community which wants to take land into community ownership should be able to designate as
much land as it feels it needs. We need to win acceptance for the idea that the land
market should be regulated as a matter of principle. Once that is achieved, the debate
moves on to such questions as: How should it be regulated? In whose interest?
The Land Reform Policy Group in its document Identifying the
Solutions refers to the possibility of the human rights of owners being infringed,
but this cannot happen if there is a willing seller. The European Convention on Human
Rights protects owners rights to property against expropriation, but allows land to
be transferred if the public interest demands it. Extending property rights may be
regarded as being in the public interest. For example, the Duke of Westminster lost half
of his Belgravia leasehold on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the judges
ruling that the extension of property rights was in the public interest.
The current proposals for land reform are not sufficiently radical for many landowners
to take them very seriously. Therefore the government should introduce some radical
measures such as reforming the right of succession which would create such agitation that
many less contentious proposals would be accepted.
Many big estates operate like businesses and are often run or advised by professional
land agents and managers, who are skilled at accessing public funds and minimising tax
burdens, while communities have to suffer severe financial constraints on small project
budgets. Making available at local authority level information about the beneficiaries of
state grant aid would be a very important step. The information agenda in land reform is a
very important one. The main political opposition party has proposed that following the
establishment of the new Scottish Parliament it should democratise all grants made to
landowners from the public purse. This may seem a very radical proposal but it has been
the practise of the governments Enterprise agencies which supports both industrial
and business development to openly publish this type of information. This policy of public
disclosure has been operating for a number of years and many business people in industry
and commerce view this as good and ethical practice. Disclosure of state aid to landowners
is a necessary step if there is to be democratic accountability in local development.
The Social Land Sector comprises a diverse range of civil society
organisations function in both rural and urban settings: community property
associations; conservation, amenity and recreational trust (CARTs); crofting trusts,
co-operatives, club farms; faith organisations; housing associations; and national sports
- The Social Economy is the term given to a
range of different citizen-controlled organisations: voluntary associations; community
businesses; co-operatives, mutual and friendly societies.
- Recommendations for Action, Land Reform
Policy Group, The Scottish Office, Edinburgh, January 1999.
- Land Reform: Proposals for Legislation, Scottish
Executive, Edinburgh, July 1999.
- A legal term used in land title documents in Scotland
as a means of referring to the ownership of the top surface of the Earth to a certain
- Identifying the Solutions, Land Reform Policy
Group, The Scottish Office, Edinburgh, September 1998.
The Not-for-Profit Landowners Project Group can be contacted at the
- Euan MacAlpine
- Convenor NfP Landowners Project Group
- C/o RSPB, Etive House
- Beechwood Park
- Inverness IV2 3BW
- Scotland, UK
- Tel: 01463 715 000
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Andy Wightman can be contacted at:
- 9 Inverleith Terrace
- Edinburgh EH3 5NS
- Scotland, UK
- Tel: 0131 225 4139 (work)
- 0976 696 967 (home)
- E-mail: email@example.com
The author acknowledges the assistance of David Reid and Graham Boyd of the Caledonia Centre of Social Development
in the editing of this paper.