Land Reform Review Group’s Interim Report – an empty envelope addressed to a dead letter box

When First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking at a summer cabinet meeting in Skye on 24th July 2012,  announced details of a Land Reform Review Group he was establishing, he presented it as an agent of ‘radical thinking’, saying that this ‘radical review of land reform’ was intended to deliver a more successful Scotland with stronger communities and economic growth.

Mr Salmond said: ‘I want this review to deliver radical change for both rural and urban areas, developing new ideas which will improve current legislation as well as generating even more innovative proposals.’

The timescale of the work suggested that radicalism was less the name of the game than was the trailing of a populist political carrot in advance of the 2014 Independence Referendum.

‘Radicalism’ in relation to the Land Reform Review Group was no more than a useful match to hold to a fire that the work of the group would never be allowed to ignite.

Nothing about this independence campaign is radical. Au contraire, it is about being as un-independent as possible.

Telling omens

The Review Group was first given an absurdly ruritanian ‘structure’.

It was set up with a Chair, Dr Alison Elliot, former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; and two Vice Chairs – Professor James Hunter, historian, author and former Chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Dr Sarah Skerratt, of the Scottish Agricultural College.

When this was announced, we said of the arrangement: ‘But that seems to be it. There are apparently no other members to be chaired and vice chaired, so they will be keeping each other in first class trim.’

That job became progressively easier with, first, the departure  in April 2013 of Professor Hunter; and with that of Dr Skerratt on the publication on 10th May 2013 of the Review Group’s Interim Report.

This leaves Dr Elliot chairing Iain Cooke, who in April replaced Professor Hunter and must now feel over managed. But with uber-democratic 360 degree responsibilities, Mr Cooke will himself be Vice-Chairing Dr Elliot.

Cosy? Airless.

The Interim Report

The Interim Report is described as the work of Dr Elliot and Dr Skerrat, which lets Ian Cooke off the hook – which is just as well for his credibility as this report is about as vacuous as it gets.

It is an empty envelope whose address – an ‘Executive Summary’ – delivers it to a dead letter box.  Nothing in the section so titled is executive  but it is certainly a summary: of the origins of the Land Reform Review Group; of its remit; of the reporting sections to come in the document; of the composition and ‘structure’ of the group; and a narrative of the work it has been doing since last July. And this adds up to – what exactly?

It does, however, give some mention to the issues which it has excluded from its attention.

Those just happen to be the issues that really matter:

  • the rights of tenant farmers;
  • the position of the Crown Estate Commission.

The rights of tenant farmers

On the position of tenant farmers, it is not as if the Review Group was lacking in evidence of the gravity of the issue.

Lord Gill has delivered some astonishingly retrogressive opinions.

Notable instances of these were:

  • the Moonzie judgment against a tenant farmer in Fife – which licensed landlords to hike rents way above reasonable levels, with an immediate effect on Islay where the land owners, primarily Islay Estates, started putting rents up by double figure %s;
  • and, unforgettably, his judgment against an East Lothian tenant farmer, Andrew Riddell.

Mr Riddell’s family had farmed on Peaston Farm for over 100 years but he had nevertheless been given notice to quit by his businessman landlord, Alastair Salvesen.

In 2010, a Land Court ruling found for Mr Riddell and gave him tenure. At Mr Salvesen’s appeal against that judgement, Lord Gill found for the landlord in March 2012, asserting that arrangements in place to protect tenant farmers were not compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights.

Just over six months later, in October 2012, Mr Riddell was found dead, a few weeks before the 52 year old father of four was due to leave his home and just after he had completed his last harvest.

No case could more sharply underline the fundamental importance of the rights of tenant farmers or the urgency of the need to protect them. An immediate issue here ought to be a robust interrogation of the framing of the European Convention  of Human Rights in this respect – because if Lord Gill’s opinion in the Salvesen-Riddell case stands up, that would negate much of the role of the Review Group. If it does not, it is too late for Mr Riddell.

However, audibly sucking its teeth, the Land Reform Review Group swiftly kicks the issue of tenant farmers beyond its definition of its own borders of inquiry. In one of the most disgracefully craven passages in a supine document, the two doctors prescribe:

‘Through the submissions and visits, we are aware of the complexities of farming tenancies. This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention. For the LRRG to address these issues would be to interfere with the work of the TFF [Ed: Tenant Farmers Forum] and to stray considerably away from our remit which focuses on communities rather than relationships between individuals. We urge the TFF to respond constructively to the tenants’ concerns and proposals. Having spent time on the issue during the first phase of the review we would be interested in sharing perspectives with the TFF through our advisers as appropriate but we do not intend to report further on this matter, except where it can be addressed within the context of community ownership.’

And that’s it.

How ‘radical’ is it to shrink to interfere? How bold is it to encourage the toothless Tenant Farmers Forum to ‘respond to the tenants’ concerns and proposals?

‘Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.’

The Crown Estate Commission

The position of the Crown Estate Commission in Scotland – and its swift decampment from the country upon devolution – is  a matter which right and contemporary social adjustments render anachronistic and unacceptable. It is of no account that the Scottish rights and assets held in the portfolio entitled ‘The Crown Estate’ are not the limitless crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Devolved or independent, a modern Scotland really cannot live with the fudge and the cap doffing involved in appearing grateful for modest disbursements of what belongs to the country in the first place.

The Review Group’s Interim Report, however, does not intend to be ‘radical’ here either. It says:

‘Issues outstanding: The Crown Estate, common good land, taxation and succession have not featured in Phase 1 but may be addressed if they can throw light on topics that are part of Phase 2.’

So – another abdication of the responsibility to be radical.

Is this the First Minister’s ‘radical thinking’?

The report’s tunnelling under the perimeter fences of tenant farmers’s rights and the position of the Crown Estate Commission may well be exactly what the First Minister intended to see.

Mr Salmond has a well documented fondness for appearance over substance – and his declaration at the launch of this Review Group that it would ‘deliver radical change’ would appear to be more of the same.

Professor James Hunter, who departed the group quietly in April ‘for personal reasons’, appears to have been a simmering pot that boiled over when he saw the Interim Report.

A supporter of Scottish independence, he nevertheless told yesterday’s Herald [4th June] that ‘six years under the SNP had left Scotland stuck with the “most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world’.

Professor Hunter then went on to tell The Herald that the government itself had been directly involved in the work of the Review Group.

That has to mean that the empty envelope to the dead letter box was exactly what the First Minister and his cohorts had actively engineered.

Political responses to the Interim Report

Brian Wilson: Former Labour Minister, founder of the West Highland Free Press – and continuing in that welcome tradition and in that very organ, Brian Wilson described the report as ‘The most useless 52 pages ever committed to print’.

Some heartening examples of Mr Wilson’s response – indicating that there remains intelligent life somewhere in planet Scotland as today created, include:

  • ‘I am now tempted to think of it [the report] as a practical joke – a last mocking laugh at those who were still deluded enough to believe that anything as interesting as land reform might feature in a Scotland where radicalism has been replaced by the constitutional obsession.
  • ‘The interim report of the Group is quite difficult to find even on its own web-site.  I can only put this down to cyber-embarrassment.’
  • ‘The group is chaired by Dr Alison Elliott, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who is doubtless  a well-intentioned soul. But she seems to have approached this task with a knowledge base close to zero and the report suggests little sign of having advanced from that starting-point.’
  • ‘Some of the passages are laughable in their naivete.  “Large private estates were quick to invite the group to visit,” the report recounts proudly, “and so the group spent time at the Atholl, Moray, Buccleuch and Annandale Estates”.  I wonder if they spent any time investigating the vast, empty acreages to which they were not invited and to which access might have presented rather more of a challenge?’

Patrick Harvie: The Scottish Greens MSP and supporter of Scottish Independence, says: ‘This is a crucial issue which is in danger of disappearing from the government’s radar. The wealthy individuals and companies that own land in Scotland are doing their best to close down debate.

‘Jim Hunter’s right – we continue to have a shockingly bad system of land ownership that concentrates wealth and stifles aspiration. There’s growing enthusiasm for land-based taxation, which Greens have long advocated. This could reduce the kind of speculation and profit that harms our communities, and it is an option SNP ministers could look at right now.

‘SNP ministers like to aspire to Scandanavian countries, so I hope they take note of the fact that local authorities in Denmark levy a land tax that applies to land owned by Danes abroad. It’s frankly embarrassing that acres of land in Scotland are generating funds for public services overseas while here at home we face cuts.’

David Cameron: Chair of Community Land Scotland, David Cameron says: ‘It is hard to think that Scotland could be taken seriously when it comes to securing greater social justice unless achieving significant change in land ownership patterns is firmly part of the agenda. It is time to take the decisive steps necessary to re-shape Scotland’s land ownership and the destiny of communities up and down the land.

‘The purpose of land reform is not to be able to present a national score card on land holdings that looks more equitable, the purpose is to distribute power and influence more widely and effectively, to release economic and social development potential and opportunity. Giving more people access to the wealth of the land is to widen opportunity and contribute to creating a more socially just Scotland.’

Radicalism? Where? Robin Hood-ism?

Genuine radicalism is about challenging the status quo – but there are many aspects of the status quo. They include what was previously regarded as radical action and radical thought.

‘Robin Hood-ism’ is very old hat – yet that is what we are still being sold – and buying – as radical thinking.

The really radical thinking today should be the addressing of the reality of conflicting rights – towards some workable reconciliation of those conflicts.

There is no difference in the fact of eviction between a notice to quit served by a landlord upon a tenant farmer and a compulsory purchase forced upon an owner who does not wish to sell.

One wrong is not redressed by the imposition of a different wrong.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament today, in a debate on the Review Group’s report, Highlands and Islands MSP, Jamie McGrigor, said:

‘We are positive about the benefits that can arise community ownership and indeed can be proud of our record in government on this matter, not least the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Act 1997.

‘However, we believe strongly and will always uphold this belief, that community ownership must be achieved through the willingness of both the buyer and the seller- this is fundamental. The idea of forcing people to sell land against their wishes is not acceptable.

‘Therefore we are concerned that this necessity of a willing seller or land owner as part of any community involvement is not addressed in the interim report. We would urge the LRRG to consider this issue as it continues its work as it is a key one.’

Radicalism? Where? Community land ownership?

Is the answer to the economic regeneration of remote rural places – and the route to the creation of sustainable communities – community land ownership?

Radical thinking must be prepared to ask that question before it is too late.

A substantial part of what led the St Kildans to ask for evacuation was that the increasing numbers of visitors they were seeing out there made them aware of lifestyles offering more than the limitations of their own existence.

Depopulated places are so because they keep losing their young folk, a percentage of whom may return with their own young families – many of whom will themselves later leave. The progression is outwards, with an ageing population on the increase back home.

Today’s young folk not only have television, they have the internet, mobile phones, facebook, Twitter, You Tube – they can see, hear and communicate with worlds very different from their own. These are worlds full of huge numbers of people of their own age – with clothes, cool, cars and clubs. Of course, they want some of this for themselves – and they know it’s available – elsewhere.

At the very least, they want to earn a decent living and they envisage a career path of some sort.

The community land ownership deals so far have been on land that is hardly fertile. This is not the sort of resource capable of delivering more than the subsistence living that is a long way short of our young folks’ necessary ambition.

This sort of resource is also never going to be capable of bringing in the numbers of people that genuinely sustainable communities require – and that young people intuitively need in the interests of the gene pool.

Radical thinking – as it means – may require us to examine the possibility that community land ownership has had its time and that we need now to look for a different model.

One immediate alternative model is a major national commitment to radical infrastructural development – which has immediate benefits for the construction industry, for tourism and for the viability of business and manufacturing start ups.

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11 Responses to Land Reform Review Group’s Interim Report – an empty envelope addressed to a dead letter box

    • Andy Wightman damaged his own credibility in his unequivocal engagement with the stunt where mass hostile applications from all over the place were orchestrated to apply for places on the boards of two estates, in Applecross and Bute.
      These were declaredly the first step in a form of grab raid nowhere near radical thinking. The manoeuvre had not even been directed at estates known to be ill-run but at those seemingly selected for their headline value.
      Mr Wightman’s value comes from his research and writing. That particular stunting was ill-judged and damaging, although it may have had kerb appeal for the mindless.
      As we have said, genuinely radical thinking would address the achieving of any necessary reform in the context of recognising conflicting rights.
      The core wrong lies in the position of tenant farmers, a matter which will clearly require good legislation. This will have to deal particularly with the interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights that led to Lord Gill’s deeply damaging opinion.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  1. This is a woeful interim report. Lynda has hit it on the head. It will therefore be very interesting to see what comes out of the Community Land Scotland conference and AGM on Skye tomorrow, especially as Alex Salmond is the keynote speaker. One can’t help thinking this is the ideal platform for the first minister to push the review in the right direction rather than allow it to follow its present pathetic course.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

    • Intriguing prospect, Charles.

      Salmond’s whole strategy right now is ‘don’t frighten the horses’, lest some folk are alienated, and vote No in the referendum. Daft notion on his part though, since this approach has secured the tenant farmers firmly in the Better Together camp, I imagine.

      So I think his speech tomorrow will be all about what could be possible in an independent Scotland. But it should be fully recognised that all the widely acknowledged land problems, like extending community ownership, can be solved by the Scottish Parliament – now – using the powers it already possesses.

      These land problems are not going to be magicked away by a new constitution: It’s new, principled political leadership that’s needed. And there’s precious little sight of that right now in the SNP, when you look at this report, and the recent Raasay débâcle.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  2. Nice one Newsroom! This centuries old sore in Scottish Law really needed a healthy airing again.

    The interim report stems from the failure of the Scottish Government to address the problems created by Lord Gill’s 2 rulings.

    The Scottish Government had a good opportunity to amend the legislation in March 2012, when the Agricultural Holdings (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill came up for debate in the Scottish Parliament. Despite appeals from opposition members and others the SNP seemed to deliberately ignored the perceived errors in the original 2003 Land reform act.

    They preferred to, half-heartedly, set up an appeal which then made any further parliamentary discussion sub judice. Thus they effectively booted any worthwhile reform legislation into the post-2014 long grass.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Bob “This centuries old sore in Scottish Law really needed a healthy airing again.”

    I agree with you 100%.

    But just before we go overboard praising Neswie on this one let’s remember her ‘radical’ solution is to “examine the possibility that community land ownership has had its time and that we need now to look for a different model”.

    Community land ownership in Scotland is in its infancy – Scottish Landowners and people like Newsie would love to strangle it at birth.

    Newsie talks a good ‘radical’ game but in reality is as reactionary as Scottish Landowners – witness the hysterics she went into when the publicly subsidised Mount Stuart and Applecross Trust were threatened with opening-up their membership.

    Oh and remember her ‘real radical’ solution to land ownership – “a major national commitment to radical infrastructural development”.

    I’ve got news for you Newsie – that’s infrastructure development – not Land Reform.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

    • Point of fact, Simon – we did not say that infrastructural development – or the equally correct ‘infrastructure development’ – was a solution, radical or otherwise, to land reform.
      We said it is an alternative approach to the social and economic decline in remote areas that land reform is not substantially delivering.
      Since the first community buy out in Scotland was in the early years of the 20th century [1908, when the Glendale Estate in Skye was bought by the government and sold to the crofters], it is certainly not in its infancy.
      Moreover, as life itself demonstrates painfully, the fact of infancy is no passport to survival.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  4. Pingback: Argyll News: Final Land Reform report substantial, challenging, provocative, not final | For Argyll

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