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23 January 2003
From the Highlands to the Lowlands, in future it's going to be
23 January 2003
Imagine a Bill whose aim was to break up the great
estates of England and hand them over to local communities. The
rolling acres of Longleat, say, or the Duke of Westminsters
Lancashire moors, would become the property of the people, with
access guaranteed to anyone who wanted to stroll over them at any
time, day or night.
Imagine a Bill that would forbid anyone owning
land to sell it on the open market, or even to their own children,
without first giving nearby villagers the opportunity to raise the
money and buy it for themselves. Imagine a Bill that simply abolished
the laws of trespass and gave everyone the right to roam wherever
they pleased. There would, I dare say, be a raised eyebrow or two,
the odd crusty leader in The Daily Telegraph.
It is, of course, an unlikely concept. Yet that,
or something very close to it, is about to happen in Scotland. Later
today the final stages of a land reform Bill, whose aims are almost
exactly those outlined above, will pass through the Scottish Parliament.
It will require anyone selling land to offer it first to a local
community, who will be given time to raise the money, and will be
helped to do so by lottery funds. It will give crofters in the Highlands
an absolute right to buy their own land and any rivers running through
it, whether the owner wants to sell or not. It will insist that
everyone has the right to walk, ride, cycle or sail over any stretch
of land or water up to the immediate surroundings of a house.
What is, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about
this Bill by far the most radical piece of legislation since
devolution is that it has raised so little comment, north
as well as south of the border. Yesterdays Scotsman newspaper
carried one small inside page story, and a commentary on the agricultural
page. There was a small demonstration by 50 river workers outside
The reasons for the reticence are not hard to
find. The average Scot has little sympathy for the laird
and is more than content to see him taken down a peg or two. A dim
sense of ancient wrongs is embedded in the Scottish character, and
this includes reference to the 19th century Highland Clearances,
when crofters were allegedly driven off their land by rapacious
landowners, in order to turn it over to more profitable sheep.
The fact that this is largely myth most
crofters were forced out by rural poverty, rather than greedy lairds
has done little to dislodge the notion it has instilled of
inequality and injustice. To challenge it is to invite ridicule
Against this background, drawing up laws to force
a fairer distribution of land is a thoroughly popular measure. The
fact that it is spectacularly bad law is neither here nor there.
The committee which has been taking evidence has paid little heed
to the practical implications of the Bill or to representations
from the landowners, and has steamrollered it through, strengthening
rather than modifying its provisions.
It is bad law because it will do nothing for Scotlands
fragile rural economy. Land values will be driven down, investment
will fall, and, most ironic of all, very little land will actually
be distributed. Who would willingly put their estate up for sale
in the present climate?
Meanwhile, the plan for open access has outraged
farmers, who will have no redress against those who walk across
their fields. Managing land for grouse or deer will become increasingly
difficult. Even hotel proprietors, such as Peter de Savary, will
be affected. He points out that his business depends on guaranteeing
his well-heeled guests the privacy of Skibo Castle and its grounds.
That privacy will henceforth be against the law.
The late Donald Dewar famously promised that good
landowners have nothing to fear from the Bill. He may have
spoken too soon. What the legislators have failed to grasp is that
managing large estates is an expensive business. Because they consist
largely of unproductive heather and rock, rather than agricultural
land, they require substantial resources to maintain them. Rural
employment, in the form of gamekeepers and ghillies, depends on
the kind of investment that wealthy landowners have hitherto been
prepared to make. They have also shouldered substantial losses.
How local communities will find equivalent resources has not been
explained. It is one thing to buy land, quite another to run it.
None of these arguments cut any ice with MSPs
who are determined that the measure will be pushed through, whatever
the consequences. Thus, later today, land reform becomes a reality.
It will, however, come in the form of an ineffective, unfair and
ill-considered Bill which will do nothing to improve the reputation
of Scotlands Parliament.
Further Reading Recommended by Land-Care
Land Reform (Scotland) Bill. (View
Linklater, Magnus. Fair play on land reform swept away in a torrent
of prejudice. Scotland on Sunday, 19 January 2003. (View
Irvine, W. James. Scottish Natural Heritages Policy on Access.
Is it being mis-sold in relation to enclosed Farmland next to Urban
Communities? LandCare Scotland, 1: 19-23. (Click
here to view).
Uncalled for unwarranted ideological legislation. Dundee Courier,
Letters, 7 January 2003. (View
Justice 2's legal expertise in doubt. Letter from Robbie Douglas
Miller, Vice-chairman, Highlands and Islands Rivers Association.
Scotland on Sunday, Letters, 22 December 2002. (View
No Corners Cut on Land Reform Bill. Letter from Pauline McNeill,
MSP and Convenor of the Justice 2 Committee. Scotland on Sunday,
Letters, 15 December 2002. (View
Watson, Jeremy. Scotland's first 'land grab' victim. Scotland on
Sunday, 8th December 2002. (Click
here to view).
Linklater, Magnus. Land Reform Falls Foul of Scotlands own
Kangaroo Committee. Scotland on Sunday, 1 December 2002. (Includes
editorial comment from Land-Care). (Click
here to view).
Linklater, Magnus. Sniggering snobbery puts Scots in a class of
their own. Scotland on Sunday, 27 October 2002. (View
Linklater, Magnus. New spirit of Western Isles derring-do will not
come cheap. Scotland on Sunday, 20 October 2002. (View
Mylius, A. (2001). Access: the Reality for Farmers, Landowners,
Foresters and all Rural Residents. LandCare Scotland, 1: 3-18. (View
Raeside, T. (2001). Veterinary Hazards to Open Access to Enclosed
Agrciultural Land. LandCare Scotland, 1: 33-34. (View