NEWS that David and Samantha Cameron may soon buy a £10.5 million shooting estate in Aberdeenshire tells you a lot about the state of landownership in Scotland after the passage of the Land Reform Act.
First, the prospect of paying sporting rates for the first time since John Major ended them in the 90s clearly disnae bother Oor Dave. Either no one’s broken it to him or such a relatively small sum is insignificant. Clearly, the former PM is also relaxed about the Succession Bill set to pass through the new Scottish Parliament. It’ll mean each of the Cameron children have equal rights to inherit land and unless Florence Rose and Nancy Gwen are happy to stand back and let Arthur Elwyn inherit everything when the sad day comes, it's likely Tillypronie will be split up for the first time in centuries.
That’s good news for Scotland since eventually massive estates will be broken down as they have been across Europe since the Napoleonic Code introduced equal inheritance rights in 1801. That will mean more diversity among owners, more hands on the tiller, lower prices as land scarcity diminishes and maybe the prospect of locals finally finding land on the market they can afford to buy.
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The only snag is that this could come too late for another generation of young Scots still facing the prospect of land at £50k per third of an acre when it is actually for sale. Only a land tax will make inroads into this – it’s part of the Greens’ manifesto and while Nicola Sturgeon has said all alternatives to the council tax will be examined in her forthcoming council funding review, she’s already turned her face against a land tax as part of the new system.
Getting back to Dave though, the second significant feature of the Tillypronie purchase rumour is that the Eton boy won’t need any qualifications or prove he has any skills to buy 12,000 acres of Scottish moor. The property apparently has sweeping views across the Dee Valley, wide expanses of heather clad moors and salmon fishing less than 20 miles from the Queens Balmoral estate. It also has productive farmland, planted woodland and forestry – at the centre of an EU funding row when it was revealed earlier this year that nearly £400,000 of farming subsidies have been paid to the Estates trust to plant trees. Just as well that wee deal was clinched before the Brexit vote.
The selling agents’ website contains a lot less information about the people whose livelihoods depend on the outlook of the new Laird. The current owner recently sold some farms and cottages to sitting tenants – now it’s clear that was not just a long overdue act of benevolence. The Tillypronie brochure assures the would-be new owner that “a significant extent of ploughable land and pasture will be available to a purchaser with vacant possession from 28 November 2016.” So EU subsidies may roll in to the new landowner – until of course Brexit ends them. It also means no messy impact from the new rights conferred on tenant farmers in the Land Reform Act.
To be fair I suppose the fact some tenants farmers have been able to buy their farms at Tillydronie is progress. But in the Nordic nations anyone buying farmland, forest and moor land would have to go through five years at agricultural college first, pay land tax on it and undertake to make the farmhouse their main residence. If the Camerons are intending to buy, it’s just as well Scotland still doesn’t care about landowner’s intentions – Dave and Sam have reportedly enrolled their children at a private school in Chelsea, so it’s hard to see how the massive Aberdeenshire mansion could ever be their first home.
Is this a serious possibility? After all you’d think David Cameron would be loth to make a massive investment in Scotland when independence looks like an odds-on probability within the next 10 years. But local newspapers have followed the story from flat denial to acknowledgement that the estate is actually on the market. Samantha Cameron has family connections to the Astors through her mother’s second marriage and has reportedly said how much she loved it during summer visits. Is that enough to justify buying a sizeable chunk of Aberdeenshire for a large second home? Not for the average homebuyer – but then the rules are so very different for the landed gentry. And it continues to be one rule for the average Scottish resident and another for the wannabe landowner, despite the Land Reform Act passed this April. Of course, very few bits of legislation could transform the entrenched inequality of centuries in just five months – especially when the bill passed with many key sections still to be hammered out in secondary legislation over the course of this new Parliament. The Scottish Government’s signalled there will be more land reform bills ahead. That’s why it set up a Land Commission tasked with “developing the evidence base for future land reform”, producing a rights and responsibilities statement that will act as a framework for future practice and new legislation. Hopefully it will make local sustainable development an essential factor in deciding how land is owned and managed in the country and cities – and adverts for members have just been published. The Land Reform Act brought in a new right to buy on the grounds of sustainable local development and places a duty on councils to create a statutory register of common good land.
Sporting rates will be re-introduced in April 2017 and estates and farms are being valued right now. There was no end to the 100 per cent exemption from non-domestic rates for vacant and derelict property but the Scottish Government has promised to reconsider that proposal in this Parliament. The Community Empowerment Act has introduced a right to buy for neglected and abandoned land – in the country and city and if the community wants to takeover an asset from a local council or other public body, the authorities must say why that shouldn’t happen.
There has also been progress by local folk determined to turn their communities around through land buyouts, hydro schemes and businesses funded by community shares.
Tenant farmers now have better succession rights, rent reviews in future will be fairer and tenants will get compensation for investments they’ve made on the farm if their tenancy ends. A conditional right to buy has also been introduced that enables the tenant to force a farm sale if the landlord has not fulfilled his responsibilities.
But, in the words of Scottish Tenant Farmers’ leader Angus McCall, “a tragic and disgraceful legacy of badly drafted tenancy reform in 2003 has been the treatment of nine tenant farmers, [including] Andrew Stoddart who was forced to leave his East Lothian farm in January.” Another two farmers could be in the same position this November and the remaining six face eviction in 2017. As well as losing their farms, these nine tenant farmers also face a lengthy and expensive legal battle against the Scottish Government to try and receive some recompense for decades of hard work, improvements and years of uncertainty and stress brought about by well-meaning but badly drafted legislation. If any other tenant farmers find themselves in the same position as Andrew Stoddart, OurLand will work to draw attention to their plight as doggedly as we did in 2015 when the East Lothian tenant farmer finally did receive a substantial settlement from the Coulston Estate. Even if that means holding another fringe meeting at the SNP conference in October to make sure delegates understand hardworking farmers still face ruin and eviction after the passage of the Land Reform Act.
As one supporter put it, the #OurLand campaign also needs to shine a light on all the enduring problems: “the estates still holding their local people back through restrictive practices; the locked gates; the failed enforcement of planning restrictions that allow estates to plough industrial tracks across pristine wild land; the amount of land undrained, uncultivated and turning back to rushes and bog; the continuing use of land banks and ransom strips; the plethora of prime city centre property which could provide affordable homes and business premises and revitalise our city centres but instead are allowed to rot away unchallenged and untaxed.”
He’s right. Until Scots can buy housing plots for about £1k there’s work to be done.
That’s why OurLand is rolling out a festival of events for a second year beginning tomorrow.
The campaign was set up in 2015 by a bunch of unpaid volunteers including Andy Wightman (now rolling in cash as a new Green MSP of course) Robin McAlpine of Common Weal and myself supported by Women for Indy and Global Justice. The aim is to keep pushing for more effective and therefore more radical land reform than the SNP has so far been willing to contemplate.
OurLand’s five objectives – which we ask new MSPs to consider – will be spelled out fully tomorrow. In brief though they include: l Transparency: everyone should know who owns land l Productivity: policy should encourage land to be used more productively l Affordability: tax should help make land more affordable for all l Availability: more people should have more chance of buying land l Accountability: public land should be used for public good.
There are 20 events being held across Scotland including seven speaker meetings in Birnam, Rothesay, Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Haddington, Dunfermline and Aviemore where Andy Wightman MSP, local speakers, an expert on land-related legislation from the Development Trusts Association, local musicians and myself will be appearing.
Last year hundreds of people sent photos to produce a memorable spread in the National and an ever-increasing carousel on the OurLand website. This year we’ve asked some of those folk to return to the locations they highlighted and take new pictures showing if anything’s changed – for better or worse. The “before and after the Land Reform Act” snaps will appear in tomorrow’s National too. But already we know that the 20 homes lying vacant beside Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay are still empty. Castle Toward, where a community buyout was scuppered by Argyll & Bute Council also lies empty. The vacant waterfront land at Granton in Leith owned by a mystery company in the British Virgin Islands is still vacant – though soon the real owners will have to reveal themselves on a new Land register, and inside the Cairngorms National Park a 21 kilometre electrified deer fence is still there – erected by landowners who didn’t bother to consult the National Park authority. And just for good measure the Cairngorms National Park recently published its latest plan in which local housing was the seventh priority – even though many young workers are effectively homeless because of soaring land values and number of second homes.
It’s all unfinished business.
If this moves you – join us to create a better Scotland as fast as humanly possible.