WHEN is the award of a million pounds not much of a result?

When another £5.4 million is needed to buy a moorland from Scotland’s largest private landowner – the Duke of Buccleuch.

Last week, the Scottish Land Fund (SLF) made a £1m award to the Langholm Initiative community buyout to buy 10,500 acres of grouse moor that lie above the valley of the River Esk in Dumfries and Galloway, with the aim of conserving its wildlife, woodland and peatlands. The community raised £85,000 in a crowdfunder and got a £100,000 donation from the John Muir Trust but needed £3m from the SLF to help them reach the whopping £6.4m asking price. That was always a big ask – almost the same amount as the total SLF handed to 16 communities (including Langholm). Now the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve – southern Scotland’s largest community buyout – is looking nigh on impossible to realise. The community must raise around £5m by the end of October – a time limit imposed by the Scottish Land Fund to make sure the cash is handed to some viable community project before the end of their five-year funding cycle.

Is that just tough luck, or is another outcome still possible?

The Buccleuch Estate put the moorland up for sale in May 2019, after another parcel of land, the 9000 acre Evertown Estate of tenanted farms and woodland, hit the market. Most of the Evertown hill ground was advertised as “suitable for forestry planting” even though it was being farmed by sitting tenants who wanted to renew their leases.

The outcry that followed, revealed in this paper, prompted the Scottish Land Commission to reprimand Buccleuch for failing to notify local communities of a major land sale – something now required by law. So, this time the estate had to notify the community about Langholm Moor and, once an interest was expressed, had to allow the community time to prepare a bid.

The land for sale includes moorland (covered with SSSIs and other conservation designations), nine houses with tenants, a small bit of commercial forestry and perhaps 400-500 acres of land which could also be planted.

But the Langholm Initiative want to run it quite differently.

Margaret Pool, Langholm Initiative chair, told the Eskdale And Liddesdale Advertiser: “Our nature reserve would restore globally important peatlands and ancient woods, establish new native woodlands and ensure a vital haven for iconic wildlife, including much-persecuted hen harriers.”

But, barring a mystery donor or two, is that the end of their plan?

Peat covered, SSSI-status hills which can’t have large new forests or big new wind farms shouldn’t command whopping land prices. So how the heck does Langholm Moor come in at £6.4 million?

The valuation – made by a RICS surveyor – was jointly agreed by the estate and the community. But what choice did locals have to quibble since the valuation was needed for a SLF bid?

Ironically, some of the land in question is believed by locals to have been common land. In light of this, and the fact the Evertown land sale brought in an estimated £20m, might the duke or his “forward-thinking” group chairman Benny Higgins (also architect of the Scottish Government’s Economic Recovery report), not consider just giving the land to the Langholm Initiative? After all, the National Trust of Scotland (NTS) started with donations from land from owners like John Lorne Campbell on Canna. Is there a reason land can be given to a private charity like NTS (now facing its own sustainability crisis) but not to the local community?

If that’s too hard to contemplate, how about a compromise?

Land Commission chair Andrew Thin thinks the community, the Buccleuch family and SLF should get around the table to produce a hybrid model for owning and managing Langholm Moor. “A good example is the way the John Muir Trust put large chunks of equity into community buyouts in Knoydart and North Harris in return for a seat on the board but not a controlling position.” He thinks Scotland needs more joint landowner/community partnership ownership and management.

BUT sadly, it doesn’t look like that will happen here.

According to a spokesman for Buccleuch Estates: “The valuation of the moor has been jointly agreed by the Langholm Initiative and Buccleuch and was set following a professional process conducted by RICS surveyors. Langholm Moor has been the subject of very significant investment from Buccleuch over many years. The area being purchased includes houses, woodland and tracks. We are a rural business and any sale of any property goes to reinvesting in other projects which create jobs and helps the rural economy. It is equitable that any purchase is transacted following a professional RICS valuation process – a process that has already led to an agreed price between the two parties and will not be deviated from.”

So that’ll be a no then.

If it is, and if the community bid therefore fails, what happens next?

A cynic might suggest Buccleuch could come back to the community and offer to sell the moor minus the 400-500 hectares which could be sold to a commercial forestry company and the nine properties, whose tenants could be offered the choice of buying or moving out at the end of their tenancy period. That way the estate makes a few bob and appears to be helping the community realise its moor-owning goal.

If that or anything like it happens, then our existing land reform law is an ass.

Firstly, the Scottish Land Fund is evidently not sufficient to meet the growing demand from urban and rural communities trying to wrest land and other assets from landowner control. There would rightly be uproar if yet more taxpayer money is handed over to quasi-feudal landowners. But there’s no evidence of any demand (or sufficient trust) for hybrid models of joint ownership to work. How does this get resolved?

Secondly, land prices are soaring out of control in rural areas thanks to scarcity and inflation because of forestry grants. In a recent paper Andy Wightman MSP valued sporting estates at only £100 per hectare. Yet such land manages to sell for more than 10 times that amount. The solution surely isn’t tinkering – it’s taxation. When the far from radical Professor Ronald MacDonald, of the Adam Smith Business School, recommends a land tax, it’s surely become mainstream and urgent enough for the Scottish Government?

Thirdly, many of the levers delivered by the Land Reform Act 2016 seem to be unused and maybe unusable. The Langholm folk could perhaps have used the new right to buy for sustainable development. But who knew about it? How does it work? Has anyone actually been successful? And if not, then what use is it?

I’m sure the Scottish Government, dealing with big enough issues right now, will cast a weary sigh at the notion they need to revisit land reform again. But this is what happens when legislators pull their punches and fail to enact bold, simple moves to create equity in the distribution of land. How hard would it be for the SNP to stop dealing with land in a piecemeal, defensive, reluctant way and spend some time framing legislation that takes the burden off communities and leaves no-one dependent on landowner largesse.

Here’s hoping the folk of Langholm can yet find a way to restore one old grouse moor to its natural glory.