The question of land reform causes hackles to rise – on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there’s a certain resentment that so much land in Scotland is owned by so few people. On the other, much of the land in this country is so poor that few people would actually want to own much of it.
But when Scotland’s environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said on a BBC Scotland documentary that MSPs would fail the people of Scotland if they do not reduce the dominance of large, traditional sporting estates, then the reaction was inevitable. In the programme, he doubted whether “anyone would design a system where you ended up with only 432 people owning half the private land.” He went on to say the he would have designed a system “where you ended up with such a concentration of wealth and ownership in such a small group.”
Even before the programme was broadcast, the land owners went of the attack. For example, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, Douglas McAdam, said that “from what we have seen in advance of this programme, the contribution of estates is questioned by those who are opposed to their existence.
“The reality however is that estates do make a very substantial social, economic and environmental contribution. A recent survey of a cross section of our membership recently revealed that their combined investment plans in rural development projects are in excess of £820 million. Our very conservative estimate is that across the membership that figure would be well in excess of £1 billion.”
Much of the debate about land reform in the Highlands revolves around the role of the large estates in ‘country sports’ – hunting, shooting and fishing. It prompted Jamie Stewart, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance Director, to point out that an independent study had found that “Scotland generated £240 million pounds (GVA) from shooting and shooting related activities in 2004/5 and further reported that the sector supported 11,000 jobs. PACEC (Public and Corporate Economic Consultants) have been commissioned to repeat the study in 2014 with significant indications of growth on the previous study.”
“I am unaware of many sectors in the UK, never mind Scotland, that can report growth in the wake of the country’s greatest post war economic crisis; this growth can, in part, be accounted for by the sustained investment of those who own land and create employment. To break up the sporting estates would only serve to reduce localised employment opportunities and the knock on economic downturn it will surly lead too.”
The chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Alex Hogg, immediately asked for ‘clarification’ of the minister’s comments. “It seems,” he said, that the voice and the jobs of working keepers, who are at the sharp end of the skilled management of Scotland’s countryside, are being forgotten in this debate. We will be seeking clarification from the environment minister on what the Scottish Government, and the leading SNP administration’s intentions are, when it comes to safeguarding the jobs of those drawn into what seems to be an ideological issue.”
By contrast, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, welcomed the idea that land reform was being placed higher on the political agenda. Its chairman, Christopher Nicholson, insisted that land tenure had been “cast into the long grass for too long and we look forward to some radical proposals from the Land Reform Review Group whose interim report dramatically shied away from any consideration of Scotland’s land tenure structure and tenant farming. We also welcome environment minister Paul Wheelhouse’s commitment to a fairer distribution of land and hope that the Scottish Government will now look towards creating a fresh vision for rural Scotland and press forward with a programme of land and tenancy reform.”
In a curious intervention in the debate, Charles Moore weighted in through a blog in the Spectator in which he suggested that Alex Salmond could be compared with Robert Mugabe! He wrote that the SNP had radically misunderstood the situation. “It believes,” he said, “that big Scottish landowners are rich because they own the land. For a long time now, it has been the other way round. They own the land because they are rich. Once they own it, they tend to become a lot poorer. Then they sell it to new rich people with money to burn, and so on. Hardly any Highland land makes money.
Without philanthropists, megalomaniacs and serious sportsmen pouring cash in to maintain these difficult places, their communities, and so the environment, would suffer. You can see this happening already in the islands where crofters’ rights have been exercised. One great independence leader who played this issue politically was Robert Mugabe, dividing the spoils among his followers and ruining the land in the process. Will the next be Alex Salmond?”