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Community Land Scotland conference, Skye

Below is the speech Dr Elliot made to the Community Land Scotland conference, Skye, on 8 June 2013.


RADICAL LAND REFORM – a personal view

Annual Conference of Community Land Scotland

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, 8th June, 2013

There are lots of ways I could approach this morning’s talk but I’ve decided to take the opportunity to give you a personal account of why I think land reform is important as well as to lay out where the review has got to and where it’s going.     

As you know, we are being asked to produce radical and innovative proposals on land reform – the First Minister reiterated that yesterday. So I’d like to reflect a bit, from a personal perspective, on this idea of what makes for radical proposals. Radical means lots of things – here are three of them.

There’s the political view, which places a radical approach somewhere off the left of the political scale, probably always out of reach. Its location is roughly known and its shape is pretty predictable.   

Then there’s the rhetorical view, which basically means, “Set the bar as high as you like”. I’m reminded here of Campbell Christie, who chaired the Christie Commission on the Reform of Public Services, of which I was a member. Campbell used to say that he’d been told “Be bold!” He said this rather defiantly but also rather nervously, because our recommendations seemed to be quite gentle, very far from the swingeing cuts to public services that some commentators were expecting. Yet these recommendations have transformed the way we look at designing and delivering public services and they’re praised internationally. They were in fact very radical. Be bold! Be radical! Don’t hold back for our sake! This view encourages us to be as extravagant as we need to be in order to get the job done but doesn’t prejudge what kind of proposals we’ll arrive at.         

And then there’s the etymological view – the view that interprets ‘radical’ as taking the idea and stripping it back to its roots, so that it can be re-imagined for the Scotland of today.

It’s this last view I want to concentrate on this morning. I’m not forgetting about the other views. We’ll be as bold as we need to be to be true to what we see and what we find and, if that happens to lie to the left of some kind of spectrum, well and good! But we’ll only know how radical our proposals are in that sense when we’re much farther on in the review and when we’re approaching our conclusions. What we can do now is to adopt a view of land reform that is radical in that third sense, of going back to its roots and re-imagining it for today.

And I’d like to start by going back to my own roots for a minute.

Because, you see, land reform’s been around since Biblical times. It was part of the Jubilee, that ancient Jewish idea that, every fifty years, you would recalibrate financial and economic relations, so that the poor would not be permanently left out of society. Debts were to be cancelled and land restored. Now the Jubilee was probably never implemented and I’m not suggesting that it should be here and now. We’re a different society – possibly more sophisticated and complicated, possibly not – and you can see from the long story about the cancellation of international debt or from the turmoil of the restitution of property in post Soviet countries that the Jubilee, as a solution, isn’t a quick fix. But, in its assumptions, it is an early recognition of the fact that, left to their own devices, systems of power, whether financial or economic, take on a life of their own. They go shooting off in directions that were never intended and, every so often, they need to be brought back to heel, to connect again with their true purpose. They create winners and losers and you need to adjust the race so that the losers don’t miss out completely.  

So, what brings these systems to heel today? Today, we’re used to the demands of social justice, democracy and human rights. They follow the grain of the Jubilee because they all involve protection for the weakest members of society. Social justice seeks to establish human relationships that are marked by fairness and respect, not by the bullying and intimidation that power exercises. Democracy ensures that everyone can participate in making the decisions that affect their lives, even those on the margins. Human rights are based on the dignity of each person through the protection of their quality of life and their freedom from oppression. All of these set the standards we aspire to and they call into question any system that produces winners and losers and just leaves it at that.  

Land ownership has its winners and its losers. We’re watching our children taking their first steps on the housing ladder and we’re conscious of how difficult that first step is for some. Once you have a house to sell, you can try your luck in the market and run up its ladders or fall down its snakes. Whether it’s a flat in London, or an estate in Skye, the system’s much the same in this respect. Land reform is the process of challenge that tries to wrest justice, democracy and dignity from this game of chance – to create entry points for those who would otherwise be shut out of the process and to build responsibility into its operation. And the Jubilee tells us that this process is a continual discipline. There’s no silver bullet that will enshrine justice permanently in human relationships. They have within them forces that move in the direction of inequality unless they’re held in check. This is why our Scottish land reform legislation needs to be continually reviewed.

The land reform process that Scotland embarked on in 2003 is innovative and internationally fairly unique. It’s based on community ownership of land and it seeks to change the balance of land ownership by extending community ownership. Now, this isn’t just a minor tweaking of land tenure, whereby a private individual is replaced by a group of connected individuals as owners of a piece of land. Community ownership has the capacity to challenge many of the distinctions that frame the way we look at the world and to transform them. It truly changes some basic understandings and distinctions that otherwise we take for granted. It is truly radical.

This perspective on community ownership has been elaborated by Fiona Mackenzie in her wonderful book, Places of Possibility.[1] It’s basically a study of the North Harris Estate but it goes beyond telling the story of that adventure and listing a lot of statistics (although it does that too). It analyses how the North Harris Trust, in its thoughtful way, has transformed not only the lives of people in the area but has also challenged distinctions between public and private and between the natural world and the social. It takes the notion of property, which is associated with the private world of individual ownership and personal discretion over its use, and turns it inside out. Through careful respect for democratic processes and community consultation, the Trust reworks the notion of property to reveal its political possibilities for regeneration, for empowerment and for creating a public space that builds strong, confident and resilient communities. This is truly transformative. This is truly radical.

The North Harris Trust also disturbs our notions of the distinction between the natural world and the social or cultural one. It rebuilds the connection between the people and the land, revealing the land to hold cultural significance that in its turn forms the people that belong to it. Mackenzie illustrates these points with the example of the Cailleach, the mountain horizon that you can see from Calannais. It traces the outline of a woman on the skyline and, on occasion, she appears to be giving birth to the moon. It’s a place throbbing with mystery and ancient significance. Now, this was the site proposed for a six turbine wind farm, a proposal that highlighted the clash between different ways of viewing the land and people’s relationship to it. Since the enlightenment, we’ve tended to divorce the land from its cultural significance. We treat it as something external to ourselves, something that can be consumed and turned into a commodity. Sometimes that’s a necessary device and can bring real progress. But if we simply reduce land to a commodity, we diminish ourselves as well, stripping away the cultural and spiritual dimensions of our experiences that are fundamental to our humanity.

The North Harris Trust has found various ways of exploring the close connection between land and people, particularly in its approach to the ‘wild’, often seen as something separate from ourselves and untouched by human beings. They’ve begun to plant native woodlands, to challenge the visual impression that the tree-less wildness of the landscape is a given, something that’s aye been, rather than a variable, cyclical interaction between nature and culture. This literally digs down deeply into the heritage of the country. This is truly radical.

Now the approach of the North Harris Trust is not the only one that you can take to community ownership. You can take a different starting point and a different model and find other ways to reconnect people and land. I visited South Uist on the most beautiful winter day, last December. Flying over the tracery of the Uist landscape in the early morning sun was breathtaking and the sun and blue sky stayed with us until I got the plane back in a warm four o’clock sunset. I was shown round the estate by Huw Francis, the Chief Executive of Stòras Uibhist. He clearly loved his job and the conversation centred on the practical challenges of drainage and flood defences as well as the commercial potential of the golf course and the harbour development and the sporting market. With its fixed assets increasing five-fold since the buy-out, this is also transformative and it shows that, however difficult it may be, you can run a successful business to the benefit of the community.

So, community ownership can take different forms. That’s as it should be since communities are all different from each other. Round the country, people have seized the chance to take ownership of stretches of land or of land based assets in ways that are slowly changing the social landscape, particularly in rural Scotland. As time goes on, we’re learning more about what makes for good community ownership, about what benefits it brings to communities and about how some of the difficulties can be addressed. Because it’s not easy, as members of Community Land Scotland will testify. Empowered communities are communities that disagree with each other. It’s a big challenge and it’s crucial that communities are supported through difficult times to build the capacity they need to do a good job.

The pattern of community ownership across the country is varied. There’s interest in all parts of the country, but people seem to buy different things in different places. Perhaps it’s a question of geography and of different patterns of land use – it’s not the same contemplating the purchase of Highland moorland and Aberdeenshire farmland – or different histories that affect people’s relationship with the land – or different cultural attitudes – or perhaps, at a deeper level, these are all aspects of the same thing. But there are also similarities across the country in the problems that communities are trying to solve – problems of economic regeneration, of affordable housing, of depopulation. For some communities, land ownership is the answer that they’re investing their hopes in. How, then, do other communities solve the same problems?  Is community ownership not suited to them in some way? Or are there other land based devices or procedures that could be harnessed? Certainly in some places there are good opportunities for communities to get access to the land they need and good relationships with the local owners. Is there no need for land reform in some places? 

This isn’t just an academic question. Across Scotland, there are people who lack confidence in their own abilities and are fearful for the future. We met some of them the other day, where the conversation kept coming back to the word “stifled”, as their vision for development was rebuffed by the local owner. There may be lots of reasons for this. But in the end of the day, the most basic, most enduring resource we have as a society is our land. It is only right to ask whether, through ownership or other forms of engagement, the land may hold the key to a radical solution to some of these problems – a solution that takes seriously the gifts that a community has and that is tailored round them. 

So, let’s sum up where we’ve got to. We’re taking the view that the function of land reform is to hold in check the tendency towards inequality that is present in financial and social systems. It works with the grain of democracy, social justice and human rights that all aim to support the weaker members of society and to build relationships based on respect and dignity. It’s therefore not a one-off event, but something that needs to be reviewed periodically. It takes different forms in different contexts. In Scotland in recent years, it has predominantly taken the form of community ownership, an innovative and radical process that challenges distinctions between private and public and restores for many people a constructive relationship between people and the land. In its turn, that community ownership takes different forms in different communities, and in some cases, something different from ownership may be appropriate for the people involved. I believe that the principal task of land reform in Scotland today is to get a better understanding of that relationship between a community and the form of land tenure that’s right for it and to build a sound base from which to extend community ownership and engagement with the land.    

And that leads us to the Land Reform Review. We’ve got three parts to our remit – to increase the number of people in rural and urban Scotland who have a stake in the land through ownership and other forms of engagement, to support communities that go down this road and to explore new relationships between people, land and the environment.

We’re approaching land reform as a mechanism to achieve an outcome. The principal outcome that we are exploring, in accordance with our remit, is that of building communities that are stronger, more resilient and independent. Other people may have different outcomes that they are interested in and communities may have other, more specific, outcomes when they consider going down this path – a need for more business opportunities, better housing, land for recreation and growing – all of which contribute to a better standard of living for the community.

We spent the first phase of the review gathering data in open, receptive mode – inviting written evidence from members of the public, meeting people who expressed a wish to meet us, arranging to see some of the main stakeholders in the area and travelling round the country to get an appreciation of the issues in different geographical settings. We learned a huge amount in this phase of the review. It was valuable to get away from our desks and meet people in their own part of the country. This is the point of a review – to see how the situation on the ground is progressing and reflect on that, so our travels haven’t finished yet.

We are now entering Phase 2. We’re going to set up work streams in the following areas:

  • Crofting and Highland experiences

Highland communities have greatest experience of Scottish land reform so far. What can we learn from them and what still needs to be done in their specific context?

  • Land Reform in an Urban Context

What are the urban opportunities for land reform? How would an urban community right to buy operate? In this we’ll be working with the Community Empowerment team in the Scottish Government.

  • Community engagement with landowners

There are many examples of landowners working well with their local communities. What can we learn from these examples and how do they relate to the planning process and local government responsibilities?

  • Land Agency

Community Land Scotland proposed the formation of a Land Agency in its submission to the review, which would facilitate the process of community purchase of land. It would also consider the possibility of using compulsion to acquire land in the public interest. This work stream will look at how that might operate and how it would relate to other fora for facilitating negotiation and planning among rural stakeholders.

  • Support for New Owners

It’s not enough to pass legislation saying that communities can purchase land if they don’t have the capacity or the funding to do so. How can they be supported in this process? What specific issues arise, for example, in connection with purchases from different kinds of owners, such as public bodies – and purchases by different kinds of communities, such as NGOs?

  •  Community Energy

Since 2003, the opportunities afforded to communities from renewable energy have increased considerably, with many communities relying on income from wind turbines. This raises lots of questions about how these benefits can best be managed and distributed.

So that’s the core of our work plan from now till Christmas. The detail will be worked out once the work streams meet later this month, so the agenda might be slightly different but that’s the broad thrust of it. We expect that the work streams will be chaired by members of the main LRRG team and we are planning to increase that to five people. You’ll have heard that John Watt, who was one of our advisers, has been appointed to the team to join myself and Ian Cooke, and we have two other people in our sights.

In addition to this, we are setting up a group to see how proposals can be implemented for simplifying the Community Right to Buy, and making it compatible with urban conditions. This group will include people who have already been through the process, either as applicants or as officials and we’ll be working with the Community Empowerment team in the Scottish Government.

We plan to commission research on how patterns of community engagement with land vary across the country. A starting point for this work would be a survey of the applications that are made to the Lottery, or Leader, or through Part 2 of the 2003 Act, to see what kinds of ambitions communities have in different parts of the country.

Beyond that, there are topics that are important and will impact on several aspects of our work, but which are best addressed through a briefing paper. For example, the cost of land is an important element in the kind of support communities need and the intricacies of the present taxation system and its possibilities for change contribute to land costs, so we plan to commission a briefing paper on this topic. What is the public interest? We keep coming back to this question and it would be good to ask for a paper on this from lawyers or political analysts who can survey its use and the application of similar concepts. Common good and the Crown Estate are also matters that could be addressed in this way.   

So, there’s plenty to be done and I’m keen to get ahead with it.

But some people think it’s not enough. They think that this is an agenda that’s only about community ownership and they think that it’s not the remit that the group was given.

I disagree. I was around when the remit was drawn up and I know why it took the shape it did. At its heart is the following:

The Group will identify how land reform will:

  •  Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;
  • Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;
  • Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland

That’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

In closing, can I go back to the point that land reform is something that needs continual review. Our report won’t be the last word on the topic. We’re concentrating on what we think is important for this period and I expect that our recommendations will include proposals that look ahead to further work – possibly thinking in terms of three horizons – what’s needed now, where we’re heading in the long term and some intermediate goals that need work in the medium term, such as addressing the First Minister’s target of a million acres in community ownership by 2020. It’s a privilege to have the chance to contribute to this. Thank you.               


[1] A. Fiona D. Mackenzie, 2013, Places of Possibility: property, nature and community land ownership, Wiley-Blackwell