This menacing land-grab is completely insane

If I were a Scot, said Damian Thomas in the Telegraph last week, “I’d be feeling scared”. He reckons Alex Salmond’s jovial grandiosity is acquiring “a menacing edge”. If I were a Scottish landowner, I’d be tempted to agree with him.

The SNP is talking – a lot – about another round of land reform. Under the current system – under which the Scottish government had hoped to bring large amounts of land into community ownership – communities have first dibs on land coming up for sale if they have expressed an interest in it. Here is a simple explanation of the system.

However, this hasn’t gone that well so far (in the sense that not much land has moved from private to community hands). In one sense, this matters – some 50% of Scotland’s land is divvied up into huge estates owned by fewer than 500 people*. That’s not fair. The question is simply what you do about it.

For some parts of the SNP, the answer appears to be, find some way of forced sales or confiscation. That might sound attractive (after all, we’d all like to a world with fairer outcomes, wouldn’t we?) but it is completely insane.

The success of developed economies rests almost entirely on the success of our institutions – property rights being key. It irritates me that so much land is owned by so few (both in Scotland and in England) but I can’t see that there is anything to gain from abandoning the long-held principle that if you own something you get to keep owning it until you and you alone decide to sell it at the market price.

Land reform enthusiasts like to say that the land held by today’s landowners was all nicked from someone else at some point in Scotland’s history. That may be true, but it is hard to see how another round of the same helps right those wrongs.

There’s also no shortage of Scottish land for sale (here’s a nice castle with 10,000 acres and here’s another 6,000 odd) . If the state would like to buy some land in the market to distribute among its voters, or just to hold itself, it shouldn’t be much of a problem. Not all of it is openly for sale, but should the SNP be interested there are plenty of buying agents knocking around Edinburgh and Aberdeen who would be more than happy to help them out. I’m happy to help with introductions.

The other thing to bear in mind is that if you want to get rid of big landowners it really shouldn’t be hard to do it without trampling all over the land and property rights that make the UK a developed country. You can do it via the tax system. You can have wealth taxes, mansion taxes, high taxes on land that isn’t in agricultural use, new inheritance tax rules, and so on. You could even get rid of the odd land-related subsidy. Make it even more expensive than it already is to own a Scottish estate and you should be able to get them either split up into incoherent and financially inefficient plots, or transferred to taxpayer-supported communities in no time at all. Assuming that is what you want.

*Not everyone appears to be worried by the fact that they might soon be forced to sell something they think they own. According to the Mail, the billionaire owner of Lego, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a Dane who is already a very substantial landowner in Scotland, has just added another 10,000 acre Highland estate to his portfolio. He now owns a total of around 70,000 acres of Scotland, making him very likely to be one of the 500. The man who sold it to him for £5m must be pretty pleased. Not only will he not have to deal with “right to buy” but he will no longer have to deal with the expense of running an estate, or the midges and the rain – all things his wife says he was “a bit fed up with”.

  • Ellen12

    I get why it might be needed, if you assume it is not just for electioneering purposes. There is very little reason for Scotland to work so hard for autonomy if great swathes of Scotland is owned by English and other foreign landowners. Maybe every country need land reform every couple of hundred years. There is an element of social justice in it. You could refer back to the 1923 Land Act in Ireland – although, historically, there was huge injustice against the Irish people about who could own land at all. It was only fair that Ireland belonged to the Irish, or at least to the people who lived in Ireland, and not to mostly absentee landlords who very often had never even set foot in Ireland. The feudal land system is terrible and is often designed to prevent outright sale of property by putting unnecessary restrictions of what the land or property can be used for or how it cold be developed, not by local authorities but by previous owners.

  • GFL

    I agree property rights are one of the bed rocks of any developed/free country.

    This all sounds very Mugabe-esque to me!

  • Doug McAdam

    Thanks Merryn for articulating that enforced sale of property would be an assault on fundamental property rights which are a bedrock of our modern society and economy. As things stand, despite the media rhetoric, Alex Salmond has publicly said that he does not envisage such enforced sales being the case with the development of community land buy-outs in Scotland. Many community buy-outs, large and small, have been successful in Scotland but crucially these have been transactions between a willing seller and buyer under current legislation. As the representative organisation of landowners in Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates believes that such community purchases of land can be the right solution in some areas and situations where there are willing sellers and buyers. However, community buy-outs are not a panacea and depending on the outcome sought there are indeed many ways that communities can get involved in and develop partnerships with those who own the land rather than needing ownership – there are many good examples of this already. Land ownership in Scotland is already very diverse, comprising a good mix of community, government, NGO and privately owned land. Andy Wightman’s own statistic which he suggests is that less than 500 people own half the privately-owned rural land is skewed and misleading. The fact is that there are tens of thousands of people who together own all the privately owned rural land and the vast majority are small landowners. Sure there are some big landowners, just as there are in other countries such as Norway and Sweden for instance. Interestingly the biggest landowner we have here is the Scottish Government. I do take issue with Merryn’s assertion that landowners could be taxed out of existence. That would certainly not be very progressive and would greatly impact on both our rural economy and environment. Successive Scottish administrations have wrestled with the problem of attracting investment into rural areas, that should be the priority rather than trying to drive investment away to the cost of rural jobs, infrastructure and the economy.

  • Merryn

    @Doug Thanks for all that. I didn’t mean that landowners should be taxed out of existence. Not my view at all. My point was just that if as a country/region Scotland decides it loathes its current landowners to the extent some seem to (see my Twitter feed – this blog is remarkably free of nastiness!) it can get rid of them without completely destroying what is still a first world system of property rights. It might damage its economy in the process but not as much as it would with confiscation…

  • Doug McAdam

    Thanks Merryn, good to know that is not your view. I hear what you say about Twitter, I am on the receiving end quite a lot too. However we should not confuse the loudly expressed views of a minority who have a pretty radical land and wealth redistribution agenda, however they try and dress it up, with the main stream views of most up here. In that mainstream I do include most of the Scottish Government who in my experience so far have sustainable economic growth as their driver and well know the huge damage and negative impact that a radical agenda of compulsory land acquisitions would have, never mind the questionable legality or indeed what it would actually cost the public purse!

  • Andrew M

    One option would be to convert all existing freeholds into 99-year leaseholds. Leaseholders would pay every year to extend the lease by another year (like an annual Land Value Tax); or if they are short of cash they can just let the lease run. No poor widows would be evicted from their mansions, and the 99 year lease duration exceeds the adult lifespan of any known person.

  • mike livesey

    “wealth taxes” and “mansion taxes” – taxes on unrealised assets – are part of the thinking of such “luminaries” as Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg.
    at best unfair – at worst, theft fuelled by “class” resentment.
    “Right to Buy” works pretty well in London – what’s the problem, provided communities prices match those of outside bidders(given that they are dealing with very substantial assets recently acquired in reliance on Scottish Law, with money derived from taxed income)? Otherwise, it’s theft.

  • mike livesey

    Correction – for “those of outside bidders” read “Open Market Value” – my apologies!

  • lisronaghjack

    I grew up in Ireland and am familiar with the anger regarding absentee landlords, and wealthy people owning large swathes of the countryside.
    I remember a relative considering buying additional farmland and being advised by a solicitor that, in the political climate at that time, perhaps she already had enough land and it might be unwise to proceed.
    My father would freely admit that the country was possibly economically worse off for some years after independence from the British; but there is often a price to be paid for freedom.
    I would like to see Scotland as an independent country; but are Scots prepared to vote for some initial economic disadvantages that will hit their pockets?

  • SIngletaxman

    I am with Andrew M. Recently Merryn wrote about the theoretical virtues of a Land Value Tax. This approach recognises that Land is not like other property. As Churchill pointed out, you can’t create more of it (even when prices soar.)

    The right to property that is honestly come by (not just legally come by – some laws are not honest) is fundamental; the purported right to expropriate the value of land, which derives from nature or from the action of the whole community) is a kind of banditry. A way needs to be found to return to the community the value that it generates.

    Scotland may have a chance to set an example to the whole developed, and indeed developing world. Henry George had a big following there at the turn of the 19th century.

  • Kininvie


    It’s a pity that you used that Telegraph article as your sole source for this ‘land grab’ idea. You could also have found The Spectator writing about it in an even more sensational fashion. Neither is a neutral, nor accurate source.
    Land reform in Scotland is an exceptionally complex matter, and the problem has been with us since before the first world war. The Highlands of Scotland in particular is an area where communities are fragile, and for most of the last century, depopulation has been the norm. The problem in essence that a good landlord can overnight be replaced by a bad one – that’s the way the market operates. Look at the history of Dr Green’s ownership of Raasay, or, more recently, the conceptual artist Maruma’s ownership of Eigg to see what can happen. You can bring yourself up to date by following the ongoing troubles surrounding the Ledgowan estate.
    Now, despite what the Telegraph or Spectator would have you think, the Scottish government has approached the issue in as rational a fashion as it can. It set up an independent Land Reform Review group to make recommendations, and that group called for consultation with interested parties, as you would expect in a democracy. The consultation document is easily found – it asks for opinions on most of the issues. The group issued an interim report which contained no mention of a ‘land grab’. Its final report is awaited.
    Should its recommendations result in a bill going before the Scottish parliament, there would, naturally be further consultation and scrutiny. It’s what happens in a democracy.

    Doug McAdam as CEO of Scottish land and estates, naturally has a vested interest in the status quo. The trouble is that the status quo has not served very well in the past, and there is no guarantee that it will continue to do any better in the future. The problem the Scottish government is wrestling with is to find a way of sustaining rural communities and bringing people back to depopulated areas. That means infrastructure, opportunities for employment, and reaching a sustainable size. And of course the availability of small parcels of land is central to that, as is the question of the landlord/tenant relationship.
    That is why the question arises. But to conclude from that that there’s going to be a ‘land grab’ is -to put it politely – unwarranted exaggeration.

  • CCM

    The statement in the fifth paragraph “…if you own something you get to keep owning it until you and you alone decide to sell it at the market price” is not entirely true. In a divorce the English courts can force the sale of a house owned solely by one party and, once any mortgages or other liens have been cleared, distribute the proceeds as it thinks fit, including allocating the majority of the net proceeds to the party who owned nothing in the property. There have been material injustices in this regard.

  • bazcom

    I noted mention of Henry George, and though their appears regarding land too much powerful vested interest in the world for the fine ideals in his book “Progress and Poverty” to currently become main stream, his vision regarding land would be as relevant to Scotland, as it is in today’s world of extreme wealth and great poverty. Certainly in our modern world his ideas echo the same sentiments of the Suquamish Indian Chief Seatle who apparently earlier had wrote in a letter to the American Government in the 1800’s the following words:

    “The President in Washington sends words that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land?. The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”

    Both men came from different world views but basically evoked the same question about land and the answer and understanding they gave could benefit all mankind rather than just a few but being held in common is a dangerous idea to some? As Chief Seattle also noted in his letter “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.” and in this both he and Henry George would be as one.