As a student I stumbled upon a talk being given by the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, on fostering a fairer society. “Everything comes down to land,” he said. I underlined it in my notebook - it was the first time I’d heard a politician say so in such stark terms. Though Lammy represents a London constituency, his point remains relevant in our own context. Rural or urban, rules around land ownership and usage play a determining role on inequality within Scotland and the wider world.
In the Highlands, we understand this viscerally. Day-to-day travel throughout the region serves as a reminder of the Clearances that have taken place here, and the inequalities that have persisted since. But even today, many of us still have little say on how the land around us is used. With the threat of Highland depopulation continuing to loom large, it’s time we moved the topic of land reform back to the top of the Scottish political agenda.
As a 23-year-old Highlander, I know all too well the structural challenges that young people face in this area. The vast majority of my peers have left their Highland homes for the central belt and beyond, many searching for secure, year-round jobs. The government’s persistent centralisation of previously local services is also causing people to think twice about building their adult lives in remote rural areas. But it is the total and utter lack of affordable housing in many parts of the Highlands that presents such a serious barrier to us young people remaining in our home communities – or returning after time away.
I know I’m not alone in being frustrated at the profound lack of urgency when it comes to these issues being addressed by the Scottish Government. It’s part of the reason why I’m standing to represent Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. And in the next Parliament, there are a number of land-related reforms I’d like to see addressed head-on, beginning with compelling the government to consult local people. There is precedent for enabling this at the national level: The Islands Act, which was passed in 2018, sought to recognise and address the unique challenges facing Scottish island communities, while also putting local voices at the heart of decision making. It’s an excellent blueprint for addressing rural and remote Highland issues via a similar act – we just need the political will to make it happen.
In addition to the Islands Act, the 2016 Land Reform Act remains a welcome piece of legislation, but it is not yet addressing the specific issues facing Highland communities. We need to go further – not only facilitating community land ownership but also supporting individuals and communities to build affordable green homes. I was so encouraged by Assynt Development Trust’s recent successful bid to the Scottish Land Fund, which included proposals for affordable rental housing, and I’d like to ensure government funding to support more initiatives like this in the next Parliament.
Last but not least, there is the role that large landowners play in this ecosystem. There is no doubt that many landowners – public, private and third sector – work closely with communities to achieve best use of local land. But the fact of the matter is that, in some parts of the Highlands, community voices are being entirely disregarded. It simply cannot be right that absentee landlords can buy up as much of the Highlands as they wish – not just land but existing housing stock – while individuals are priced out and community concerns go unheeded.
One way to begin to address this problem would be to strengthen the Scottish Land Commission’s powers, allowing it to enforce the Rights and Responsibilities Protocols that govern the relationship between landowners and communities. There is precedent for giving the Commission more teeth to deal with this problem - the Tenant Farming Commissioner is already able to enforce mandated Codes of Practice – and such a reform would go a long way in empowering communities who have concerns about local land management practices.
Another way to address the imbalance would be through a carefully constructed Scottish land value tax. The Land Commission has recently formed a tax advisory group that will explore the merits of this proposal, drawing on the success of land taxes in other parts of the world. I thoroughly welcome this initiative and, if elected, I will be pushing for the group’s recommendations to be addressed in the next Parliament.
It’s clear we have a long way to go and little time to waste. To achieve transformational land reform that works for the Highlands, and in particular for young people, cross-party cooperation will be essential. I’m ready to take this forward as a priority in the next Scottish Parliament. I hope that other Highland politicians will do the same.
This piece was originally published in the West Highland Free Press