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
Below I have reproduced the conference motion which I moved on behalf of the Highland Liberal Democrats at the 2021 Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference. It was passed unamended.
Conference notes that:
- Scotland still has one of the most concentrated land ownership patterns in the world, with over half of Scotland’s rural land owned by an estimated 432 landowners.
- Lack of land reform is frequently cited as the biggest barrier to building the housing required to address the rural housing crisis.
- The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the housing crisis affecting Scottish communities, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, where demand for housing has soared; and in the North East, where the oil and gas downturn has led to a significant decline in the local economy.
- Average Scottish house prices rose from £113,289 in 2004 to £181,339 in 2019, well above the average increase in earnings. The Highlands have seen an even sharper rise, with prices increasing from £107,639 in 2004 to £185,178 in 2019, while the Western Isles have seen a rise from £65,189 in 2004 to £123,048 in 2019.
- Average house prices in rural parts of Scotland have risen even higher since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, leading to fears of “economic clearances” as local residents are outbid by buyers from across the UK and beyond.
Conference recalls that the Liberal Democrat preamble states our Party’s support for “the widest possible distribution of wealth.”
Conference believes that:
- Reforming land ownership, usage and taxation in Scotland will contribute to a fairer society and a fairer economy.
- Hyper-concentrated land ownership and absentee property ownership have become corrosive problems across the entirety of Scotland.
- Scotland urgently requires a coherent strategy on the ownership and use of land which incorporates human rights and public interest to provide widespread opportunities for ownership of land amongst individuals, community organisations and businesses.
- A new land reform strategy should put communities at its heart, strengthening community rights and ensuring that the management of such assets is administered by locally based democratic governance structures.
- The Scottish Government’s existing land reform policies do not go far enough to ensure that young people and families are supported to remain in their communities in adulthood. The severe shortage of housing stock in rural areas of Scotland is exacerbated by the lack of available land for building new homes, and ongoing delays in acquiring such land continues to force people into relocating to urban population centres.
- Depopulation in the Gàidhealtachd, driven by a lack of housing and jobs for young people, has led to the near collapse of Gaelic-speaking communities. Comprehensive land reform and community-driven affordable housing initiatives are crucial to ensuring the sustainability of these communities and the broader revival of the language.
- Greater powers must be given to local communities to resolve their unique longstanding issues and concerns which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Conference calls on the Scottish Government to:
- Replace property-based council tax with a locally administered land value tax, encouraging a more proportional system of taxation and fairer use of land.
- Expand the Scottish Land Fund to facilitate further community ownership across Scotland, empowering sustainable communities to repopulate.
- Prioritise land acquisition for communities by developing a localised service to assist self-builders and communities in securing land to meet housing demand, coordinating with local authorities, landowners and housing associations.
- Institute a First Time Builders Fund, modelled on the Scottish Government’s First Home Fund, to support population growth in rural areas where there is no existing housing stock available for purchase.
- Extend and expand the Rural Housing Fund and the Islands Housing Fund, in addition to reducing barriers for communities to access the funds in a timely manner.
- Give the Scottish Land Commission the power to legally enforce the voluntary Rights and Responsibilities Protocols that govern the relationship between landowners and communities, similar to the mandatory Codes of Practice overseen by the Tenant Farming Commissioner.
- Afford rural communities enhanced consultation and consideration by public bodies by prioritising legislation similar to the Islands Act 2018, to ensure that the unique challenges facing rural communities in mainland Scotland are addressed with local input.
Covid-19 has shone new light on the mental health crisis facing communities in the Highlands. But as we all know, this is not a new problem: mental health and wellbeing issues have beset the Far North for many years. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Social Isolation and Mental Wellbeing Action Group’s November survey, which revealed that 65.3% of respondents have had a poor experience with mental health support in Caithness.
I know how lonely it can feel to struggle with mental health, and how difficult it can be to navigate the complexities of support services. I’ve also experienced just how crushing it is to successfully refer yourself, only to find that the waiting times for care are far beyond what could reasonably be considered acceptable. These are issues I dealt with myself as a teenager growing up in the Highlands, and several years on it is clear to me that young people are still being let down.
As we exit this pandemic, we must have a needle-sharp focus on fixing these problems once and for all. I’m a firm believer that local people know what is best for their communities. There is outstanding work being done on the ground across the Far North, and I will work in close partnership with these groups to amplify their voices at a national level. In particular I commend those who have driven the launch of the Caithness Mental Wellbeing Pathfinder project. This has been a monumental effort and it is a big step towards a sustainable, community-centred healthcare approach.
That being said, I am conscious that we need long-term systemic change for our communities across the Highlands. Unless the pandemic-triggered mental health grant funding is committed permanently to Highland Council, and in turn extended to every county across the region, these issues will persist. Reform is also needed at a national level. The Scottish Government’s Mental Health Strategy was already failing to adequately address the fact that thousands of young people are being turned away from mental health services every year. Now, the situation will be even worse. The Strategy desperately needs updated to reflect our post-Covid world, and it must happen sooner than 2022.
If there's one thing I'm heartened about it is that the Scottish Government has taken a decentralised approach to tackling mental health during this crisis. If we are to succeed in transforming mental wellbeing in Highland, we need decentralisation on the agenda as a permanent goal. As your MSP candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, I am absolutely determined to see this through.