Members’ Business: Community Wealth and the Emergence of “Green Lairds” – 30 September 2021

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-00875, in the name of Rhoda Grant, on community wealth and the emergence of green lairds. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put. I am grateful to the members who supported my motion and so allowed it to be debated today. The Highlands and Islands are at the forefront in feeling the effects of new forces that are at work in our land markets. Those forces are likely to further embed the stark social injustice in our land ownership pattern of very few people owning most of our land. That pattern of land ownership concentrates wealth, power and influence into very few hands—it delivers for the few, not the many. Scotland is highly unusual in having almost no land market regulation, which makes it the prime destination for capital looking for an easy, safe and rewarding purchase. A recent report by one of the leading land agents, Savills, made clear that it continues to receive calls from “buyers across the world”.

Savills has referred to our concentrated ownership patterns as “one of the few remaining places in the world where green resources can be acquired on a meaningful scale”. People can come to Scotland and buy what they like, with no questions asked. Purchasing land in Scotland depends only on the size of a person’s wallet, with no questions asked. The scale of many of our land holdings brings with it, in effect, a local monopoly on land, with no questions asked. That is how Anders Povlsen has become probably Scotland’s largest private landowner, with no questions asked. There is nothing new about the unregulated land market in Scotland; what is new is the latest way in which it is being exploited.

A new type of buyer is emerging in response to our real concern about the climate emergency. There is evidence that those who market land see the climate emergency as a valuable selling point. We are seeing the commodification and financialisation of the climate emergency, which is stimulating private land grabbing. In recent months, we have seen corporate buyers moving in. BrewDog is seeking to offset its carbon emissions, promote its green credentials and win new investors by purchasing thousands of acres of land in the Highlands. Standard Life Investments Property Income Trust? has just bought thousands of acres in the Cairngorms national park.

Gresham House is promoting a £300 million private investment that has Scottish forestry firmly in its sights. What unites that group of buyers is the climate emergency. It provides the chance to build corporate reputation, enhance market share and grow corporate wealth on the back of the climate concerns that we all have. The approach allows some to continue as carbon emitters while offsetting those emissions through their Scottish land holdings. Some purchases are likely to be a hedge against future carbon tax liabilities, too. It is low-risk investment with very high returns. With the land comes access to Scottish Government subsidies. The land grabbing and exploitation of an unregulated land market are underpinned by taxpayer subsidies.

Standard Life has made clear that the cost of the tree planting on the land that it was happy to buy for £7.5 million will be “met through grant funding”. The benefits go to those with capital to invest. Enriching the already rich for climate action cannot possibly deliver a just transition through the climate emergency. Many purchases take place off market in secret, private sales. That device acts against communities seeking a late registration of interest in land to give them the opportunity to purchase it. However, such is the scale of land price inflation that, in practice, the hard-won right to register an interest in land may be of little value to them. Even with the doubling of the Scottish land fund, it will be hard for communities to secure land, even if they had the opportunity.

We know that the community ownership of land delivers multiple public benefits. Community owners are not absentee owners; they are local people who live in the area. All revenues are kept locally and reinvested, which builds community wealth. Local affordable housing gets built, population is retained, places are repopulated, jobs are created, trees are planted and peatlands are restored. The new owners—the green lairds—may be playing to our climate concerns, but what regard do they have of those other public interest issues? We have no guarantees because, when land is bought in Scotland, no questions are asked.

We need to recognise that the time is long past for Scotland’s land markets to be regulated. Ministers must be empowered to act on land issues in the public interest and to move from that exploitable, unregulated land market to one that regulates land as a national asset to deliver on our collective aspirations. My party and the parties of Government are committed to a public interest test in questions of land ownership.

That would be an important step, but we need to go much further. It appears to me that a presumption against ownership of land over a set scale is now necessary. We impose a residency requirement on our crofters, so why do we not do so on our landowners? The land and buildings transaction tax has a higher rate to discourage second home purchases. Why is there not a higher rate to discourage land grabbing? Does Rhoda Grant agree that the Scottish National Party Scottish Government has let people down by not building enough affordable homes and therefore not attracting young people and local people to stay where they want to live and work? I agree with that.

However, there is an onus on landowners to make land available for housing, especially in rural areas. Two wrongs do not make a right. We need to protect the public interest by acting especially on off-market land purchases. The Scottish Land Commission needs powers to act on land monopoly issues and to better enable public interest purchases. We need to make observing the land rights and responsibilities statement statutory and its expectations much firmer. We need to consider capping the total public subsidy of any large-scale landowner, and we need to see the uplift in the value of land effectively underwritten by public subsidy clawed back for public benefit. We should act on Community Land Scotland’s suggestion for a community wealth fund, and we need to task Co-operative Development Scotland with promoting co-operative and mutual ownership of land in Scotland.

Those suggestions begin to map out some of the potential ways forward. The more radical change that is desperately needed here would already be regarded as normal across the world. The emergence of the so-called green lairds shines a light on the inadequacy of our land laws and on how we subsidise the creation of private wealth from owning land when we could be building community wealth instead. If the minister acts on those issues, she can expect fierce opposition from the vested interests. However, if she takes the right action, she will get support from Labour members. My colleagues and I will bring forward ideas.

We will also be a force for more radical action. That action is essential to create a more just and fairer Scotland. I am grateful to my Highlands and Islands colleague Rhoda Grant for lodging the motion, to which I was glad to offer my support ahead of it being selected for members’ business today. In our region in particular, people are very well aware of the imbalance in who owns the land and how that affects the daily lives of those of us who live there, so I am glad to see the issue getting attention early on in this parliamentary session. I am proud to be standing here today as an MSP elected on the strength of an SNP manifesto that included a specific commitment to new land reform legislation, which is now expected to be brought forward by the end of 2023, with a new community empowerment act.

One policy that I am particularly excited by is the presumption towards community buy-outs of land. That will help us to not only increase diversity in land ownership, but ensure that local people are involved in decisions on how their land is used. I am certain that most people would not choose to have that land used as an indulgent, conscience-easing vanity project for big business. I cannot tell you how many times in the past few years I have let out another sigh at the newest in a line of self-congratulatory press releases from companies that have bought up land in the Highlands and plan on filling it with trees, because they know better than the local community what the right use of the land is and because they have the money to collect our land for use as an asset to their business to offset the damage that they are doing to the climate elsewhere.

The complete lack of self-awareness of many do-gooders, who fail to recognise that they are just another wealthy private buyer of our land who is contributing to the continuation of a skewed and unjust land market, is astounding. Like many people in my region, my ears prick up when I hear the word “rewilding”, not because I do not recognise the need to tackle climate change, but because it is so often raised as an action to be taken in my region by people with little to no understanding of those who currently live on or work the land—or, indeed, those who could be living on and working the land but are not, because of the enduring effects of the clearances two centuries ago.

The attitude that the Highlands are a playground for the gentry or eco-tourists persists from those horrific events. Rewilding can and should happen in conjunction with repeopling, but it will not if buyers dream up their big rewilding ideas based on a romantic or even Cumberlandesque vision of a sparse, deserted Highlands rather than on the voices and experiences of the local community who currently use and live in the Highlands. The Highlands are not just sparsely populated; they are still cleared. I am all for restoration of the natural environment as long as lairds and MSPs alike keep it in mind that a true restoration of the Highlands includes recognising the need to reintroduce people to our land as well. The fact that it is large landowners who are speaking out against the general principles of a new land reform bill only serves to tell me that it is exactly what we need to be doing.

Let us do more to discourage the idea that it does not matter who owns the land as long as there are trees on it. Let us diversify the type of land ownership in this country. More importantly, let us empower communities to have a say in what that looks like. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I commend Rhoda Grant for bringing this very important subject before the Parliament. The motion highlights the vital significance of the climate change challenge that we all face and the need to transition to net zero in a fair and sustainable manner. I sit on the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, and the scale of the challenge that we face was highlighted when we took evidence from the United Kingdom Climate Change Committee, which told us that the UK will have to invest £50 billion a year in the transition to net zero—of course, Scotland will have to invest a pro rata share—if we are to deliver on our climate change targets.

It was also made clear that that amount of money and scale of funding simply cannot come from the public sector alone. The transition to net zero will in large part—not in small part—have to be driven by private sector investment across all areas of the economy, including agroforestry and peatland restoration. That brings me to the motion. The need for private sector investment at scale was also recognised in the Scottish Government’s climate change plan, which called for “significant increases in forestry and widespread peatland restoration”. Quite rightly, the plan encouraged collaboration between “carbon buyers, landowners and … intermediaries … to increase the woodland carbon market by at least 50% by 2025.” I would imagine that there is cross-chamber consensus on the need to meet those targets. Rhoda Grant mentioned some of the private sector investments that have been made in recent months. It is important to highlight the benefits of such investments. For example, Standard Life Investments has a project to restore woodland and peatland areas over almost 1,500 hectares and to plant 1.5 million trees, with between 50 and 100 people working on the project over the next six years, using land that has no existing agricultural or other value.

Such land use and the benefits that come with that investment are to be encouraged. It is not just the private sector that is directing money and investment towards such areas. The Scottish National Investment Bank has invested £50 million in a managed forest growth fund, which aims to capture 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 over the next 20 years. Those are just some examples of how public and private investment can help to deliver necessary reforestation, rewilding and peatland restoration, all of which will be vital to meeting our net zero targets.

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Without such investments, the public sector would not have the capital available to meet the necessary targets. I understand the concerns raised by Rhoda Grant about unintended consequences, what the trend might lead to and the potential impacts on local and community land ownership. There may also be implications for public policy. However, additional land market regulation and controls, as set out in the motion, are not the answer. A mix of legislative and regulatory frameworks already provide safeguards for community benefit—benefits that deliver jobs, housing and wider amenity value—helping to deliver what we all want to see in a thriving rural economy: more jobs, more housing and more economic activity. There is a range of other factors. Local planning consent, community councils and central government regulations all need to play a part in ensuring that everyone derives a benefit from those investments. We also have the woodland carbon code, which sets out that land projects can only be eligible for support if they would otherwise not be economically viable. I see that I am up against the clock, so I will wrap up. The scale of investment required to meet the net zero targets presents huge opportunities for Scotland across community and public land ownership and will bring much needed investment and jobs to rural Scotland.

Land is a public good and a natural resource that should serve our common interests. It is vital for our sustainability and for Scotland’s biodiversity. However, we currently have a system of land ownership that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a few. The system operates at the expense of the social, economic and environmental benefits that land offers. That is why I cannot welcome the growing trend of wealthy individuals and corporate interests seeking to use land to greenwash their record. It is a sign not of growing corporate responsibility or the rich engaging with the realities of the climate emergency, but of an unjust transition and a further transfer of wealth and power at the expense of working communities and our natural environment. If we are serious about tackling the climate and ecological crises, now is the time for redistribution of land. We must create a new system of land ownership in rural and urban spaces that empowers local communities and delivers for the common good. Rhoda Grant was right to say that the biggest problem that we face is Scotland’s “no questions asked” approach to land markets.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce a public interest test for land transfers is a welcome step forward. Such a test would send a signal that common good is at stake when land is exchanged. It would also provide greater transparency around sales. The Scottish Land Commission has also suggested introducing land management plans and a review of land rights and responsibilities. Those measures would be welcome, but they must have teeth and protect the public interest. There should not be a limit on our ambitions. There is much more that the Parliament can do with the powers that it has. More radical proposals, such as caps on private land holdings and a land value tax, must be considered. After all, why should money and connections enable a wealthy few to monopolise a public good such as land? Why should landowners continue to benefit from the increasing value of land, which was created by public money? The Parliament should empower communities to take ownership of their space and their land. The issue of land reform has dogged Scottish politics for decades.

We have had years of discussing and debating the issue, but now is the time for change. I am delighted to take part in this members’ business debate to emphasise the importance of community wealth building. It is as important in urban areas as it is in rural areas, because the exploitation that is experienced is common to both. Across our country, we see widening inequality and increasing poverty among working-class communities, and an astronomical rise in the levels of wealth being hoarded by the super-rich. Against that backdrop, the premise of community wealth building is more important than ever before. It is a concept that brings a people-centred approach to local economic development, redirecting wealth back into local economies and putting control back in the hands of local people. We know that it works. We can look at communities such as North Ayrshire, where the council’s Labour administration, led by Joe Cullinane, puts the model of community wealth building at the heart of everything that the local authority does. That approach means that more social housing is built, publicly owned energy generating facilities are developed and democratic ownership models are prioritised—all to the benefit of the community.

That is in stark contrast to what we have seen across Scotland in recent years. Local authorities have been faced with significant financial distress as their budgets have been disproportionately cut, and they seek an easy capital receipt with land disposals. We know that, of the hundreds of millions of pounds of public land that the Scottish Government and Scottish public authorities have disposed of in recent years, at least 12 per cent has been purchased by one volume house builder, CALA Homes. A good example is the former Boroughmuir high school, in Edinburgh. It was sold for £14.5 million in 2015, and it has recently been redeveloped as more than 100 luxury apartments. CALA Homes advises prospective buyers that, at more than £800,000 per property, they will get a handsome return on their investment. Why was that return on investment not achieved by the community? Instead, it is achieved by anonymous landlords and land holders from all over the world. No one knows who those people are, but they are siphoning our communities’ wealth away from the city of Edinburgh, and that example is replicated across Scotland.

There is an alternative. North Ayrshire is one example, and Preston is yet another. Glasgow could benefit from such a model. Where Preston is reopening libraries and building new ones, Glasgow is closing its libraries because it is facing severe financial problems. At one time, Glasgow led the world in municipal socialism. As a city authority, it owned its tramways, its electric and telephone systems and its entire structure of public transport, and it was the biggest social landlord in the world apart from Hong Kong. However, over the past 30 years, all that social infrastructure has been rapidly dismantled and sold to private interests, where it does not serve the people, and where the profits are extracted.

The Scottish Government has indicated that it is exploring the idea of rolling out a nationwide community wealth building strategy. I would welcome that, but I place on record that it must be done not as a mere sticking plaster to mask the continued local authority budget cuts that are handed down from this place. Those cuts are compounded all the more by the insulting greenwashing that we see in Glasgow in the run-up to the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—with myriad corporate interests sponsoring pathetic interventions in the city’s built environment while there is broad decline and decay in its urban infrastructure as a result of decades of disproportionate budget cuts. If we are to adopt the community wealth building model, that must be done alongside the creation of an industrial strategy that puts people and communities at its heart.

I encourage the Scottish Government to revisit its proposed compulsory sale order policy, which it quietly dispensed with in the previous session of Parliament. There is an urgent requirement to bring that sort of power back to the forefront of our agenda to ensure that community wealth building is put back in the hands of communities. We must do that in order to take action in communities that have long been blighted by deindustrialisation and the disinvestment caused by budget cuts. I truly hope that the Government embraces the opportunities that community wealth building brings, and does not squander such opportunities as it has done so often in the past. I call Màiri McAllan to respond to the debate. Minister, you have around seven minutes. I congratulate Rhoda Grant—with whom I agree on a lot of issues here—for securing the debate, and I thank other members for participating. Ms Grant’s motion—like today’s debate—is wide ranging and covers a number of key, interlocking issues that coalesce around land use and ownership, natural capital, climate change and just transition.

Those issues, jointly and severally, are close to my heart and at the top of my agenda. I assure the Parliament that I am giving full and active consideration to the issues that have been raised in today’s debate. I consider them with colleagues across Government and civic society, and I would like to continue to consider them with members from across the chamber. Scotland’s legal climate targets, which are underpinned by a commitment to a just transition, are still regarded as among the most ambitious—if not the most ambitious—in the world. We are also committed to tackling the twin crisis of biodiversity loss. One reason why Scotland can afford to be so ambitious in tackling those twin emergencies is the ample potential of our natural environment to sequester greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and support biodiversity. That means that, in the coming years, there will be challenges not only in how to optimise the enormous value of Scotland’s land but in always doing so in a way that is fair and that leaves no one behind.

We need to put our people and their wellbeing at the heart of our environmental ambitions. My vision, which has been articulated by members today, is of a net zero Scotland where thriving and growing rural, island and urban communities live and work sustainably on land and waters that are owned more fairly and diversely. Emma Roddick made an interesting point about rewilding and repeopling. I often question where the people are in rewilding. We have to bring those aspects together.

Let us be clear that there are no simple answers, because those are complex issues, and we must pursue our ambitions in a way that is compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998. As a former lawyer who worked in property law, land reform law and human rights, I am seized of the way in which those matters interact. Does the minister agree that human rights have to be balanced with the human rights of the wider community, to reset the balance away from those who would exploit our land and back into the hands of those who live and work on the land? Yes, I agree that human rights need to pertain to both the individual and the collective. They also have to be realisable, because people need not only to have those rights but to have them acted on. I agree with Rhoda Grant in that regard. Private investment will be essential to our net zero ambitions and can play a positive role when it is done in a responsible way that has regard to the rights of communities. It is encouraging that the motion for the debate notes “the Scottish Government’s commitment to community wealth building”, which, of course, is led by my colleague the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth.

We should all take a moment to note that the elevation of that issue to the ministerial level is a reflection of the Government’s commitment to it. Community wealth building has its roots in the post-industrial cities of North America, but interest in it is growing rapidly in Scotland. That comprehensive, place-based economic development model focuses on five key pillars, one of which pertains to land and property, and that is of the greatest relevance to today’s discussion. My colleague Tom Arthur is working with five pilot areas and will take forward plans that have been developed by local authorities. In our recent programme for government, Mr Arthur committed to introducing a community wealth building bill. Nature-based solutions are critical to meeting our net zero objectives.

A just transition to net zero can provide real opportunities for rural and island communities, including green jobs in tree planting, peatland restoration and renewables, as well as in the means by which we tackle fuel poverty. We will need a blend of private and public investment to realise those benefits, because, frankly, the public sector cannot do that alone. We must seize those opportunities and mitigate the risks at the same time.

There is an immediate window of opportunity for taking action to ensure that increasing levels of natural capital value are harnessed in a way that benefits communities. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Land Commission, which I sponsor and which our last land reform act set up to advise the Government, is taking forward a package of work in that area as a matter of priority. That work will help us to find a pathway that balances the need for private sector investment—which has been discussed—with community rights and with the legal requirement for a just transition, to which the Government is committed.

Scotland’s continuing journey of land reform will take another substantial step forward during this parliamentary session. The upcoming land reform bill will help us to tackle some of the challenges that we have talked about in the debate. I am committed to full and widespread consultation on its proposals, which I hope will be developed in collaboration with members from across the Parliament. The minister mentioned the forthcoming bill on land reform. Will it include provision for compulsory sale orders and reform of compulsory purchase powers as recommended by the Scottish Law Commission’s report on the matter? I have just said that I will consult widely on all proposals, so I am not writing anything off at this stage. We have years in which to develop this, and I am keen to be as ambitious as possible within the auspices of the Human Rights Act 1998. I think that the member’s point about compulsory sale orders was raised in relation to community wealth building, which I suspect means that it pertains more to the portfolio of my colleague Tom Arthur.

All of that will be happening against the backdrop of ever-strengthening community ownership across Scotland. Recent statistics show that, even during the pandemic, community ownership has been on the rise, having increased by 2.5 per cent in the most recent statistical period. As community ownership in Scotland continues to grow, so does the Government’s support. Rhoda Grant mentioned our recent commitment to doubling the Scottish land fund, from £10 million to £20 million per year, by the end of the parliamentary session. That will help us to support more communities to acquire land and assets. I will conclude, Presiding Officer, as I am conscious of the time. Tackling climate change fairly, supporting empowered communities to thrive in rural and urban Scotland, and continuing to redress Scotland’s historically unfair patterns of land ownership are some of the most important issues that we, in the Government, and members across the chamber face.

It is up to us to deliver for the people of Scotland a fairer, greener, more equal future, and I very much look forward to working with members on that.


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