Demanding Scottish Land Reform – urban needs, land tax and community determination.
Our series of Branch Discussion nights continued and this time we were joined by long time SNP activist and former MSP Rob Gibson.
Rob was raised in Dennistoun, and now lives in Evanton. He attended university in Dundee from 1968, and there joined the student SNP club, Scottish CND and the FSN Skye Crofting Scheme. He also sang in a folk group. He started work as a teacher in 1973.
His books include The Promised Land, 1974; Crofter Power in Easter Ross, 1986; Toppling the Duke, 1997; Plaids and Bandanas, 2003: and The Highland Clearances Trail, 2007.
He served as District Councillor for Tulloch Ward, Dingwall from 1988 till 1996. He was elected as Highlands & Islands MSP in 2003, re-elected in 2007, and won the constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross in 2011. Between 2003 and 2011 he sat on the committees for rural affairs and environment, education and culture, transport, infrastructure and climate change and economy, energy and tourism.
At Holyrood he convened the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment committee which oversaw the 2016 Land Reform Bill, and sat on the Referendum Bill and Devolution Further Powers committee which among other things focused on returning all of the Crown Estate powers to Scotland. He is currently writing his personal memoir on land reform in Scotland.
Below is the transcript of Rob’s speech
Demanding Scottish Land Reform – Urban needs, land tax and community determination.
The SNP has been engaged over decades in land reform campaigns, debates, and policy development. In the early 1970s the SNP advocated a statutory Land Commission, like Ireland had till 1990, to diversify access to land. I recall John McAteer, by–election agent in 1967 at Winnie Ewing’s famous victory in Hamilton, who died all too young, he told me he was only interested in independence and no other policies except land reform.
That feeling of land and constitutional rebirth fed off each other through the dark years of Thatcherism to the dawning of a renewed Scots parliament.
Tom Nairn summing up the connection commented in The Scotsman in November 1994 following a conference “To the Nation; who owns Scotland’s Heritage”:
“The reason the land question arouses such deep feelings in the Lowlands as well as in Gaeldom is that it symbolises impotence so perfectly. The largest of Scotland’s private domains, Buccleuch Estates, is four times the size of the European Union’s smallest state, Luxemburg. Now, the blights Scotland suffers from are, of course, not all rural, or connected with land ownership. But they relate to an absent democracy, for which this monstrous scale of land alienation is an appropriate emblem”.
By the time feudalism was abolished in 2000 and a real Land Reform Bill enacted in 2003 we were on the path to land reform by instalments. The Labour/ LibDem Scots Exec had focused purely on rural land reform, no doubt to get quick political hits. On the SNP’s behalf I asked at the time what about urban issues being tackled. Labour acknowledged urban needs but side-lined them.
From the 1970s to the 1990s the SNP was keen to see means to build community confidence as the first essential step to vibrant, citizen participation. In 1997 our own appointed ‘Land Commission’ led by Prof. Allan MacInnes recommended the election of Community Land Councils to enhance the role of weak community councils and so quiz all land holders and developers to debate community needs. Donald Dewar rejected this approach in his 1998 John McEwen Memorial Lecture in favour of what became Community Planning Partnerships – a talking shop at a much wider level. In 1999 newly minted MSPs Roseanna Cunningham and Fergus Ewing commended CLCs to Donald Dewar but in vain.
Jack McConnell as FM tiptoed towards communities of more than 5,000 souls getting access to land reform. It was ten years on and the SNP delivered full urban land reform as a cornerstone of the Community Empowerment Act and the Land Reform Act 2016. It has overwhelming parliamentary support -bar the Tory party.
The 2015 Act now includes improved community planning, CRTB of land deemed abandoned, neglected and land causing harm to the environment, backed by the Scottish Land Fund; participation requests, asset transfer requests from local authorities; encouraging fan owned football clubs; new rules for setting up allotments; and of course defining what kinds of community groups can access these powers. I can discuss these at question time but suffice to say organised communities of place are key.
It’s important at this stage to reflect on the most common priorities expressed for land reform in consultation responses to these proposed Bills.
- Transparency of ownership;
- Diversity of ownership and control; and
- Support for land taxation.
Land taxes have a long history, but LVT, or site value rating, as some Edwardian land taxers called it, are a key to make the ground under our feet the key taxable asset that cannot be dodged.
Andy Wightman defined it in ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’ thus:
“The philosophy behind LVT is based on the idea that land, in its unimproved state, is a gift of nature and, unlike capital and labour, has no cost of production.” As it is in fixed supply, unlike capital and labour, he went on – “its value is purely a scarcity value reflecting the competing needs of the community for work. Leisure and housing”.
The value of the land owes nothing to the owner as buildings etc on it do. Therefore, the community at large should share in the value of the land.
Take an example like the Borders Rail Line. The value of houses near the stations along its route have risen as they are benefitting from proximity to commuting prospects etc. So, the community should have a means to tap that, not just the individual who sells dearer than he or she bought it to a new resident who also gains from the location.
In summary to calculate LVT we need to know:
- A) The effects of scarcity and location affect land supply.
- B) Land prices have outpaced any stock market portfolio of the past 25 years.
- C) LVT forces purchasers to consider uses of their land.
- D) Public projects can benefit from this income stream.
- E) One snag in devolved Scotland, we have powers only to apply LVT as a local, not a national tax.
- F) But, assessment is simpler than that of buildings. Factors include:
- What land uses are permitted thereon?
- Who owns the land? and
- What is the estimate of highest value achievable for its best use.
- G) Knowing who owns Scotland is key to applying assessment for LVT. Political will is apparent from the Greens; Derek MacKay instructed to the Scottish Land Commission we created under the 2016 Act to survey LVT for practical application; and we should welcome a throwaway line from Richard Leonard to support LVT, as well as other wealth taxes.
Community determination has been most evident in recent decades with land buyouts like Assynt 1993, Knoydart and Eigg in 1997 as well as many more recently. Right now the battle to take over Ulva island is today’s headline. Over 500,000 acres of Scotland 2.9% of our land area is under community control.
Urban unrest used to be associated with industrial disputes, or rack-rented housing or its lack. However, in the Noughties we saw guerrilla allotments in Maryhill when land owners left gap sites unkempt and unloved. Pop-up restaurants are another phenomenon.
Community councils invented in the 1970s have few powers, are a minority sport in most cases, but community empowerment has stirred up places such as the Neilston bank building buy out. Another Central Belt example is the Portobello church buy out last year.
Decisions how to organise to often coalesce around an emergency to ‘register an interest’ in a parcel of land or building that’s suddenly come on the market. Earlier organisation is a must.
We need to know who owns Springburn and Maryhill. We need to discuss diversifying powers down from Glasgow City Council so engaging with councillors and officials needs to be open and transparent.
The 2015 Act poses questions for the City Council – how should it interact with localities because community confidence must be built stage by stage. I highlighted these as an MSP and convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment committee. Thanks to SNP land reform we do have new tools to step up the pace. Like the 19th century Land League we must assert – The Land Is Before Us! Let’s get down to work!