‘Who Possesses this Land?’ – The Growing Momentum for Land Reform

For those of us with an unhealthy obsession with land reform, it’s been an exciting time. The Land Reform Review Group released their final report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good. It was significantly more feisty and radical than their interim report, to my great relief, and if its recommendations are seriously pursued by the Scottish Government we could see some definite progress on land in Scotland in the coming years.

LRRG Final Report

LRRG Final Report

This can’t come soon enough.   The phrase ‘432:50’ has become shorthand for the extreme concentration of land ownership in Scotland, to the point that the Scottish Affairs Committee, in our other more distant Parliament, used it as a title for their own report on land reform. It refers to the fact that 50 per cent of Scotland’s privately owned land is held by just 432 landowners. The report points out that the way in which subsidies and tax loops are structured means the buyer of a 28,000-acre £11.4m Argyll estate will automatically receive taxpayer-funded subsidies of £12,000 a week – 200 times the amount you’d get on the dole. “Perhaps it is perfectly proper”, the report coyly suggests, “But the issue merits, at the minimum, some enquiry.”[1]

It’s impossible to justify this status quo. Abolishing feudalism in 2001 seemed like a progressive, if embarrassingly late, step. But in reality feudalism in Scotland had become a largely symbolic order, underneath which was outright property law, as elsewhere. Feudalism, though in principle ‘legalised servitude’[2], did incorporate some notion of the social dimension of property, being based (in theory) on patronage rather than ownership. By the 18th century though this had been ‘re-interpreted’ by lawyers to bestow outright ownership, a symptom of the clan chiefs having gained power over, and distance from, their people. The strange and twisting history of Scotland – and particularly the continuation of primogeniture until mid-20th century – produced land ownership in the Highlands 1,000 times more concentrated than in Western Europe.[3]

Abandoned Crofts

The Clearances loom large in any discussion of land in Scotland. Behind the ‘empty glens’ – the romanticised (and politically useful) imagery of the Highlands – lie violent histories. The ‘Massacre of the Rosses’, in 1853, is one of the most notorious episodes, in which it’s said that locals of Greenyards, Strathcarron – mostly women – stood up to the police sent in to evict them and were brutally beaten, some to unconsciousness, one to death.[4] Of course this is to take the most extreme example. The Clearances had many factors and voluntary migration to escape economic hardship was certainly one. But the class politics of this, the concentrations of power and wealth, are inescapable. A quick search for Gruinards/Greenyards shows it is now a luxury fishing location, complete with baronial lodge, where the services of a ghillie and housekeeper are at your disposal. Rates are in the thousands. Rural Scotland is for the rich, with the tax loopholes and subsidies to help them along.

Who has access to the land? Who is it for? Or as Norman McCaig asked:

Who possesses this landscape?
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?[5]

A ‘false question’, he adds, ‘for this landscape is masterless’. But essentially this issue is about power, and as so often in this stratified and grossly unequal society, about class power. Who gets to enjoy the countryside? Who gets to live in it? 50% of heather moors are used for grouse shooting by large sporting estates.[6] The proliferation of second homes and holiday homes and consequent rural housing shortage is driving depopulation and draining communities of their young folk – and with them, their hope. What is the future of rural Scotland? An empty shortbread façade, ecologically barren through overgrazing, with dwindling and ageing populations dependent on seasonal and unreliable tourism? I’m being melodramatic, perhaps, but this isn’t a million miles away from reality.

B896 (1 of 1)


Land is a common resource. It is also a finite one, so massive monopoly control blocks any progress, and further entrenches the power of Scotland’s elites. Land is arguably the most crucial aspect in our development – social, environmental, economic and spiritual. The targets for community ownership by the Scottish Government are welcome, but without the far-reaching structural and legal changes proposed by the Land Reform Review Group, they will not be achieved.

The LRRG report is emphatic on an important point – reform so far has been ‘characterised by periodic review and piecemeal intervention.’ Land, the authors argue, must become a separate policy area. There are already clear conflicts between the SNP’s neoliberal ‘competitive business tax’ mantra and the LRRG’s proposals to end business rate exemptions on sporting estates. But the momentum is there for change. Land reform is essentially about democracy, as is, incidentally, a yes vote. Many of the recommendations LRRG sets out are possible within the Union, but some are not. However, regardless of the referendum outcome, the momentum for land reform will not die down, just as the growing demand for greater and more meaningful democracy is here to stay too.

All photographs taken by the author unless otherwise specified

[1] James Hunter et al., 432:50 – Towards a Comprehensive Land Reform Agenda for Scotland (Scottish Affairs Committee, 2014)

[2] David McCrone, ‘Land, Democracy and Culture in Scotland’ Scottish Affairs 23 1998. p.14

[3] Andy Wightman, Scotland: Land and Power – The Agenda for Land Reform, 1999.

[4] Donald Ross, The Massacre of the Rosses of Strathcarron, Ross-Shire, 1886.

[5] Norman McCaig, The Poems of Norman McCaig, 2005.

[6] Alison Elliot et al., The Land of Scotland and the Common Good (Land Reform Review Group, Scottish Government, May 2014).


Biodiversity offsetting – Nature’s consolation prize



When you spend a lot of time discussing environmental issues, one thing becomes abundantly clear: conservation objectives are difficult to argue against. When expressing my concerns over current environmental management practices, I’m frequently asked; “So you don’t want habitat protection?”, or told; “We have to put these measures in place or our most important species will go extinct”. My personal favourite is; “We might as well get something out of it”, as if accepting that the environment coming merely second-to-last in the development debate is something to celebrate.

All of these statements have been uttered in one guise or another over the current discussion on biodiversity offsetting, which involves mitigating any potential destruction of habitat or ecosystem due to development by buying an area of land to either translocate the affected species to, or to restore the area to a similar ecological habitat. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) are debating the issue as we speak, in London Zoo of all places (the irony of natural entities being caged in has not been lost on me).[1] The conference aims to set up a framework of offsetting standards, and follows guidelines issued in the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy, in which targets include ‘maintaining and restoring ecosystems and their services’ and ‘no net loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services’.[2] There are a couple of red flags in these targets, mainly the use of the term ‘ecosystem services’ in both examples. A seemingly innocuous phrase, ecosystem services is an umbrella term for the ways humanity benefits from the services provided by the environment – namely, clean water, flood control, air quality etc. In general, the greater the biodiversity of an area, the better the services will be they provide. “Great!” the advocates cry, “We get to save the environment and benefit ourselves. It’s win-win!” – and thus the great neoliberal myth is propagated; that a finite resource can continue to grow so long as the correct value is placed on it.
In reality, the danger of promoting this extremely anthropocentric idea means a shudder to our entire value system. At the ‘Nature is not for sale’ forum (organised as a response to the DEFRA conference),[3] the environmental philosopher John O’Neill managed to sum up the situation brilliantly in an anecdote from famous socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor, who once said in an interview when asked how she managed to keep her husband young and healthy: “Why, I swap them for a newer model every few years”.  This neatly encapsulates the distinction between de re and de dicto philosophy, which we can apply to the concept of ecosystem services. In Gabor’s case, she desired only that her husband, whoever he may be, be young and healthy (de dicto), as opposed to wanting her specific husband to be young and healthy (de re). Within the ecosystem services framework, the valuation system has shifted from de re, where our desire was for the ecosystem to be biodiverse and healthy, to de dicto, where our desire is to gain the ecosystem services provided, regardless of how or where they may be. Biodiversity offsetting underpins this notion, disregarding any attachments to place and identity, alongside the very dangerous possibility of descending into ‘allowable natural destruction’, and further commodifies nature into a package that can be bought and sold for human consumption.

Scotland’s involvement in biodiversity offsetting has been minimal so far, but the DEFRA conference is likely to change that should Scotland remain part of the UK, and even if not, Holyrood will likely create a strategy of its own. The Borders council have already trialled offsetting on grouse heather moorland and wetland areas[4], and a workshop on offsetting last year suggests a push for Scotland to embrace the practice.[5] In my opinion, this should be avoided, and below are several (hopefully) reasoned arguments against what I feel to be a very dangerous Pandora’s box:

1. The planning system in Scotland
One of the main positives that proponents of biodiversity offsetting – usually the developers – are keen to extol is how it would simplify the planning system. Instead of having to conduct rigorous environmental assessments, offset sites can merely be bought and sold on the market like regular commodities. And with no mandatory metric system in place, there is little the planning authorities can do to enforce the quality or longevity of these sites. Also, unlike England, the Scottish single tier planning system means that local councils have very little power over the bigger developments (which are likely to be the most environmentally destructive), which means that the people most affected by this have the least power. The planning system already favours big businesses and landowners, so limiting community action even further is certainly not the direction we need to take.

2. Very little structure for enforcement
The reason why offsetting has seen some success in the United States has been down to their stringent enforcement hierarchy, which makes mitigation an absolute last resort. There is no such system in place for Scotland (and the rest of the UK) as of yet, and by pushing through offsetting as a viable option without setting clear targets and contracts can only lead to a slippery slope of what actually constitutes compensation. It is very difficult to assess a healthy ecosystem, and if there are loopholes, it is likely a developer will use them in order to shrug responsibility. It is also important to prevent cases such as Scottish Coal, who were given permission to mine a site providing they mitigated the damage elsewhere. Before they could do this, the company went bankrupt, leaving no money whatsoever for the promised mitigation.[6]

3. Ignoring unmeasurables such as sense of place and identity
While ecosystem health is indeed difficult to measure and value, it is achievable in theory (the success of the practice remains to be seen).[7] However, what is much more difficult to measure, and I’d argue impossible to place a monetary value on, is a sense of place and identity. Many people feel connected to the land around them, and often areas of natural beauty are extremely important to well-being, health and recreation. Irreversibly changing these areas creates a sense of loss that is impossible to replace, especially as there is no guarantee that offset sites will be in the vicinity of the developed site.

4. Entrenching inherently unfair land ownership structures
One of the most worrying aspects of the biodiversity offsetting strategy is the creation of habitat banking.[8] This involves a landowner setting aside an area for the potential of offsets, restoring the ecosystem back to health, and then selling off the land to developers as and when they need it. It removes responsibility from the developer, who merely has to hand over the cash, and it removes that land from any contestations of ownership. The landowner has pocketed a hefty sum for very little work, the developer is happy, and the people who live on or around that land are left even more marginalised than before, with what little hope they had of ever owning it obliterated. Green-grabbing is common practice for rich developers in the global south, but its fundamentals are the same when happening outside your front door – it is still extremely unfair.

5. Accepting your fate
Returning to my frustration in common conservationist attitudes that ‘we need to get what we can’, this attitude promotes a dangerous justification of the commodification of nature. The idea of ‘this is the system we have, we have to work with it’ has not worked so far, so to continue to believe that merely rebranded neoliberal schemes to ‘save nature’ will work is naïve at best, and it means the system continues to expand without contest. A key example in Scotland is the Donald Trump golf course, which was built on an SSSI despite a bitter protest from local residents. A speaker at the biodiversity workshop reasoned, had offsets been in place at the time; ‘we could have extracted some money from him’.[9] This attitude is defeatist, yet common, in a world where environmental concerns have taken a back seat to capital-driven investment for a very long time.

Whilst all these arguments are important, it is the attitude of conservationists and environmentalists that must change if we are to truly make a difference in protecting the natural world. Accepting that we must play the game of nature commodification, only to end up with a consolation prize is not good enough. In order to safeguard the environment beyond the short term, we have to change the rules.


[1] http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2014/jun/03/can-we-have-a-robust-public-debate-on-biodiversity-offsetting

[2] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/comm2006/2020.htm

[3] http://naturenotforsale.org/

[4] http://www.scotborders.gov.uk/info/379/countryside_facilities_and_wildlife/964/biodiversity/3

[5] http://www.edinburghcentre.org/files/documents/SD_Biodiversity_Offsetting_and_Habitat_Banking_for_Scotland_FINAL_REPORT.pdf

[6] http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/biodiversity-offsetting_tcm9-358604.pdf

[7] https://www.gov.uk/ecosystems-services

[8] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/enveco/taxation/pdf/Habitat_banking_annexes.pdf

[9] http://www.edinburghcentre.org/files/documents/SD_Biodiversity_Offsetting_and_Habitat_Banking_for_Scotland_FINAL_REPORT.pdf