Whatever became of the Scottish Land Fund?

I had occasion last week to look at the web-site of the Scottish Land Fund and was startled by what I found – another area of public life in which power and purpose have swung decisively away from the original intent.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 4th February 2022, 7:05 am
John Watt was instrumental in assisting the early community buyouts
John Watt was instrumental in assisting the early community buyouts

The only part of Scotland in which the Scottish Land Fund and its predecessors made a significant difference was in the west coast islands – mainly the Outer Isles but also more isolated inner Hebridean locations like Eigg and Gigha where the imperatives for change were exceptional.

None of the community buy-outs in the islands would have happened without the Scottish Land Fund and the Land Unit at Highlands and Islands Enterprise which offered encouragement, support – and then money. There would be no Stòras Uibhist; no North Harris Trust; no Urras Gabhsainn, or half a dozen more which emerged from that brief era and the commitment which accompanied it.

I am proud to have played a part in creating the Unit and the Fund but I certainly never thought of it as the end of the story; only the beginning. However, without the same levels of commitment to the cause of land reform, the danger of it simply running out of steam was always obvious. That is exactly what has happened and is reflected in the current priorities of what is still, misleadingly, called the Scottish Land Fund.

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Of seven Scottish Land Fund committee members, none is located in the islands – where most of the wealth of existing experience resides – and only one, Janet Miles, a resident of Gairloch, in the Highlands. The chair, who succeeded the excellent John Watt, formerly of HIE, lives in Gatehouse of Fleet. Others are in Perth, Edinburgh, Burntisland … anywhere except places where Scottish land reform has made any sort of community-led progress.

That simply underlines the fact that the Scottish Land Fund is no longer about land. It is, overwhelmingly, a “community assets” fund. So why not call it that and drop the pretence? There is absolutely nothing wrong with a Community Assets Fund, just so long as nobody confuses it with land reform, a highly political issue that was, not too long ago, taken seriously in Scotland.

If you look at grants made by the Scottish Land Fund since 2016 when it was revived after several years absence, the point is confirmed. It has enabled the purchase of disused churches, schools, lighthouses, shops, mills… you name it, all over Scotland. I am sure each of them is a worthy project though local authorities would be able to do exactly the same thing if they had the money. It doesn’t need a “Land Fund”.

Of course it is good to have a source of funding for saving the local pub or re-opening the village shop or enabling a couple of houses to be built for rent. But is that really what the “Scottish Land Fund” is now supposed to be about?

In its origins, the Land Fund and the Land Unit were two sides of the same politically-motivated coin – the essential currency of land reform. The Unit, led by John Watt, did fantastic work in the early years in building support for transformational community buy-outs, mainly of crofting estates in the Western Isles. The legacy of that brief period is that half the land in the Western Isles (including the pre-existing Stornoway Trust base) is under community ownership. Which also means that the other half isn’t.

There is a nod in the direction of that history insofar as the Fund is still administered out of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Ninety-eight per cent of community-owned land is in the Highlands and Islands – almost none of it having acquired that status within the past decade. Yet the orientation of the Fund has become pan-Scottish with the emphasis on property and “assets” rather than any impact upon the structure of land ownership.

There is an historic precedent for the perversion of a Land Fund into something quite different, to which I will return. But the current fault does not lie primarily with the people who run the “Scottish Land Fund” and see their role as distributors of public largesse to “worthy causes”. Land – or more particularly – “land reform” really doesn’t impinge upon that agenda. That can only be the job of government.

On the rare occasions when the Land Fund tip-toes into the minefield of supporting a serious bit of land acquisition, it comes as a nasty shock. The most substantial land purchase they have supported in recent years was of the island of Ulva, off Mull, to which they pitched in £4.4 million that went to a private seller whose family had presided over neglect and virtual depopulation for the previous 70 years.

The lesson was clear. As soon as land acquisition on any significant scale takes place outside crofting estates, the sums demanded by “the market” are prohibitive if any significant inroads are going to be made into unregulated private ownership. There was further confirmation when Buccleuch Estate offered to shed a few fragments of its landholdings, again with seven figure price tags to the public purse.

This underlines the crucial point – there is no prospect of land reform in Scotland without legislation to underpin it and that simply does not exist. As I discussed recently in the context of the Pairc Estate buy-out, even the “crofting community right to buy” was framed in a way that it took a decade to navigate, in the face of a hostile seller. How many fragile communities could even contemplate that challenge?

So crofting estate buy-outs have ground to a halt and there is absolutely no sign of legislation which would permit interventions in the open market to secure the community interest where non-crofting estates come on the market. Neither does there appear to be any political appetite for relatively straightforward devices for breaking up vast land holdings, like granting tenant farmers the same right to buy as crofters.

At some point, a body called the Scottish Land Commmission was created, probably as a device for kicking the whole question into touch. In 2019, it put forward proposals “to help address the issues of concentrated land ownership using ways that are normal in other countries and economic sectors”. These included a requirement on estates to bring forward management plans to which they could be bound and to allow for “intervention to address the adverse impacts of concentrated ownership in a specific land holding”.

Nothing has yet been done to take these forward at Holyrood. Meanwhile, Scotland continues to have the most inequitable distribution of land ownership in Europe and even the only corner of Scotland where a serious effort has been made to challenge that reality – the Western Isles – can still see private estates change hands without an iota of community involvement in influencing these transactions. It happened quite recently with Uig and Hamnaway Estate, just as it would have for decades and centuries past.

Elsewhere in Scotland, vast land transactions are taking place without any let or hindrance. “Rewilding” is the fashion of the age – which carries with it huge public subsidies so that the very wealthy can outbid any useful purpose that might be of far more value to rural communities. Meanwhile, land reform and any vestige of challenge to the free market has disappeared from Scotland’s political agenda.

Without legislation to underpin it, land reform does not happen – and the Scottish Land Fund has become a misnomer as a result, divorced from the purpose for which its namesake was established, more than two decades ago.

SO LET’S take a look at the historical precedent. When the Scottish Land Fund opened its doors in 2001, it was the first to be created by government since the National Land Fund established by Hugh Dalton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the post-war Labour government. And that was no ordinary fund.

In the final passage of his Budget speech, he announced its establishment as ''a thank-offering for victory and a war memorial which, in the judgement of many, is better than any work of art in stone or bronze''. It was a visionary act, in immediate post-war conditions, to set aside £50 million – over £2 billion at today's values - to acquire ''some of the loveliest parts of this land . . . dedicated to the memory of the dead, and to the use and enjoyment of the living for ever''.

The Fund was, for a few years, a brilliant success, acquiring land for third parties rather than for the state. Scottish acquisitions, which survive to this day, included Rowardennan estate on Loch Lomond for the Scottish Youth Hostel Association and Balmacara Estate, still owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

The Tories never liked the idea, which they saw as a challenge to private ownership, and when they won in 1951, the erosion of Dalton's great vision was swift and subtle. They amended the Act to allow the Fund also to buy the contents of properties. This was extended in 1956 to all works of art, and in 1973 prints, books, manuscripts and items of scientific interest were dragged in as well. The result was that the National Land Fund became an arts fund. You see the parallel?

The National Land Fund drifted along until 1977, when it was called on to assist in the purchase of the Mentmore Treasures. This prompted the House of Commons expenditure committee to review what had happened to the Fund over the previous 30 years. They found that its aims had been perverted – and bitterly criticised the Treasury.

Soon, however, the Conservatives were back in office and in 1981 all reference to land was dropped from the title, as it became the National Heritage Memorial Fund – devoted overwhelmingly to the purchase of buildings and works of art, denoting the final abandonment of Dalton's vision.

THIS HISTORY is deeply relevant to current circumstances. If governments want to create radical change, they have to legislate for it. That happened in 1886. It happened in 1918. It happened 20-odd years ago to beneficial effect, particularly in the Western Isles. Will it ever happen again?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​