Earlier this week, Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod said that the benefits of the new Land Reform Bill would be “potentially life-changing for individuals and communities across Scotland”. Ahead of the latest meeting of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee to gather evidence in Dumfries, she stated that the government was ‘listening’, and keen to consider further improvements to land reform proposals. Here are our thoughts on the nature of the ongoing debate.
Some people want land reform, some don’t. Let’s be civil and stick to the issues; there’s lots to discuss, and Scotland is a place where we should be able to have a good grown up conversation.
Forest Policy Group (FPG) believes there is a strong case for a greater diversity in the tenure of land; we’ve tried to illustrate our concern about the highly concentrated pattern of ownership of forest land in Scotland, which is completely at odds with the pattern elsewhere in Europe (see FPG website). Access to land for ordinary people to engage in forestry is quite severely compromised, and this impacts badly on the social, environmental and economic prospects for rural development.
Meanwhile, we are finding that much of the response, from those who oppose reform, is dedicated to mocking, rather than answering, the arguments.
Here are five typical characterisations, and our response in italics:
1 Caricature: land reform proponents are described by some pejoratively as ‘radical’, ‘unreasonable agitators’, ‘activists’, and ‘urban’. At the same time the ‘land use sector’ complains that these “radical” reformers simply dismiss their experts as ‘vested interests’.
This critique firstly suggests, without evidence, the existence of an urban/rural polarisation, with proponents of land reform being characterised as mainly urban. Actually land reform principles apply equally in the urban and rural domains and we suspect both camps have strong support in both areas. The term “radical” seems to get heavily over-used in relation to land reform – occasionally by government; but more often by opponents, as if by automatically billing any land reform measure as “radical” opponents can dismiss the debate before it even begins.
‘Vested interests’ are described as such so as to emphasise that they are not independent. Those hired to defend them may be experts, but it would be wrong to ascribe to them the status of independent experts. Vested interests are important players in the land debate and should be welcomed, and not dismissed; but equally they cannot expect that their views to hold any more weight than the rest of the (unvested) population.
2 Reductio ad absurdum: Land Reform is misleadingly said to aspire to offer everyone in Scotland an equal slice of the pie; some opponents suggesting that this would mean that we would each be entitled to 4 acres of land (Scotland’s land area divided by population) or a deer from the cull once every 30 years.
This confuses equity (i.e. being fair and impartial) with equality (i.e. being equal in status, rights, or opportunities). No-one suggests an exactly equal share for all; but land reform does seek more equity with opportunities for all. The current pattern of rights to land creates opportunities heavily skewed to one segment of society – far more so than any other European country.
3 Deflection: Some detractors say: “Forget land reform, the real issue is ‘how the land is managed’ or CAP reform; in any event employment, health and education are far more important than land reform”.
This is easy to say if you have the rights you want; but for those who don’t, and who feel these rights are fundamental to their ability to flourish, land reform is understandably a high priority.
4 Marginalisation: It has been argued that ‘only’ 1200 responses to the land reform consultation shows that 99% of the population do not care about the issue.
This argument assumes that responders are the only ones who care. In fact this is more than double the response rate normally expected by the Scottish Government, and a heavy majority were in support of the proposals.
5 Oversimplification: Some argue that every land holding needs to be big enough to support a family, and to secure an average income, an individual would have to own at least 100ha.
The fallacy here is in the assumption that everyone has only one occupation. Rural life is increasingly pluri-active (with several occupations) and variously remunerated. This diversity we find attractive, creating all kinds of resilience and creativity. We need more of it. A person, a family, a partnership or even a community may get many pleasures and products from a 5 ha woodland.
So let’s discuss the merits of the argument, not as radical activists versus landed toffs, but as intelligent, courteous citizens sharing a passion for a flourishing Scotland.