Crucial decision on Scottish land reform to take place in Holyrood tomorrow

Crucial decision on Scottish land reform to take place in Holyrood tomorrow

By: Liz Murray
Date: 15 March 2016

croft2Who owns Scotland?  A simple question – but nobody knows the answer. Not even the Scottish government. Land ownership in Scotland is shrouded in secrecy and complexity.

Thanks to the work of land reform campaigners over many years, what we do know is that ownership of land in Scotland is concentrated into fewer hands than in just about any other developed country.   Just 432 landowners own half of Scotland’s private land, and an estimated 750,000 acres are owned by companies and trusts based in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

The use of land as a speculative asset for increasing wealth rather than a community asset for the benefit of local people is a big issue here in Scotland.  When you add in the fact that rich landowners are heavily using tax havens to avoid paying their fair share of tax, there are clear parallels with what’s happening in other parts of the world, including in the global south.

In Africa, for example, the UK government is helping multinational corporations to access land to grow cash crops to sell abroad, reducing the amount of land available to local farmers to grow food for themselves and their communities.  Since 2001, in the global south, an area 29 times the size of Scotland has been ‘grabbed’ to grow food and biofuels for foreign markets. And Oxfam estimates that the continent is losing more than $50bn (£33bn) every year in illicit financial outflows as governments and multinational companies engage in fraudulent schemes aimed at avoiding tax payments.

Owners of hundreds of thousands of acres of land here in Scotland, such as the Duke of Buccleuch, are using their land to create wealth, and making use of secret tax havens to conceal the extent of this wealth and, presumably, to avoid paying tax on it.

But this could change – at least here in Scotland. Tomorrow afternoon, members of the Scottish parliament will be voting through a new law that the Scottish government claims will bring about effective and radical land reform.  Except that as it stands, it lacks vital measures to make land ownership more transparent and to clamp down on the use of tax havens.  But there’s still time for it to be amended to include this.  If you live in Scotland, you can help ensure that this happens by emailing your MSP now.  If enough of us email our MSPs, we really could make a difference on this.

Land means power.  And the concentration of land ownership means the concentration of power.  If land reform is to be really radical here in Scotland then land, and the decisions about what happens to it, must be put into the hands of the many not the few.