'Wet Desert' no more? (2014 piece)

25 years ago the Highland Green Party published its ‘Rural Manifesto for the Highlands’. It indicted the Highlands as a degraded environment, “a wet desert”, not fit for purpose in social, economic or ecological sustainability. The Manifesto explored a common history, in which both natural environment and human population had been mistreated. It made proposals in forestry, crofting, agriculture and energy policy in rural regeneration, urging independence and stewardship.
With complementary land value taxation and social policies, the Manifesto was visionary. It was presented to major public bodies, gaining a positive reception. It went with the grain of progressive opinion; elsewhere, a predictably sniffy response showed its challenge to the establishment.
The ‘Rural Manifesto for the Highlands’ transcended its immediate context, in a Britain still to grasp sustainability. As one of the authors reading it now, I am struck by its central diagnosis of land ownership as the key:
“The rural resources of the Highlands will never be managed along
ecologically sustainable lines for the full benefit of the population until the
existing outmoded and iniquitous pattern of land ownership is dismantled.”

For all the visionary ‘Forest Economy’, in which a revitalised human population would manage natural resources sustainably and in harmony with nature, the Manifesto is underpinned by the land ownership issue. As Robin Callander had shown, just 579 people owned half of Scotland. Famously, 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, had dramatised the resulting tragedy of Highland history.
Now, land ownership as an issue has moved on. The 1993 landmark purchase by the Assynt Crofters of the North Lochinver Estate has been succeeded by numerous similar ventures; the abolition of Feudal tenure; The 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act. The conditions seem to exist for communities to gain control over their most important asset.

Now the Government-appointed, but independent, Land Reform Review Group has presented its Report to Ministers. The remit promised significant change:
“To enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland...”

Recommendations are legion: covering land registration, ownership entitlements, acquisition rights and costs, compulsory purchase and land taxation mechanisms, crofting and agricultural tenure and legislation, housing, access, wildlife, forestry and Crown property.
But the Jury is out on the Report’s strength and impact. Dr. James Hunter left the Group - unconvinced by Government commitment. The Scottish Crofters’ Union awaits the creation of 10,000 new crofts, in a regenerated rural Scotland. Leading authority Andy Wightman and umbrella body Community Land Scotland, and many others, are waiting and watching, sceptically.

But will Scotland’s institutions and politicians deliver? The challenge needs to be addressed, before and after September 18th. Minister Paul Wheelhouse has committed to a Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill and a Land Reform Bill; A National Forest Land Scheme and the Scottish Land Fund are in place. Some commentators, but not many, have acknowledged the issue. But shouldn’t the arguments on land ownership and land use be louder, and pressed with more fervour on those in power?

Will the necessary Land Information and Registration system be established? Why do Crown Property Rights still exist? Is the anonymous, invisible manager of ‘an attractive property portfolio’ really any better than an absentee 19th century landlord? When will public-interest Compulsory Purchase be enabled? Why cannot people remain living and working in their home communities? Why do we tolerate the scandal of land lying vacant and derelict?

Questions need to be answered. Commitments need to be made.


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