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A recent study discovered that despite attempts at reform, land ownership in rural Scotland remains highly concentrated.
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A recent study discovered that despite attempts at reform, land ownership in rural Scotland remains highly concentrated.

A recent study has revealed that land ownership in Scotland continues to be highly concentrated, despite efforts to reform legislation over the past twenty years. The study also suggests that green capital investors have gained significant control over land.

In 2012, Andy Wightman, an activist for land reform, published a groundbreaking analysis of land distribution in Scotland. His findings show that 50% of privately owned rural land in Scotland, totaling 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres), is controlled by only 433 individuals and corporations. This leaves a mere 2.76% of rural Scotland in the hands of community groups.

According to his research, aristocratic landowners now possess less land than before, while there has been an increase in the amount of private investors focusing on profitable “green” initiatives such as forest and peatland restoration projects.

Gresham House, an investment company now owned by Searchlight Capital, is the third largest landowner in Scotland, with ownership of 53,775 hectares spread across 161 different holdings based on research of Land Registry records conducted by Wightman.

Since 2012, the Duke of Buccleuch has sold land to members of the community, reducing their ownership from 98,000 hectares to 66,345 hectares. As of 2012, they were the largest private landowner in Scotland.

Anders Povlsen, the Danish billionaire behind Asos mail order, now surpasses Buccleuch Estates as the largest landowner in Scotland. Povlsen’s expansive empire spans 88,296 hectares, spread across 12 estates, and has grown by 37% since 2012.

Andy Wightman at a right to roam march and rallyView image in fullscreen

Povlsen is one of a number of extremely wealthy Scandinavians buying up Highland estates, including Strathconon Estates Ltd (previously known as Kirkbi Estates Ltd), an arm of the philanthropic investment firm owned by the family of the Lego heir Kirk Kristiansen.

According to Wightman’s calculations, the property located at Strathconon in Inverness now covers an area of 36,933 hectares, making Kirkbi the ninth largest private land owner in Scotland. However, Kirkbi believes their land to be slightly smaller, around 34,500 hectares.

Wightman’s data has come from records held by Registers of Scotland, the official land register, and more accurate land mass data from Ordnance Survey. That has allowed him to recalculate the figures he originally published in 2012 in his book The Poor Had No Lawyers. Modern records show that 440 owners owned half of Scotland’s private land in 2012, not the 432 he originally reported.

Wightman and other land campaigners argue the latest data is evidence that the Scottish parliament’s attempts to empower community buyouts to diversify rural landownership has failed, despite enacting several laws to strengthen right to buy laws and asset transfers.

Although there have been notable acquisitions, such as the transfer of 4,000 hectares of land on Langholm Moor to community members by Buccleuch Estates and the buying of Ulva island near Mull, partly funded by £4.4m from the government-supported Scottish Land Fund, sales of this magnitude are uncommon.

In the past 10 years, data from the Scottish government has revealed that the total area of land owned by local communities has increased by only 40,048 hectares, from 172,294 hectares in 2012 to 212,342 hectares. In contrast, the forestry agency of Scotland has a total land ownership of 656,000 hectares.

In 2013, the former first minister Alex Salmond aimed to have 1 million hectares owned by communities in Scotland by 2020. However, according to Wightman, only 0.24% of rural Scotland has been acquired by communities in the past 20 years through Holyrood’s laws of right to buy.

According to the speaker, Scotland has the highest concentration of land ownership in Europe. The current reforms do not address this issue significantly. To truly make a difference, the speaker believes that we must adopt reforms that will effectively bring about change.

The Scottish government is being urged by the Scottish Land Commission, which was established in 2017, to take further action in promoting diversity in land ownership. As a solution, the government is introducing additional authority for ministers to divide large estates, over 1,000 hectares in size, into smaller portions when they are put up for sale. This process is commonly referred to as “lotting”.

Government officials claim that dividing land into smaller lots will give a chance for a greater number of communities, farmers, individuals creating woodland, and businesses to become landowners at a more reasonable cost. The significant influx of land purchases by investors focused on natural capital, like Gresham House, has caused land prices to reach unprecedented heights and intensified competition.

According to Community Land Scotland, an organization representing community owners and advocating for a new goal to have 10% of rural land owned by communities by 2030, dividing land into smaller lots will not have a significant effect as only a very small portion of rural land is sold annually.

Wightman and CLS suggest that more extensive measures should be taken, such as incorporating inherited land and company share transfers into land reform initiatives, and implementing proper taxation on land. They also propose providing greater financial support and promoting shared ownership options for community buyers.

Wightman has discovered that investment companies like Gresham House increase their total holdings by purchasing smaller forests, estates, or farms that fall below the newly implemented 1,000-hectare threshold for subdivision. He has also come across another investment firm attempting to acquire 14 properties spanning nearly 6,000 hectares, none of which would meet the threshold for subdivision.

Gresham House promotes its forestry projects as tax-efficient investment opportunities and maintains that its clients hold ultimate ownership of these projects. According to Gresham House, the forests it manages significantly contribute to Scotland’s rural economy and provide employment for hundreds of individuals.

According to Mairi Gougeon, the secretary responsible for land reform in the Scottish government, the proposed legislation will grant powers that are focused and appropriate. These powers will impact more than half of Scotland’s land.

She stated, “My desire is for us to have a greater ownership of our land and waters, with the purpose of benefitting all of Scotland’s residents. However, our power to accomplish this is restricted without complete independence, resources, and control.”

Source: theguardian.com