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Community Land Scotland

Own Yersel Scotland: Reimagining the future – Keynote Address by Michael Russell

13 May 2024

This keynote address was delivered my Michael Russell, Chair of the Scottish Land Commission as part of our Annual Conference Own Yersel Scotland: Reimagining the future on 10 May 2024. 

This is the first opportunity I have had to reflect publicly on some of the issues that motivated me to apply to be Chair of the Scottish Land Commission, and in so doing deepen and broaden my long standing. commitment to land reform.

I am therefore grateful to Ailsa and Community Land Scotland for inviting me to do so.

Although it now seems that there are few of us still around who remember Scotland before devolution, most people here know that securing Land Reform was one of the flagship issue that drove the demand for the restoration of Scotland’s Parliament after a 292 year adjournment, not least because Westminster had neither the time nor sometimes, it has to be said, the inclination, to tackle the issue.

And I also don’t have to tell this audience that the continuing curious and unique pattern of land ownership in Scotland – the result of a number of factors including the appropriation of clan lands by individual clan chieftains, the clearing of many of those lands by those powerful individuals for reasons of private profit, and then the development of a wider market in such estates, in part inspired by Queen Victoria’s fondness for Highland Scotland – remains an issue that many regard as unfinished business.

Concern at the inequity of land ownership in Scotland is not new of course.

It is no surprise, therefore, that securing meaningful land reform has been a common motivator across most – though not all – of the political parties in Scotland and I want to start this contribution

to what seems certain to be an exciting and stimulating conference with the leader one of them, and his views from 1998 – the year before the Scottish Parliament came into being.

In that year Donald Dewar gave the John McEwen Memorial Lecture, named of course after that great forester and pioneer of Scottish Land Reform, John McEwen, who died in 1992 aged 105.

In the lecture Dewar was unequivocal with regard to what the soon to be established Parliament needed to deliver.

It is clear that we need, he said “an integrated programme of land reform legislation – sweeping away outdated land laws, properly securing the public interest in land use and land ownership, increasing local involvement and accountability – to fit Scotland for the 21st century. Such a programme needs to deal, not just with the highly publicised circumstances of the big Highland estates, but with land-related problems in all their diversity throughout Scotland.”

And he added, “There are problems in the urban areas too.”

But Donald being Donald he was both principled and cautious. For having already indicated that he had no idea how many pieces of legislation it would take to achieve those aims, or how long, he went one to quote one of the responses to the Land Reform Policy Group consultation on land reform.

Labour in Government at Westminster had set up the Land Reform Policy Group in order to produce proposals for legislative action when Holyrood was vested. One of the respondents to the Groups request for evidence said, and this is what Donald quoted, that whilst “It is easy to become very emotional when seeking ways of putting right the injustices imposed on the Scottish people over the last few hundred years. I believe that there is no room for such feeling when reforming our land policies as only solutions reasonably fair to all parties represented will stand the test of time.”

And Dewar went on to argue that it was precisely because Scotland had to find solutions which stood the test of time that we could not use land reform merely to settle old scores. As he put it “we must let the past go and look to the future.”

The Land Reform Policy Group was an important part of that process.

In its first consultation report it noted that “Land reform is needed on grounds of fairness, and to secure the public good.” And the group’s emphasis on the economic and other benefits of land reform – individual and community prosperity, enhanced wellbeing, greater access (and now also more coordinated climate and biodiversity action) – remain central to the land reform agenda today.

Just as the task of securing and demonstrating a consensus on the need for change – and to provide evidence for it – was central to the Land Reform Policy Group then, so it is today to the work of the current Land Commission which also seeks to look to the future as well as learn from the past.

However, intentions are not enough. Some 26 years on from Donald Dewar’s lecture and the establishment of the Land Reform Policy Group, and 25 since the Parliament was opened for

business, it is worth taking stock of actual progress in the light of the history, the undoubted commitments, and the actual legislation that has been passed in that quarter century.

I want to attempt a little of that today, and in so doing I shall argue that whilst there is a surprising continuity of both policy and commitment in the process since devolution, it now demands both a greater sense of urgency and a wider support base in order to achieve what so many have wished for.

Moreover, I think it is clear that both urgency and support need to be informed by a firm factual basis, including more detailed information on the benefits of land reform for communities and citizens, and some practical demonstration to them that such is indeed the case.

There have of course been a number of pieces of land reform legislation passed by the Parliament since it was established. Each of those pieces has been the product of widespread consultation, much of which is still available to read online. The objectives of all those – though couched in different terms for each item – have been broadly the same. The objectives set by the Land Reform Policy Group were made even more explicit in the Policy Memorandum for the First Land Reform Bill in 2001, and are defined as being to:

Those objectives are in essence identical to the objectives for the current legislation, given in the Programme for Government 2023-24, and quoted in the Policy Memorandum of the current bill, which are given as being:

“To improve the transparency of land ownership, further empower communities, and help ensure that large-scale landholdings are delivering in the public interest.”

It is interesting and important to note, however, that just as the objectives have remained remarkably consistent over the entire period of devolution – more consistent than in almost any other policy area I would suggest – so have some at least of the informed and principled reservations about how each piece of legislation could and would actually tackle and achieve those objectives.

For example, Andy Wightman in his written evidence for the 2001 bill quotes the objectives and then says that “What is needed is not greater diversity but a fundamental shift in favour of certain aspects of that diversity – namely community, not-for-profit and individual ownership.”

Of course, outright opposition has also been consistent, with the those supporting the 2015 Bill, for example, being attacked for “ignoring the evidence and pursuing an ideologically driven agenda”.

There have also been consistent fears that change will jeopardise the rural economy because of government interference, uncertainty, and an increase in costs.

I respectfully disagree with that type of criticism, just as I respectfully disagree with those who are arguing that the current bill – and often the past bills too – did too little, too late.

The very existence of communities that are now free to make their own decisions instead of having them imposed by others – communities like Gigha and Knoydart, South Uist and Galson, Ulva and South Harris – are testament to the huge success of important aspects of that legislation. The tireless work of individuals like Simon Fraser who is being so well remembered by this organisation this year, has been to a vital purpose – that of starting to reverse the centuries year old legacy of an unnatural stranglehold that some land owners have exercised on those who were their tenants or dependents.

Of course, there is no completely homogenous picture with regard to such matters. Some landowners have, most creditably, been enthusiastic parts of the process of change, seeking the constructive and creative involvement of communities in planning their way forward. They have moved with the spirit of the times.

The legislative changes that established the Land Commission and which tackled the many difficulties in the agricultural tented sector have also made a significant difference on the ground. The abolition of feudal tenure, whilst generations overdue, was a significant practical as well as symbolic step. Whilst the introduction of a Land Rights and Responsibilities statement, even without statutory backing, has given communities the opportunity to seek improvements in consultation and management of those who own the land they live on or by.

Yet it is also true that the benefits of such progressive changes have been restricted to a comparatively small number of communities and the lessons from those communities, the detailed lessons, that include concrete evidence about economic and social wellbeing, have not been disseminated widely enough.

Sometimes Land Reform seems only for Land Reformers.

We need to close that gap in our knowledge base and distribute the outcomes of such research very widely.

We need to point to the successes and the reasons for them whilst of course acknowledging what still remains to be done.

We have also not sufficiently tackled one of the key problems of rural and particularly island Scotland, though sometimes of urban and peri-urban Scotland too, with enough co-ordination and vigour.

That issue is housing.

Earlier this week the Land Commission hosted a meeting of interested and responsible organisations to discuss how we could be of use in pushing for more land to be made available for housing and in helping to provide the tools for communities which find accessing such land difficult. HIE and many other bodies are already treating this issue as a priority and public and private landowners are also responding.

It will be one of the key issues for the Scottish Land Commission Conference next month, seeking to argue that delivering progress on rural, and some urban, housing will not only be of benefit in terms of sustaining and strengthening communities, but will also illustrate the need for more equitable access to land.

The gaps in provision are well known. We need to understand who and what can close them and assist in making such actions happen. Private sector landowners should have a big role in that too as does, of course, Government.

Tackling the housing crisis, collaboratively, would also be a tangible sign that reform – land reform – can make a difference to people’s lives.

The new legislation can help in that regard and the proposal for lotting is a radical step which recognises, as the Committee for the 2015 Bill did, that the rights of property are not absolute. That view is a commonplace in other countries where property rights are balanced with other rights including the right to a home and the right to remain living in a community of one’s choice.

The 2015 Bill was the first one to be amended to make specific a commitment in Scots Law to the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ensuring that Ministers must have regard to it in drafting the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement. And, of course, that the Land Commission must echo that regard in its work. I was very pleased to be involved with some amendments on that myself at Sage 2, with the support of this organisation. I am also glad that the forthcoming Human Rights Bill will further strengthen such a view, placing Land Reform within the overall context of a wellbeing and progressive society.

But even whilst acknowledging both the progress and some of the pitfalls, there is also a need to address the issue of urgency for without doing so we run the risk of disillusion and disaffection setting in, in some places.

The main casualty of that would be solutions to land reform that are, to quote Donald Dewar in his lecture, “reasonably fair to all parties represented and will stand the test of time. The best, in Platonic terms, would become the enemy of the good.

The work of Bob MacIntosh as the Tenant Farming Commissioner within the Land Commission has been outstandingly successful because he has sought and persuaded others to adopt such “reasonably fair” solutions, often in difficult circumstances. He has been aided of course by having statutory backing and enforceable codes.

The Commission needs to do the same using existing and future legislative tools but the scope for doing could, if not tackled, be damaged by the frustration felt by those who regard progress as being too slow.

The constraints of devolution are one reason why the legislation to date, from all parties involved, has not completed the task set out at an early stage.

Making sure that all processes in legislation are within the competency of the Parliament has been a lengthy process, but significantly the new bill is the first one which does seek to start the process of reversing the very tight hold on a substantial proportion of Scotland’s land by a very small number of people. The issue of concentration, which is if anything marginally worse than it was when the Scottish Parliament was established, driven now by external monies, forestry investment and the as yet unknown quantity and benefits of carbon finance.

Of course, all bills are subject to amendment during the Parliamentary process. It is not for the Land Commission to seek such amendments, but it is entirely legitimate for the Commission to comment on what such amendments might or might not achieve when and if they are brought forward.
Bringing more estates into the scope of the bill is one issue that will undoubtedly arise. So will widening the compulsion to produce plans, the penalties for not producing them, and the topics covered by such plans.

But, although the new bill will have significant impact and therefore deserves strong support, not even its most passionate advocates believe it is the last word on the matter of Land Reform. It is, rather, another significant step along the road, and as we contemplate that road and where it leads there are strong arguments for revisiting the uncompleted recommendations of the Land Reform Review Group.

In addition, there are an increasing number of other significant, idea rich, and helpful contributions that need to be considered such as Common Weel’s Land Reform proposals published in March which look at local property taxation, and the study from Future Economy Scotland that appeared in December which rightly places the process within the development of a wellbeing economy.

If we add to that the work of immensely knowledgeable individuals like Andy Wightman, and experienced and ambitious organisations like this one, whilst also mixing in the wealth of material already published by the Scottish Land Commission as well as the new work I have indicated needs to be done, then it is clear that there is already a firm and broad foundation for further progress.

That means not only seeking to help the new bill achieve its aims, albeit within the limits of devolution and the imperative not to delay or derail useful and necessary legislation, but also discussing – re-imagining to use the word of the day – not just a further stage on the journey, but also what the final destination looks like, providing, at last, certainty for owners and communities alike.

For example, we need to resolve policy issues such as overseas ownership, maximum holdings, and, what I recently heard one landowner’s representative call the “Viennetta” of planning controls, the multitude of layers of which are very difficult even for well financed private developers to work

through and well-nigh impossible for communities. Reviewing Community Right to Buy and Compulsory purchase is a start on that process, but much more simplification is needed. Making the vision real, fleshing it out by negotiation, discussion, and agreement, and pinning it down with a timescale and a route is a process which needs to take place as the new bill beds in, alongside the development of the secondary legislation that will be required to put it into effect and the appointment and bedding in of the new Land & Communities Commissioner as an integral member of the Scottish Land Commission.

It would also take into account the issues of Community Wealth Building, surely almost a definition in itself of what Land reform can achieve, and the need for a just transition to net zero, more needed than ever given the siren voices that are trying to divert Scotland from that essential goal.

There are of course currently significant financial headwinds which we need to overcome, particularly in re-energising the process of community buyouts which has become stalled because of the unrealistic hype in land prices and the pressures on public finance. How would such a process get underway and be taken to fruition? Particularly, one has to add, within a highly combative political landscape?

Fortunately, if we return to Donald Dewar’s 1998 lecture, which of course advised steady, incremental progress based on factual inquiry and public support, we can also find in it a possible way forward.

Dewar expected and hoped that Land Reform would prove a matter for consensual action.

There is no doubt that the majority in the Parliament and the nation is in favour of continuing land reform, in favour not only of righting the wrongs that have been observed and commented on for so long, but of looking to the future in which the final outcome of the process produced, not just in his words, “solutions reasonably fair to all parties represented” but in fact a radical change in the structures of power so that people could at last fully prosper.

So, might it be possible to collaboratively synthesise across the public, community, and hopefully, the private sectors a plan to achieve a completed vision, and moreover one that would by dint of the process, as well as the issues, gain widespread support for finishing the job? Such a plan could not only unite Scotland by maintaining – indeed by highlighting – the consistency in terms of policy and detail that land reform and land reformers have shown despite different administrations being in power at Holyrood, it could also demonstrate that no matter the differences, there are things that can bring us together to make this country better for those that come after us.

There are always three fundamental questions about any issue:

In Land Reform we have come from generations of inequity and land monopoly to the detriment of communities and country.

We are now in the process of reform, but we need to accelerate it, building on a firm foundation of majority agreement but of course endeavouring to do so by negotiation as well as legislation.

We are going to a destination in which land becomes a resource that benefits all the people and contributes to the making and sustenance of a democratic and prosperous Scotland.

I am a firm supporter of such land reform. I have been criticised for that by some who opposed my appointment and accused of not being “impartial” on the issue. People are entitled to criticise of course, but the use of that word in this context is, I would contend, wrong.

The Scottish Land Commission is neither partial nor impartial on the issue of Land Reform. Rather it is and must always be informed, just as it must seek to inform others, basing its stance on evidence and research. The Commission exists to take forward, by means of providing independent and evidence based advice, the land reform agenda which is the policy of the current Government – and it is clear, its predecessor – which has, as I hope I have illustrated, a wider and deeper support outwith politics.

But in order to succeed it must do so in a constructive way, one that is – and I repeat it again – “reasonably fair to all parties and will stand the test of time”.

I have over the past 25 years had responsibility as a Minister for Land Reform. I have served on a bill committee that scrutinised and, I hope, helped in some small way to improve a major piece of Land Reform legislation. I have worked with community buy outs as the MSP for Argyll & Bute. And I have written on the topic in a variety of places, arguing for the changes that many – indeed most – wish to see.

My decision to seek to be the Chair of the Land Commission was motivated by a desire to continue that work, and to do so in collaboration with a wide range of people and organisations whilst building on the excellent work of the Commission since its establishment – wisely guided by Andrew Thin, excellently steered by Hamish Trench, and well supported by an exceptional group of Commissioners and Staff.

As I have indicated I believe that the opportunity exists not only to make legislative progress with the new bill, but to build widespread public support for continued change, and to match that with unified action on a clear agenda based on a significant degree of agreement on objectives and with clear outcomes in sight.

In other words, and to use the title of this conference, to “reimagine the future”.

In his recent paper on Land Reform Calum MacLeod, who of course was a key figure in this organisation’s growth, quoted Jimmy Reid on the issue of “alienation”. Alienation, said Reid, in his famous 1971 Glasgow University Rectorial Address is “the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

Land Reform is, at heart, about that. The Land Commission sums it up in three words – the three words which underpin all our present actions: “People, Power and Prosperity”.

The majority of people in Scotland are alienated from the land that should, in rights, be an asset for us all about which we make the decisions, and which can help us shape our destinies.

When that alienation is resolved, power is vested in individuals and communities, and good things start to happen as we have seen with community buyouts in many places.

Good things including increased individual, collective, and national prosperity.

Those are prizes worth working for.

Together, we can re-imagine our own future.

And then we can make it real.


Michael Russell, Chair of the Scottish Land Commission, served as a Scottish Government Minister and Member of the Scottish Parliament at various times between 1999 and 2021. He has had a long term involvement with land reform having been Environment Minister from 2007-2009, a member of the Scottish Parliament Committee which scrutinised the Land Reform Bill in 2015 and an MSP for the South of Scotland Region for two terms before being elected in 2011 to serve the constituency of Argyll and Bute. He retired from representational politics in 2021, but remained SNP President until 2023. He was the founder of the Celtic Media Festival, was part time Professor in Scottish Culture and Governance at the University of Glasgow and is the trustee of a number of charities.