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Taking Back the Land

A small number of wealthy individuals own half of Scotland. Tackling inequalities means redistributing land to bring this feudal-style system to an end.

Scotland's land is owned by a small number of wealthy individuals. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

Allowing a small number of tremendously wealthy individuals to hoard the bulk of Scotland’s land is a matter of national shame. That this grotesque inequality has been left largely unchanged since mediaeval times is a shocking indictment of government.  

Strikingly, the most recent findings from the Scottish Government’s land reform review group show that, nearly half way through the SNP’s decade and a half in power, 432 private land-owners own fifty percent of the private rural land. The fact that this iniquitous concentration of land ownership has not been challenged during fifteen years of SNP rule, often with healthy parliamentary majorities, is testament to their lack of ambition. 

But we do have the power to make genuine, lasting changes to our system of land ownership. Later this year I will launch a ‘Land Justice’ bill in the Scottish Parliament. This will include proposals to set a legal limit for the number of acres that could be held by a single owner. We can and must end land inequality in Scotland.  

This new approach would replace a feudal-style system, where the wealthy dominate Scotland’s countryside, with a truly democratic, accountable, and socially just system of ownership and management. Publicly owned community trusts and co-operatives should have the option to take over land and run it for their benefit. 

Close to Labour’s UK conference in Liverpool this autumn, I intend to launch a consultation to examine the potential scale of the cap, with options starting from 1,500 acres, for how much land an individual could legally own. That’s a cap on land ownership that equates to roughly 750 football pitches per person.  This means the vast majority of farmers, allotment holders, and other small scale land-owners will be completely exempt from the provisions in the ‘Land Justice’ bill. 

There’s time for the SNP and its coalition partner the Scottish Greens to back this bill, and use their combined overall majority at Holyrood to ensure that it passes into law. The current First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made vague promises about ‘greater transparency’ and the right for the public to know who owns a piece of land, but after fifteen years we might have expected more. This approach pays lip-service to important reform while achieving little. 

If they choose to do so, the SNP has the opportunity to preside over a transformative ‘Land Justice’ bill by throwing its weight behind the legislation I am lodging, or even by pledging not to obstruct the proposals. If, however, the SNP/Green leadership choose to fudge and delay, as the Scottish Government has for years, I’ll make a direct challenge to backbench MSPs to vote for the legislation at Holyrood. 

Campaigners for ‘Land Justice’, many of them pro-independence, will not forgive SNP and Green MSPs if they sit on their hands, or worse vote with the Tories to protect the privileges of the small, wealthy, landed class, whose dominant ownership of the countryside resembles that of sixteenth-century lairds.  

Critically, the launch of this ‘Land Justice’ bill can help rally and renew the labour movement north and south of the border. Land justice is not some peripheral issue, with no relevance to the struggles working class people face day-in and day-out. The very fact that just a few hundred monied individuals own half the land in Scotland is one of the most appalling symbols of inequality anywhere in the UK. 

This pattern of ownership is symptomatic of the grotesque inequality that scars our society, with in-work poverty endemic across the UK after twelve years of Tory-led UK government. Likewise, an SNP-led administration at Holyrood talks a radical game but is content to pass on cuts to working-class communities, while playing brinkmanship with Westminster over an independence referendum and refusing to take key steps like reforming council tax. While this game plays out, more than two million adults across the UK have gone without food for a whole day over the past month because they cannot afford to eat.

By embracing land justice, we are promoting a redistribution of wealth and power, with real change for the many, not the few. Land justice can and must be a defining issue for Labour, as part of a policy platform to bring about an irreversible shift of wealth and power towards working people and their families. 

But the struggle for land justice is not just an issue for Scotland.  That’s why, as well as winning support for land justice in Scotland, I hope that UK Labour adopts plans to introduce a cap on how much land an individual can own in its next general election manifesto. With Labour’s UK conference now just a few months away, I hope that we see motions in support of that, from constituency parties, and affiliates, that are debated and passed by delegates. 

For too long, Labour has regarded rural communities across the UK as ‘no-go’ areas for the party in terms of winning support and seats. With ‘Land Justice’, Labour can make a highly credible offer to these communities, by linking that issue to the shocking levels of poverty in rural areas, the lack of affordable housing, and the need for accessible and affordable public transport. 

Our ‘Land Justice’ bill is about ending the centuries-long domination of the Scottish countryside by a privileged landed class, and making it accessible to all of our citizens. But it’s also about more than that. It’s about winning support for, and delivering, a transformative programme at Westminster and Holyrood that will strengthen and take forward the working class in cities, towns, and villages up and down the country.