|An Suileachan, Bhaltos, Lewis on Friday 24th May 2013|
I was offline for most of the last week and didn't post my own piece on the opening of the Bhaltos land cairn. Andy Wightman kindly ran it as a guest blog on his own Land Matters site.
I went on a rare, dry Friday to the Atlantic coast of Lewis where the whole community of Bhaltos turned out to dedicate a monument to their shared past and future.
A brilliant stone sculpture, designed by Will MacLean and Marian Leven, commemorates land raids of a century ago and the recent community buyout of the island estate that will open a new door.
Places like Bhaltos, where the people own the land, are living proof that the land reform agenda is alive and matters. Two of the prime movers of land reform in Scotland, Dr Jim Hunter and Brian Wilson, made speeches at the opening ceremony. They emphasised how land was the key to community development and empowerment and both shared their frustration about how progress has been stalled.
Hunter, who had to resign from the Scottish government's Land Reform Review Group for family reasons, made clear in private comments his disappontment about the interim report the group produced.
Today, Jim, who is sympathetic to independence, has gone public with devastating criticisms of the SNP, telling Salmond and Sturgeon they must at least match Lamont's pledges on land reform if they are to be taken seriously on the issue at all.
Jim Hunter’s full statement :
“If the Scottish Government are serious about land reform, Ministers and the government machine more generally must be involved directly in the work of the group.
“The relevant Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, should himself chair regular meetings of the group and its advisers. And the group should include senior civil servants with expertise in shaping legislation. This would be to follow the highly productive precedent of the 1997 Land Reform Policy Group which paved the way for the Land Reform Act of 2003.
“The Government should commit right now to legislating in 2014-15 on community land ownership. What needs to be done in this area is clear from lots of evidence already available to the LRRG. The process of getting land into community hands needs to be simpler. And there have to be powers – of the sort to which Johann Lamont has committed the Labour Party – to ensure that moves to community ownership can’t be blocked by existing landlords.
“Beyond that, Government needs to tell the group to explore how council tax and business rates might be replaced by a land value tax – something the Scottish Parliament could introduce with existing powers. Such a reform would benefit Scots right across the board by reducing greatly the cost of land for housing and other development.
“And the Scottish Government has to get serious about giving tenant farmers a right to buy their farms. That’s been basic to land reform all across Europe. Danish farmers got a right to buy more than 200 years ago, Irish farmers more than 100 years ago. How much longer are Scottish tenant farmers to be denied a similar right?
“The SNP Government says over and over again that it’s committed to social justice. But there’s precious little that’s socially just about a Scotland where fewer than a thousand people own more than half the country and where tenant farmers, as the LRRG have discovered, are frightened to speak out for fear of repercussions from their lairds.
“Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said recently of Denmark that ‘it gives us a glimpse of the kind of country we might be’. Well, if she and her colleagues truly want Scotland to be more like Denmark, a country where big estates were long ago confined to history books, then land reform is where they need to start.
“As it is, we’re now six years into an SNP Government which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world.”