I am grateful to the members who supported my motion and so allowed it to be debated today.
The Highlands and Islands are at the forefront in feeling the effects of new forces that are at work in our land markets. Those forces are likely to further embed the stark social injustice in our land ownership pattern of very few people owning most of our land. That pattern of land ownership concentrates wealth, power and influence into very few hands—it delivers for the few, not the many.
Scotland is highly unusual in having almost no land market regulation, which makes it the prime destination for capital looking for an easy, safe and rewarding purchase. A recent report by one of the leading land agents, Savills, made clear that it continues to receive calls from “buyers across the world”. Savills has referred to our concentrated ownership patterns as
“one of the few remaining places in the world where green resources can be acquired on a meaningful scale”.
People can come to Scotland and buy what they like, with no questions asked. Purchasing land in Scotland depends only on the size of a person’s wallet, with no questions asked. The scale of many of our land holdings brings with it, in effect, a local monopoly on land, with no questions asked. That is how Anders Povlsen has become probably Scotland’s largest private landowner, with no questions asked.
There is nothing new about the unregulated land market in Scotland; what is new is the latest way in which it is being exploited. A new type of buyer is emerging in response to our real concern about the climate emergency. There is evidence that those who market land see the climate emergency as a valuable selling point. We are seeing the commodification and financialisation of the climate emergency, which is stimulating private land grabbing.
In recent months, we have seen corporate buyers moving in. BrewDog is seeking to offset its carbon emissions, promote its green credentials and win new investors by purchasing thousands of acres of land in the Highlands. Standard Life Investments Property Income Trust? has just bought thousands of acres in the Cairngorms national park. Gresham House is promoting a £300 million private investment that has Scottish forestry firmly in its sights.
What unites that group of buyers is the climate emergency. It provides the chance to build corporate reputation, enhance market share and grow corporate wealth on the back of the climate concerns that we all have. The approach allows some to continue as carbon emitters while offsetting those emissions through their Scottish land holdings. Some purchases are likely to be a hedge against future carbon tax liabilities, too. It is low-risk investment with very high returns.
With the land comes access to Scottish Government subsidies. The land grabbing and exploitation of an unregulated land market are underpinned by taxpayer subsidies. Standard Life has made clear that the cost of the tree planting on the land that it was happy to buy for £7.5 million will be “met through grant funding”. The benefits go to those with capital to invest. Enriching the already rich for climate action cannot possibly deliver a just transition through the climate emergency.
Many purchases take place off market in secret, private sales. That device acts against communities seeking a late registration of interest in land to give them the opportunity to purchase it. However, such is the scale of land price inflation that, in practice, the hard-won right to register an interest in land may be of little value to them. Even with the doubling of the Scottish land fund, it will be hard for communities to secure land, even if they had the opportunity.
We know that the community ownership of land delivers multiple public benefits. Community owners are not absentee owners; they are local people who live in the area. All revenues are kept locally and reinvested, which builds community wealth. Local affordable housing gets built, population is retained, places are repopulated, jobs are created, trees are planted and peatlands are restored. The new owners—the green lairds—may be playing to our climate concerns, but what regard do they have of those other public interest issues? We have no guarantees because, when land is bought in Scotland, no questions are asked.
We need to recognise that the time is long past for Scotland’s land markets to be regulated. Ministers must be empowered to act on land issues in the public interest and to move from that exploitable, unregulated land market to one that regulates land as a national asset to deliver on our collective aspirations.
My party and the parties of Government are committed to a public interest test in questions of land ownership. That would be an important step, but we need to go much further. It appears to me that a presumption against ownership of land over a set scale is now necessary. We impose a residency requirement on our crofters, so why do we not do so on our landowners? The land and buildings transaction tax has a higher rate to discourage second home purchases. Why is there not a higher rate to discourage land grabbing?