The Our Land Festival is a series of events taking place over the last two weeks of August. Lesley Riddoch, Women for Indy’s Liz Paul and others will be speaking at Abriachan on Sunday 30th August. There are other events around the Highlands which include events at Strathpeffer and Skye.
Abriachan was chosen because it was one of the first community buyouts of a forest and because the launch of the White paper which led to the Land Reform Act 2003 (1st attempt by Scottish government re Land Reform) was held at Abriachan around 1999. It will be a fun day with a walks, a treasure hunt and other activities and I hope it, and the other events are well attended.
Land reform is one of the issues which the candidates were asked questions about during the hustings. It’s an issue which has enthused many people and worried others and yet which many people still think is nothing to do with them. People still say to me “Why does it matter to me who owns the land – it’s never going to be me- I can’t even afford to buy a house never mind own land” and yet it is precisely those sorts of reasons that should mean we are more interested in land reform not less and why it should be of an interest to all of us, in towns and villages, rich or poor, old or young. It is said that Robert the Bruce insisted that he was King of Scots because the land of Scotland belonged to God. That might have been a bit disingenuous as quite a lot of it belonged to him and was passed around and given away as rewards for service to the crown. However at least we knew who it belonged to – today it might be some faceless billionaire channeling it through a Cayman Islands holding company, unidentifiable, uncontactable and unaccountable.
Why does it matter though? Why should it matter to those of us who don’t own our own homes, can’t afford a plot of land, can’t afford to go grouse shooting, for whom the 12th is only glorious if it’s payday? Why should we care?
Well we should care because how land is used depends on who owns it. There are many landowners in Scotland who are excellent stewards of the land. These are landowners – Lairds – who recognise that for their land to be profitable, sustainable, and vibrant it must support communities, businesses (not simply their own), families and both population diversity and biodiversity.
But there ARE stewards of our land that prevent growth and fight improvements, that “museumise” our land so that it almost seems as though you are looking at it through the glass pane of an exhibit in the biggest outdoors museum in the world. Where this happens communities fail, our young people leave and we abandon the land to deer. The only human feet falling on it are those of the stalkers and the wealthy, paying a phenomenal amount to play a rich mans shooting game. There is nothing wrong with the business of stalking in itself, unless that is all there is.
We need land which supports our communities to grow, enables businesses to prosper and families to stay here and live healthy lives with a healthy income. And that is why Land Reform is so important. In order to ensure that we have those things we first need to know who owns this land, who the Cayman Island investors are. We need to be able to hold those who own our land to account and make them explain what they intend to do with the land, how they intend to support our communities, our people. Where land owners fail to do that, where they refuse to do what is needed, we must be able to demand that they take action and we should be able to take steps to improve things when they don’t.
A study by Community Land Scotland showed that land owned by the community performed better than privately owned land across a whole range of indicators. Land was worth more, there were more houses built, there were more jobs created, more local businesses were supported, more people lived there, more people used and enjoyed the land. Surely that is what we want. Land that is ours to live on, to work; land which we can make decisions about; land that we look after for our children; land that we can use to provide our communities with energy through wind or hydro; land that we can use to provide us with food, places to live and space to breathe.
And it’s not just rural land either. These goals can be achieved in urban areas, in our towns as well as in our rural areas. Who decided that all the bits of ground around car parks, outside railway stations, on verges should be planted with prickly bushes and laburnum trees and not fruit bushes and apple trees, or tatties and carrots? Why do councils leave brown field sites empty rather than offer city allotments? In places like Todmorden, near to where I grew up, they changed that, the community planted edible crops in place of prickly bushes. In Harpurhey in Manchester – an inner city area with “Coronation Street” type terraced houses, they used the ginnel between back yards to grow vegetables and fruit. These things can be done and if they can do them in the industrial North West of England then we can surely do similar things in our area too. Things that range from community poly tunnels, an exchange of skills, teaching stewardship of the land right up to enabling young people to choose crofting as a career, building affordable homes and homes for rent which mean people are included in our communities rather than excluded.
These are some of the things that Land Reform will enable us to do. No – not enable – empower. If you have been reading this blog over the last few weeks then you will know people are at the heart of the reasons that I want to be an MSP. Land reform is about people. For us to grow the sort of society we want we need to influence the decisions made about our land for the benefit of our communities. We must know who owns our land, we need to be able to influence the management of our land, to grow and develop the land in a way which supports the people who live here. Land reform is an issue for all of us. Go along to Abriachan, Skye or Strathpeffer on the 29th or 30th and find out more about Land Reform and how we can work together to make the most of Our Land for the benefit of all of us.