Scottish land reform - don't forget the tax havens!

| 18th September 2015
Scottish Comedian Bruce Fummey joins the #OurLand photoshoot. Photo: .
Scottish Comedian Bruce Fummey joins the #OurLand photoshoot. Photo: .
New proposals on land reform in Scotland are a mixed bag, writes Craig Bayne: some good, some bad, and some downright ugly. Leading that last category is the failure to tackle offshore land ownership in tax haven shell companies, and force disclosure of the real landowners.
What use is the Scottish land register when a farmer needs to fix a boundary fence, and all they can find is an address for a fictional shell-company registered in the Cayman Islands?

Scotland, a country where 432 people posses half of the land, with the single most concentrated pattern of private ownership in the Western world, is finally demanding meaningful land reform.

This has been a long time coming. Legally, Scotland only ended feudalism on 28th November 2004. There is now a lot of catching up to do.

But things are moving. A new generation of people inspired and educated during the independence referendum - from both sides of the Yes / No referendum divide - are demanding change and taking no compromises.

To see that this isn't simply an outgrowth of the Yes movement you only have to turn to Johann Lamont, who, as the leader of Scottish Labour, gave the following speech to parliament days after the referendum:

"I think that one area on which people can agree is land reform, which is part of a radical agenda for Labour. If we are to see social change in our communities, land reform can deliver it. There is a will in this Parliament to change the concentrated pattern of land ownership across Scotland."

So, has this political will translated into action?

The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) was set up by the Scottish Government in 2012 to look at the current state of land ownership in Scotland, and come up with some "innovative and radical" solutions. This is exactly what was needed and exactly what they produced.

The group recently published their wonderfully titled final report: 'The Land of Scotland and The Common Good', where they set out a full 62 "reforms in the public interest which promote the common good."

Some personal favourites among these include:

  • Completely banning offshore, tax-haven ownership of Land - all landowners would need to be registered in the EU with "public availability of identified persons (Directors) with legal responsibility, through the enhanced availability of information available via annual returns, and through the liability of EU registered companies to disclose beneficial ownership under EU law";

  • Setting an absolute limit on the amount of land anyone can own

  • Removing business rate exemptions for sporting estates

  • Allowing councils to force the sale of land-banked urban sites; and, notably,

  • To consider replacing council tax with Land Value Tax.

These were some pretty serious proposals. The SNP had asked for radical and bold thinking, it was now up to them to produce some radical and bold legislation. But the Land Reform (Scotland) Act that was finally produced, although containing a lot to be happy about, didn't live up to expectations.

The good, the bad, and the downright ugly

It's true that it ends tax relief for shooting estates, using this new money to boost the Community Land Fund. This is great. It's true that it establishes a Scottish Land Commission, making sure land governance and land rights stay at the centre of government policy. This is brilliant.

But it has completely failed to ban tax-haven ownership of land, leaving three quarters of a million acres in Scotland hidden away offshore. This is unforgivable.  

Thankfully, people have fought on. A full-on festival of events, lectures, flash mobs, bike rides and various protests have taken place all across Scotland over the summer. The 'Our Land' campaign has been fighting to highlight "the inequalities and secrecy of land ownership, while calling for efforts to redevelop derelict or misused land and improve the tax system."

All of this work culminated in supporters tweeting photographs of themselves in land-banked or tax-haven owned sites, holding signs saying #OurLand (see photo).

And this month, on Wednesday 2nd September, the RACCE Committee who have oversight of the bill met MSPs interested in what amendments can be made. An oft-repeated topic was tax-haven ownership: the committee were asked why this section had been dropped from the bill.

The quite astonishing response from RACCE was that they didn't think this would help with transparency on who owned land. The argument runs: well, people could still own land via trusts or use complex corporate structures within the EU, so it doesn't seem worth our while implementing this change, and anyway, people can just use the land register to see who owns land.

Or in their own words: "as corporate transparency is not consistent across Europe it was found that complex corporate structures could still obscure ownership and, therefore, the LRRG's proposal would not actually increase transparency."

We need to know the beneficial owners - and it is our right!

The frustrated response was along the lines of, "yes, we know about trusts and complex business structures, but it's EU law to disclose the beneficial owners and leaving this obligation out of the bill frankly just looks suspicious.

"And what use is the Scottish land register when a farmer needs to fix a boundary fence, and all they can find is an address for a fictional shell-company registered in the Cayman Islands?"

Or as land campaigner Graeme Purves puts it: "Unfortunately, this doesn't bear scrutiny ... Note how the possibility of 'could' conveniently morphs into the certainty of 'would not' in the course of the sentence!

"The fact that the level of corporate transparency varies across the EU does not mean that the LRRG's proposal would not increase transparency. The requirements of even the least exacting of EU states offer significantly more transparency than those of offshore tax havens. "

The RACCE were also asked, several times, if they recognised that 750,000 acres of Scotland, an area larger than the entirety of Ayrshire, is in offshore tax-haven ownership. RACCE don't 'recognise' this figure, conceding that they have no idea how much of Scotland is owned in tax-havens, but said they would "look into it".

This is where we now stand. What should be done next?

First, campaign for a better law. This bill is crucial to the future of Scotland's relationship with land, and there is still time for amendments to be made before it reaches parliament. But it is also crucial to getting the ball rolling on much needed UK-wide land reform.

If we are to become a more equal nation that uses its resources to the benefit of everyone, we need a much more equitable distribution of land. We need real and serious land reform to change the undemocratic and unjust system of land ownership we currently have.

It seems Scotland's time for land reform is nearly here, but we all must put our shoulder to the wheel.



Stay informed: follow Andy Wightman's blog, and keep track of events at Common Space.

Lobby: Contact your MP / MSP.

Twitter: follow and contribute to #OurLand .

This article was originally published by Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

Creative Commons License

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