Living in the country is a not unreasonable aspiration; I’ve moved out of Glasgow myself recently. And I know that many big landowners act reasonably, and take care of the environment they own.But the recent spread I saw in Country Life magazine kind of set my nerves on edge.
The story here is basically what it says on the tin, but it masks all sorts of assumptions. For a start, a family home in Surrey is a lot less than £2m, the price mentioned in the article, for all but people who I would regard as the rich. A little over half a million will get you a nice semi in Oxted. Good enough for my family, if still rather outside my budget.
So we’re writing here for rich people, certainly by my standards and those of most of us north of the Border. The magazine waxes lyrical about all the sporting opportunities available to the purchaser. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but they don’t mean your kids could get into a shinty club or a local footie side, or there’s a good municipal golf course… it’s huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’.
And then there’s the massive assumption that buying up huge tracts of land in Scotland for your own use is an entirely appropriate thing to do.
I sent Calum MacLeod, policy officer for Community Land Scotland (CLS), a link to the story. His characteristically dry tweet in response: “Pour yourself a stiff drink, check if it’s still the 21st century outside and read on … ” One response: “Sudden urge to be violently sick…”
But it is still the 21st century, and despite the efforts of CLS and others there are still big problems with land ownership in Scotland.
Interestingly the writer also pointed out that with the move towards more environmentally friendly land policies, grants and handouts would be readily available to estate owners to help safeguard their investment.
That of course points to the policy dilemma for the Scottish Government: it is keen to be seen to be green, and encourage trees for habitat and carbon sequestration, but that will mean handing wads of cash over to people who are already at least rich enough to think £2m is just the price of a family home.
As I recently discovered, there are some advantages to having big landowners for some rewilding projects: get them on board and you can have 40,000 acres on its way back to being a rich mix of woodlands and montane scrub. And there are benign landowners, who really mean well.
But – and this is the big but – it only takes one change of ownership, that Country Life style sale to someone with a rosy vision of living like a laird, for all that to change. The lack of certainty is what worries tenants and local people whose livelihoods might depend on the local countryside, and if your family from Surrey has different ideas on how to run the estate – putting deer before people, intrusive development, not repairing houses, blazing hill tracks through the landscape, and they can do it because it’s their plaything – you might understand how tenants, neighbours, and the local community get worried.
The solution to these things isn’t simple, and the extreme answer of just breaking up these big estates by law would lead to headlines about Robert Mugabe and land grabs. Community buyouts can make progress but there are limits to what the Scottish Land Fund can cough up for.
So is it maybe time to look at saying land holdings over a certain size should be subject to a board of local people, with a veto over developments they can show are counter to local interests, and the power to force landowners to treat tenants fairly?
Those kind of burdens might make the Country Life reader with a big house in Surrey and more money than sense think twice about taking on a slice of our precious, fragile landscape.