Hilltrack on Ledgowan Estate

Last year, in a series of blogs, I highlighted a number of issues relating to Ledgowan Estate – in particular the controversy over the construction of an ugly bulldozed track.

The story was promoted by an incident over public access which arose during an inspection of the track by Dr Kenneth Brown who was investigating the track as part of a research project by Scottish Environment Link. Its report – Track Changes – was published in October 2013 and called for hilltracks to be subject to full planning control rather than the existing system of Permitted Development Orders. A Parliamentary Briefing can be found here and the full report here (5.3Mb pdf).

Last month, Scottish Land and Estates published a response to this report – The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks – which challenged many of the findings of the Link report and asserted that the Track Changes report “has not been helpful in the debate” and “should have been more closely scrutinised, especially as it makes allegations about specific estates and was written with public funding.”

Scottish Environment Link has refuted these and other allegations made against its report in a further report published today in which it argues that,

“We find Scottish Land and Estates’ statements in their report about scrutiny and LINK’s charitable status strange and inappropriate. The issues raised in the Track Changes report fully comply with LINK’s charitable purposes and funding for the report was received from member contributions and charitable trusts. It is entirely proper that LINK uses its funds for this purpose.

The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks makes a number of specific criticisms of our report, and we respond to these below. Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) claim that Track Changes contained ‘fundamental misconceptions’, ‘incorrect information’, ‘out of date photographs’ and ‘misleading’ points. These claims are baseless, and are not supported by anything in The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks. It is unfortunate that Scottish Land and Estates have simply sought to discredit Track Changes without engaging with its main arguments, and while ignoring much of the evidence it contains. The basis for our campaign remains unaltered by their response..”

In the Spring edition of the SLE’s magazine, it argues that voluntary guidelines are adequate and urges its members to follow them.

The debate continues.

Meanwhile, a wee bit of history. One of the tracks that attracted a deal of criticism over the years was the one up Beinn a Bhuird in the Cairngorms. It has now been restored by the National Trust for Scotland but here’s an article from the January 1968 edition of Scottish Field explaining the background and purpose of its construction in 1966.

On 15 October last year, I was preparing to leave home and travel to the Isle of Skye to visit my parents for the weekend. Shortly before I left, an email arrived from John Clegg & Co. advertising for sale 6,356 acres of land owned by Scottish Ministers in Strathnaver, Sutherland at offers over £1,850,000.

Aware that 2014 is the bicentenary of the infamous Strathnaver Clearances, I was surprised to see that the sales particulars not only included one of the best-preserved Clearance Villages at Rosal but described the land as “one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland”. (1) In further banal witterings, the sales brochure went on to opine that “ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land”

So, before leaving the house, I wrote a quick blog to express my doubts about the wisdom of this sale and the vacuousness and offensiveness  of the blurb. Within twenty-four hours, I was told that the land would be withdrawn from the market. The Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse had asked Forestry Commission Scotland to halt the sale and a FCS spokesperson said that “We are no reviewing options.” (see Herald report).

Today, Rosal Forest is back on the market (5.9Mb pdf brochure here and 3.7Mb plan here).

Rosal Village in 2013 sale

Rosal Village excluded from 2014 sale

Rosal Clearance village has been removed from the sale and the nonsense about “wilderness” and “fascinating insights” has also now thankfully been omitted. A total of 5,962 acres of land is offered for sale at offers over £1.750,000. The sale forms part of the Forestry Commission’s “re-positioning” programme whereby, “subject to the approval of Ministers” land is sold and the proceeds used to invest in projects that “increase the contribution of the national forest estate to the delivery of Forestry Commission Scotland and wider Government objectives.”

Whilst this development is welcome, wider questions remain about the elite interests that continue to dominate private forestry in Scotland (see e.g.  here and here plus a research report from Feb 2012). For now at least, Scottish Ministers appear to have taken account of the historic significance of one of Scotland’s most important historical sites relating to the “ongoing struggle for ownership of this land.”

UPDATE 1512hrs 7 April 2014

Forestry Commission Scotland issued the following Media release today.

7 APRIL 2014 NEWS RELEASE No: 16241

Rosal clearance village secure for future

In recognition of the cultural and historic significance of Rosal clearance village, Forestry Commission Scotland is to continue managing the historically significant site as part of the National Forest Estate.

After consulting local community groups, the Commission will retain the historic village and 100 hectares surrounding it.

Working with local community groups, this will ensure the village is accessible and well interpreted as part of the wider Strathnaver Heritage Trail.

There had been plans previously to sell the whole of Rosal Forest but this was halted after concerns were raised over the future of the historic village.

The Rosal village is the remains of a once thriving Highland township, which was cleared of its inhabitants to make way for sheep back in the early 1800s.

Tim Cockerill, Forestry Commission Scotland’s manager in the North Highland’s said:

“We have fully consulted local groups again and have now taken positive action to ensure Rosal Village is protected as part of Scotland’s National Forest Estate.

“We are now exploring ways with the local community on how we can work closer together over the promotion and management of Rosal village in the future.”

The rest of the woodland area is due to be sold as part of Forestry Commission Scotland’s ‘re-positioning programme’. Under this programme, land delivering relatively low public benefits is sold to fund the purchase of new land which can bring about wider benefits.

In this case, some of the money raised will be invested in the creation of new woodland and recreation facilities at Sibster in Caithness and the recently announced starter-farm for new farmers at Achnamoine near Halkirk.

The sale of the rest of the woodland could also provide buyers with a secure supply of timber in the north of Scotland. This could be especially attractive to companies wishing to develop bio-energy projects in the area.

Lotting of the land for sale is not practical in this case, although it is the Commission’s preferred option as a way of offering more opportunities for woodland purchase to a wider range of people.

Communities can acquire land for sale through the National Forest Land Scheme, but there has been no interest in this case following ongoing discussions with local stakeholders.

Notes to news editors
1. Forestry Commission Scotland is part of the Scottish Government’s Environment & Forestry Directorate www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

2. For news, events and recreation information log on to www.facebook.com/enjoyscotlandsforests For Twitter: www.twitter.com/fcscotlandnews

3. Tha FCS ag obair mar bhuidheann-stiùiridh coilltearachd Riaghaltas na h-Alba agus a’ riaghladh nan 660,000 heactairean ann an Oighreachd na Coille Nàiseanta, a’ dìonadh, a’ cumail smachd air agus a’ leudachadh nan coilltean gus buannachdan a thoirt dha coimhearsnachdan, an eaconamaidh agus, ag obair an aghaidh atharrachadh gnàth-shìde. www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

4. Media enquiries to Steve Williams, Forestry Commission Scotland press office 0131 314 6508.

(1) For further information on the historic sites in Strathnaver, see Strathnaver Museum page.

Guest Blog by Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson’s column is reproduced here with kind permission of the West Highland Free Press.

Reading reports by Parliamentary committees is normally a pastime more likely to act as an antidote to insomnia than to lift the spirits. So it is pleasing to report on a rare and uplifting exception to that rule.

In the long and generally unproductive history of the land reform debate in Scotland, I have never come across any more hopeful document than the Interim Report of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee on Land Reform, published last week.

Here at last is a lucid setting out of the issues at stake, the wider context within which they have developed and the areas of reform which must be addressed if anything is to change. It is a report devoid of rhetoric and outstanding in clarity of words and thought. Let me offer you one statement from it as an example.

“The Committee accepts the evidence that the system of land ownership in Scotland is a direct consequence of choices made in the past in relation to the legal and fiscal framework within which the land is held. These choices were political decisions in the past and they will continue to be in the future”.

In other words, there is nothing sacred or unchangeable about the fact that we have the most inequitable system of land ownership in Europe. It has been constructed in law and repeatedly shored up by tax benefits and assorted hand-outs, all of which reflect subjective political choices. Make different political choices and an inequitable system will crumble.

The importance of the report lies in the fact that it so clearly identifies the fundamentals of this debate rather than merely railing against the symptoms. For example, it could not be clearer in its criticisms of the entirely deplorable absence of public information about the most basic question of all. Who owns the land? Even where answers ostensibly exist, their purpose is often to conceal the reality rather than to enlighten.

This takes me back to the 1970s when old John McEwen was almost a lone voice in making this point. It was impossible to talk about land reform until you knew who owned the land. A land register was the essential starting point. When government refused to do it, he tried to do it himself (Who Owns Scotland?) and eventually embarrassed them into initiating a Land Registration process which remains hopelessly incomplete today and excludes questions of beneficial ownership.

Let this paragraph from the Committee’s report be a monument to the fact that John McEwen was right: “The first step in any meaningful strategy of land reform must be the creation of data on ownership and land values which is comprehensive and accessible. Regrettably, Scotland lags behind most European countries in providing such data and we therefore call for the Scottish and UK Governments to give priority to this matter”.

Will this clear recommendation now be acted on? It recalls the exchange last May between Ian Davidson MP, who chairs the Scottish Affairs Select Committee and has driven its interest in land reform, and the Prime Minister. Very astutely, Davidson picked up on an inititative agreed by the European Council of Ministers at UK instigation to make declaration of beneficial ownership by all companies a legal requirement.

In advancing that very major reform to tackle tax evasion on a vast corporate scale, the UK Government certainly did not have Scottish landowners in mind. But David Cameron could scarcely dissent when Davidson asked if his government would cooperate with the Scottish Affairs Committee “in establishing who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order that they can minimise both tax avoidance and subsidy-milking”. Cameron confirmed: “That is the intention.” There was to be no opt-out clause for landowners.

Against that background, it is more relevant than ever to start the “comprehensive and accessible” land registration process as quickly as possible. There is no need for delay and the Scottish Government should now take an immediate lead. A mouse of a Bill which they put through Holyrood in 2012 to update the Land Registration legislation was dismissed in expert evidence to the committee as “a lost opportunity”.

The report deals extensively with ways in which hereditary land ownership is sustained by the taxation system without regard to the public benefit which is obtained from these arrangements. What this reflects is the success of the Scottish landowners’ lobby over many years in constructing a network of benefits and exemptions which is entirely unique to themselves and solely in their own interests.

For example, there is a little known scam called the Conditional Exemption Tax Scheme in which landowners guarantee certain rights of public access in return for another layer of tax concessions. HMRC “occasionally” ask Scottish Natural Heritage to monitor whether the terms of each deal are being acted upon. The Scottish Affairs Committee asked HMRC for annual reports on how the scheme was operating but were refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality. They now recommend that public access to these reports should be allowed and the “public benefits” reviewed.

The report describes how all these tax benefits accompanied by subsidy-milking have the effect of driving up land values and making it even more difficult for working farmers to gain access to land. In other words, public money and publicly-funded tax benefits invariably enhance the capital value of the land, further enrich the landowners (whoever or wherever they might be), shore up the inequalities which are inherent in the system and block the door to even incremental change.

When the Scottish Affairs Committee announced its intention to instigate this report, it was condemned by Scottish Land and Estates (successor body to the Scottish Landowners Federation) as “unwarranted, unnecessary and bizarre”. It is even easier to understand now why the last thing they wanted was a review which dug deep into the fundamentals of the system and called into question, in a clear and rational way, the incredible structure of privilege they have built for themselves over the decades.

The good news is that the Scottish Affairs Committee has realised that it has alighted upon “an important, neglected and intensely political” aspect of Scottish society and now intends to produce a “more comprehensive report than we have originally envisaged”. Excellent, but there is no need to wait for what that final report says in order for action to begin.

For example, the way in which the Scottish Government intends to implement the CAP reforms should be reviewed immediately to find if they represent (as they almost certainly will) another “subsidy-milking” racket for the big landowners. Addressing that question in the spirit of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee Interim Report on Land Reform would at least suggest a long-overdue interest in this “important, neglected and intensely political” subject.