The above is the audio-video commissioned from myself by Emma Rushton and Derek Tyman as part of their Flaghall installation in the Where Do I End and You Begin exhibition in the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh 1 August-19 October 2014 as part of the Edinburgh Arts Festival. (Click on ‘Vimeo’ and watch full screen for best effect).The exhibition features work by artists from across the Commonwealth exploring and interrogating the ideas, ideals and myths that underpin notions of community, common-wealth and the commons. This audio-video lecture explores these themes in the context of Scotland and the British Empire and invites the viewer to consider how we can reverse centuries of colonialism and ideas of exclusive possession and move toward a world in which our common-wealth is reconstituted and governed for the wellbeing of all.

There are three events on this Saturday 30 August discussing the UK work in the exhibition including a talk by myself at 2pm. Below is the extract from the exhibition catalogue.

CONQUEST, COLONIALISM & THE COMMONS

The Commonweal is an old Scots term meaning “wealth shared in common for the wellbeing of all”

In 1884 the Earl of Rosebery visits Australia and asks, “Does the fact of your being a nation… imply separation from the Empire? God forbid! There is no need for any new nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a Commonwealth of Nations“.

On the 22nd of August 1770, at Possession Island off the north coast of Australia, Captain Cook writes in his journal, “I now once more hoisted English colours and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third, took possession of the whole Eastern Coast  .. together with all the bays, harbours, rivers and islands.”

In 1949, the people of Alyth in Perthshire, Scotland march to the top of the Hill of Alyth to destroy the fences that have been built to enclose their common land.

In 1955, the UK government decides to annex Rockall – a small rock in the North Atlantic around 187 miles west of St Kilda. Captain Connell of HMS Vidal is given the following order by the Queen. “On arrival at Rockall you will effect a landing and hoist the Union flag on whatever spot appears most suitable or practicable and you will then take possession of the island on our behalf.”

In May 1982, Eddie Mabo, on behalf of the Meriam people from the Mer Island in the Torres Strait off the north coast of Australia launches a legal action challenging the claim of the Crown to ownership of his land.

On the 3 June 1992, by a majority of six to one, the High Court upholds the claim of the Meriam people and overturns the legal fiction that the land of Australia was ‘terra nullius’ before colonisation.

On Tuesday this week, the Court of Session published its opinion by Lord Tyre on a petition brought by East Renfrewshire Council (4.2Mb pdf) seeking authority to build a school on common good land in Cowan Park, Barrhead. Given past blogs on the topic of common good and, in particular, the controversy over the Portobello Park proposals, I felt it would be useful to provide a brief response and commentary on this latest decision by the Courts.

East Renfrewshire Council plans to build a new high school in Cowan Park, Barrhead. The park consists of three distinct parcels of land (see map below). The first – areas 13/4 and the northernmost E157/3 form the original Cowan Park. James Cowan bequeathed £10,000 in 1910 to provide a park and directed his trustees to purchase the land and convey it to the Town Council to be held in “perpetuity as a public park … for the use and enjoyment of the inhabitants of the Burgh of Barrhead in all time coming.” In 1969 part of this original park (the northernmost area E157/3) was conveyed to the County Council and is the site of the current Barrhead High School.

An additional two parcels of land were added to the park in acquisitions by the County Council in 1969 (E157/3 to the south outlined in blue) and the Town Council in 1969 (area 13/8 outlined in yellow).

Of these parcels, only area 13/4 is common good land. Furthermore, given the terms of the bequest, it is inalienable common good land. This means that, unlike alienable common good land (which the council can dispose of as its sees fit), any disposal of such land requires the consent of the courts. (1) It was with this intention that East Renfrewshire Council petitioned the Court of Session in April 2014.

At this point it is worth revisiting the Portobello decision very briefly. In that case, the City of Edinburgh Councils wished to appropriate (that is, to use common good land for another purpose but to retain ownership) land in Portobello Park to build a new school. An action was taken against the Council by Portobello Park Action Group and the Court of Session found (on appeal to the Inner House) that the Council had no powers to appropriate inalienable common good land. This was because the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which governs such matters is silent on the question of appropriation in these circumstances and thus the common law prohibition on appropriation of inalienable common good land prevails. The City of Edinburgh Council resolved the matter by seeking specific authority under a private act of Parliament to appropriate the necessary land.

The Cowan Park case turned on the question of whether the proposals for building a school constituted a disposal or an alienation. If such an arrangement is regarded as a disposal, the Court has the power to decide whether to grant authority to proceed. However, if the arrangement is considered an appropriation, the Court has no locus since there is no provision in the 1973 Act for it to take a view.

The plan is to lease the land to a special purpose vehicle which, in turn will sub-lease the site back to the Council and construct the school. The Court in this case found that, since the Council would retain possession of the land as the sub-leaseholder, there was no disposal involved and that “the petitioner’s proposals are properly to be characterised as appropriation.” (2) Thus, “as there would be no disposal, the petition must be refused as unnecessary“.

So where does that leave East Renfrewshire Council?

Well, the Court cannot provide the consent that was requested and thus there are three options available.

The first would be to seek the same remedy as the City of Edinburgh Council in the Portobello case and petition the Scottish Parliament for a private Act of Parliament.

The second would be to build the school on the southern half of the park which is not common good land (though I understand other factors mean that this is not a suitable site).

The third would be to do what South Lanarkshire Council did and go ahead and build the school anyway. As outlined in a previous blog, the Council in this case, having petitioned the court and having been advised that the court had no locus (just as in the present case), nevertheless went ahead and built Holy Cross High School. No-one raised an action against the council. Had anyone done so, then, the court would most likely have found that the Council was acting beyond its powers. This is exactly what happened in the Portobello case because, whilst the courts have no locus to approve such an action at the outset, they do have the power to rule it unlawful should it be contemplated AND someone takes an action against the Council.

In conclusion, this latest case demonstrates why, in my view common good law is in need of modernisation. The Community Empowerment Bill proposes some modest reform on transparency but fails to address the underlying complexity and the need for the law to be updated to reflect modern needs.

NOTES

(1) – In my opinion Lord Tyre is wrong at [5] where he claims that “As a general rule, a local authority has no power to dispose of common good land or to appropriate it for other uses“. On the country, if the land is alienable it is free to dispose of it or appropriate it. See Ferguson, Common Good Law (Avizandum) at foot of page 88.

(2) Lord Tyre at [16]

Guest Blog by Morten Nielsen, Aarhus University, Denmark (1)

Associate professor Morten Nielsen is a Danish anthropologist currently in the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University. Based on empirical research carried out in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the UK, his research focuses on land use, house-building and property rights in both urban and rural areas. He is currently undertaking an in-depth study of land relations and property rights among tenant farmers on Islay.

“This is the Scottish Government. Is this Dr. Morten Nielsen?”

I had just come off the Islay ferry and was heading for Inveraray when my phone rang and an energetic woman, who was apparently the living embodiment of the Scottish Government, wanted to know if she was, in fact, speaking with me. I immediately assumed that I had done something wrong. Having spent more than two months doing ethnographic fieldwork among tenant farmers on Islay, my initial thought was that I had probably forgotten to fill out some research permit and now my increasing absent-mindedness had finally backfired.

Much to my surprise, however, the polite state official was not at all trying to expose my academic flaws but, rather, wanted to discuss my on-going research about agricultural tenancies and property rights on Islay. In order to realise comprehensive land reforms in Scotland, she told me, information was badly needed and my research could potentially provide insights into the intricacies of negotiating land rights in the Highlands and Islands. Having an overall interest in the dissemination of qualitative research, I immediately agreed to meet with the polite embodiment of the Scottish Government. As we could not find an available date for us to meet up on Islay, the state official agreed to visit me in Crail, Fife a few weeks later, on a Saturday, when I was visiting some friends on my way back to Denmark.

To Scottish readers, this vignette might not constitute anything out of the ordinary: a foreign researcher being approached by a state official interested in discussing key findings on issues that are high on the political agenda. However, having carried out research on land and property rights in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa since 2000, I can firmly say that this is the first time ever that I have been contacted personally by a state official interested in the findings from a very short empirical investigation and, moreover, one who was prepared to meet up on a day off.

In both regions where I have previously worked, access to officials at different levels has been paramount to my research but the initiative for making contact has always been mine. The obvious question to ask was therefore why did she feel the urge to contact me apparently out of the blue? In order to respond to this question, we need to discard the tempting but unfortunately unlikely possibility that she was in awe of my research findings. At the time of our telephone conversation I had carried out fieldwork for less than two months and had as yet published nothing in academic journals or in more accessible public media. The likely response to the puzzling question is therefore quite banal. It wasn’t that I was the best of all the scientists doing research ‘on the ground’; rather, I was the only researcher doing research ‘on the ground’!

In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, research into property rights and access to agricultural land is heavily supported and funded by external stakeholders, such as, for example, the UK Government. Hence, whenever I do ethnographic research in sub-Saharan Africa, I am certain to meet several of my colleagues doing research on exactly the same issues as myself. In Scotland, however, the situation is markedly different. Since I started doing research, I have come across very few colleagues doing what I do (which is to try to understand what people do ‘on the ground’ when, for example, farmers attempt to acquire secure access to tenanted land). To be more precise, I have met none!

Hence, although my conversation with the Scottish state official paved the way for disseminating findings from my research project to relevant stakeholders, it also made apparent a disturbing problem that slows down the realisation of wide-ranging land reforms. The on-going discussion about land and property rights in Scotland is based on very little knowledge about what actually goes on ‘on the ground’ regarding such crucial questions as, for example, how do negotiations between land owner and land tenant take place?; how are rent reviews actually settled?; how do conflicts among farmers and between tenants and land owners erupt and how are they settled?; why do so few tenants use the land court to settle land disputes? The list goes on…

Let me try to flesh out this puzzling predicament a bit further by turning to some of the very interesting issues raised by the Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) in its recently published Interim Report. (2) Initially, it is noted with lucid honesty that,

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 comparable European countries in providing such data

When discussing ownership of vacant land in Scotland, the disturbing lack of information is further emphasized. According to Professor Adams, University of Glasgow,

“…local authorities have no idea who owns 12% of the vacant and derelict land in Scotland

One consequence being that,

“…too often communities are left guessing who owns the land that they live, work and socialise in”.

Taking SAC’s insights as an apt example of an overall problem then, given the lack of information, stakeholders involved in the ongoing process of trying to improve the existing legislation on land and property rights are often in the dark about what happens ‘on the ground’.

What are then the consequences of this worrying lack of information? Why is it that information about what goes on ‘on the ground’ is so crucial for the successful realization of ambitious land reforms? As an anthropologist having working on these issues for the last 14 years, I do believe that it is only through careful examination of how land is actually appropriated, negotiated and distributed that new and potentially revolutionary mechanisms of land distribution can be envisaged and put into action. Let me briefly sketch out only a few areas of concern that I have identified through my three months of fieldwork among farmers in Islay:

  • The need for pragmatic and immediate forms of arbitration. Currently, the only workable mechanism for arbitration is the land court. To many farmers, it is too costly and it is considered as unlikely to reach a viable and positive outcome. Hence, a kind of ‘middle ground’ is needed.
  •  The need for third parties when negotiating rent reviews. The recurrent rent reviews constitute critical and often decisive moments that significantly affect or even condition the relationship between landowners (through factors) and tenants. To many farmers, the need for maintaining a workable relationship with the factor will often prevent them from claiming legitimate rights.
  • The need for transparency when calculating the value of tenanted land. My research indicates that there are no objective standards by which landowners determine the value of tenanted land (e.g. an acre of arable land might vary between different comparable farms).

This is only a very cursory and superficial outline of a few of the many issues that I have discussed with farmers on Islay. Still, as is probably clear by now, I will claim that it is only through detailed examinations of happens ‘on the ground’ that such crucial insights might be identified and subsequently serve as a basis for establishing new mechanisms for a more just system of land distribution.

Let me conclude with an example of what such valuable insights might be used for. During the 1990s, the Mozambican government in collaboration with donors and local and international interest groups managed to involve huge sections of the Mozambican population in widespread debates on the need for a new and democratic land law. Through massive investments, large-scale research projects and ongoing public debates, a new Land Law was finally formulated that was (and still is) the most progressive piece of legislation on land and property rights in sub-Saharan Africa. (3) Today, it is widely acknowledged by all stakeholders involved in the process that the radical and positive achievements could never have been reached if it had not been for the continuous production of information about how Mozambican land was actually appropriated, negotiated and distributed.

In this light, the debate on land and property rights in Scotland is that of a developing third world country that can one day hope to reach the progressive level of developed countries, such as Mozambique.

 

NOTES

(1) Morten Nielsen can be contacted by email at etnomn@cas.au.dk

(2) Scottish Affairs Committee Land Reform Inquiry Interim Report

(3) For a very interesting read, I highly recommend Chris Tanner’s analysis of the process leading up to the approval of the 1997 Land Law.