“Price of farmland hits record high” scream the headlines today across all the media. The BBC, Scotsman, Herald, and local media from the Deeside Piper to the Kilmarnock Standard.

All these stories have two things in common. First, they are virtually identical. Journalists have simply reproduced a press release. Second, they are all inaccurate. What is going on? The answer is that vested interests are successfully capturing the news agenda. In this case it is the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and they are on a roll.

Ten days ago, RICS issued a media statement entitled “RICS July 2013 Residential Market Survey” which was widely reported in the press as a recovery in the housing market with rising prices and more buyers entering the market. In reality, the survey (copy here) was a “sentiment” survey based on asking RICS members for their opinion. This is analysed as a “net balance” – a figure between -100 and 100 where -100 means all members think that a variable will decrease and +100 means they all think it will increase. As the small print makes clear, “Net balance data is opinion based; it does not quantify actual changes in an underlying variable”

The vested interest is relevant here because of course members of RICS earn their living by charging fees. In the case of land and property transactions, they typically charge a percentage of the selling price. So the opinion of RICS members is not an objective opinion.

Nevertheless, their Residential Market Survey received massive coverage. So much, in fact that two days ago, the RICS proudly announced that it had generated “our greatest number of media hits ever in one day“. I am sure their members are delighted that their membership fees are buying such good coverage of their own opinions.

So to today’s reports in the media about farmland prices. The BBC report claims that,

“The price of farmland in Scotland hit a record high in the first half of 2013, according to research by surveyors.

“The Land Market Survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) indicated land values had trebled in less than a decade.

“It calculated the average price of land in Scotland was now £4,438 per acre.

“Surveyors reported the price was being supported by demand from farmers and investors.

“Their report predicted further price increases were likely, with the market “far from finding its level”.

The press release from RICS claims that,

“£7,440* per acre across the UK, hitting a record high for the eighth consecutive period. The cost of land is now more than three times that of the same period in 2004 when an acre cost just over £2,400.”

That asterisk is important. It was not there when I first looked at the press release but was added after I phoned the RICS press office to ask what the following footnote referred to. The footnote says,

* Opinion based measure, £ per acre (based on median surveyor estimates of bare land only containing no residential component, not subject to revision).

Looking at the Rural Market Survey report, itself (which is only available if you register as a RICS site user), things become clearer. The basis for the claim that “prices had trebled in less than a decade” is based upon “an opinions based measure (which is a hypothetical estimate by surveyors of the value of pure bare land).”

It is also a UK wide figure and thus says nothing about the farmland market in Scotland.

The “RICS spokesperson” states, in the RICS media release that,

“The growth in farmland prices in recent times has been nothing short of staggering. In less than ten years we’ve seen the cost of an acre of farmland grow to such an extent that investors – not just farmers – are entering the market. If the relatively tight supply and high demand continues,  we could experience the cost per acre going through the ten thousand pound barrier in the next two to three years.”

What she really means is that the cost of an acre of land according to the opinion of her members. And when she speculates that the cost per acre could go through the £10,000 barrier in the next two or three years – that too is simply the opinion of those with a vested interest in precisely that outcome.

And that trebling only relates to England and Wales, not to Scotland.

Oh, and finally, that £4438 per acre price that the BBC reports the RICS “calculated”?

That’s just an opinion too but reading the press reports today you would not know.

So why does the media give such prominence to the self-promotional opinions of vested interests?

In this Guest Blog, poet & novelist John Burnside reflects on the land, nature, folk and elite power. John’s most recent book is a collection of short stories, called Something Like Happy (Jonathan Cape). This essay was first published in The Scotsman on 29 June 2013 and is published here with their kind permission.

Should Scotland’s environmental policies be governed by the rich and powerful?

John Burnside 29 June 2013

IN 1997, I gathered with a group of other writers at the Edinburgh Festival, gamely sporting my yes/yes badge, to pledge support for a Scottish Parliament. At the time, I had no great expectations of the radical changes I thought were needed, here and elsewhere; what I hoped, however, was that a devolved Scotland might moderate, or even abandon, the high-handed approach to government that I had come to know and despise under Thatcherism. The gathering that day was jovial, with much joking and not a little self-consciousness for some. I had only been back in Scotland for a couple years, having moved south at the age of ten when my father got a job at Corby Steelworks and, at the time, I felt a little uncertain of the territory. I had no party-political affiliations and the idea of nationalism had always rendered me queasy. Still, crossing my fingers, I pledged my support and cast my vote, then stood back to see what would happen.

Now, we are about to do the referendum ceilidh all over again, only this time the stakes are higher. The trouble is, none of the changes I want to see are even on the agenda. Well, they are, in the usual lip service, greenwashed fashion, but none of it is real.

Meanwhile, I am much the same this time around as I was then: unaffiliated, highly sceptical and wondering which compromise to make in order to avoid the lesser of two evils. I would like to be affiliated: like many people, I suspect, I am still waiting for a green party in Scotland worthy of the name, but I see no sign of that for the near future and, to be frank, I want to weep when someone like Al Gore pops round for the day to praise the current government’s supposed environmental credentials (built entirely, and rather ironically, on a flawed energy strategy that, while it lines the pockets of landowners and developers, is devastating our wild places).

In fact, it is a mark of how compromised we are that my political wish-list for today is much the same as it was in 1997: a sound energy policy based on energy saving and informed research into genuinely renewable technology; land uses governed by environmental principle, rather than developer whim; meaningful, by which I mean radical, land reform; clear policies to eliminate, or at least reduce, pollution, (rather than craven kowtowing to the interests of neonicitinoid producers); and democratic social policies aimed at effecting equality of opportunity, not ‘community’ initiatives that sneak ‘Big Society’ in through the back door. Central to all of this, and the chief cause of our failed environmental policies to date, is land use. Or rather, land ownership.

In his 1931 polemic, Natural Prosperity, the Australian economist, RF Dyson, wrote: “It is just as impossible to secure to each his full earnings and at the same time to treat land as wealth, as it is to make an omelette without breaking the eggs. For first of all the private ownership of land means the private collection of its rental value. Since the rental value, which is always collected in money, is purely a community product, incomes gained through its private collection are as morally indefensible as incomes gained through common burglary…theft is morally wrong because it enables some to live on the labour of others. The private collection of land rent is worse than burglary because it is a continuous and increasing theft, and also it keeps opportunities unequal. That is economically wrong because incomes gained in that manner are not limited by the natural productive power of the recipients, and consequently a few people receive incomes far in excess of their needs.”

If we add in the continuous and increasing theft that is the current agriculture/energy subsidy system, Dyson could be talking about Scotland today – which is not to say that all landowners in Scotland are thieves. There are many who, in the context of current practice, are both responsible and, given the temptations, restrained in the uses they make of the land. The fact remains, however, that because of the way land is owned, and because the subsidy system throws public money – our money – at any business interest that can afford the consultancy to complete the appropriate forms and doctor the Environmental Impact Assessment, (should this even be called for), the fact remains that it is the larger landowners, along with developers and corporations, who dictate Scottish environmental policy, such as it is.

There can be no more obvious illustration of this than the Menie scandal. There is not room, here, to rehash all the details, but one clear fact remains: this was a defining, even textbook case of how to override local democracy, environmental issues and the basic rights of local residents.

On the environment issue, The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s objection was clear: “The very high nature conservation value of this coastline is recognised at both a European … and national level … indeed, the whole stretch of coastline hosts a rich assemblage of specially adapted higher and lower plants and other wildlife, including a diverse breeding bird community and otters. Of even greater concern [is] the destruction of over a third of Foveran Links Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which is important nationally for both its biological and geological features.” As we know, these concerns were ignored by Holyrood. The billionaire developer would come first; local people, and their environment, came nowhere.

It would be foolish to suggest that this government is any more cynical or undemocratic than many others; for some reason, governments do tend to pander to the rich and powerful. Nevertheless, it’s galling when even our supposedly ‘green’ policies are blatantly shaped by the interests of landowners and developers. Take wind energy, for example. In 2012, the Spanish Ornithological Society, having conducted an independent study on the impact of turbines on birds, said: “The more than 18,000 wind turbines [currently operating] in Spain, could be causing an annual mortality of birds and bats [of] between 6 and 18 million individuals.”

Researchers working on raptors, migrating birds and bats in the United States have called for a moratorium on wind farms or, at the very least, clear guidelines and regulation that would help lower the number of birds and bats killed. With this in mind, surely it would make sense, in a country so fanatically committed to Big Wind, to do all we can to protect birdlife – but in Scotland, turbines all too often go where landowners want them to go, because turbines attract huge subsidies, (the system was, in fact, originally modelled on agricultural subsidies). As The Guardian reported recently: “The boom in onshore wind power, likened to a “new industrial revolution”, is being dominated by a small number of private landowners who will share around £1bn in rental fees over the next eight years. Rental payments vary and are secret but…landowners can now expect £40,000 a year “risk-free” for each large turbine erected on their land. Those set to benefit include senior members of the Royal Family and the Forestry Commission in Wales and Scotland.”

That our energy and land use policies should be governed by the most brutal profit motive is tragic, but this subsidy-grab is just the latest in a long history of moral and environmental crimes. In 1808, tenant farmer named Robert Burns penned these satirical lines:

Farmin, and fencin, an a

Ploughin, and plantin, an’ a

Beha’d how our kintry’s improvin,

An’ poverty wearin awa

Since then, we have continued ‘improvin’ the land for the benefit of the richest and the least socially productive, to the detriment of what should have been a shared environment. As long as it is in the interests of corporate landowners, faux-green energy companies and billionaire developers, Scotland still means business.

However, as we ask ourselves again, over the coming year, what Scotland ought to mean, and what we ought to be doing to protect the quality of life of all (human and otherwise) who live here, we must finally begin the work of making Scotland free for all, not just by redistributing a few acres here and there in ‘community’ buy-outs, but by revolutionising our ideas of how land could be used, not for the profit of a few, but for the delight of all.

 

The tortuous negotiations over the next Common Agricultural Policy reached a conclusion of sorts today although some of the details remain unclear. This morning BBC Radio Scotland invited me to speak about the implications of “capping the CAP” – an upper limit on what any claimant can receive in EU farm subsidy. You can hear the interview here.

This is a very short blog to highlight the key issues covered in the interview.

The current distribution of EU farm subsidy in Scotland is grossly unequal as the graph above shows. (see previous CAP blog) for further discussion). The top 10% of farmers receive 48.6% of the total 2011 Scottish farm budget of £710.4 million.

This is not surprising since the distribution of agricultural land in Scotland is concentrated in relatively few hands and Scottish farms (average size 107ha) are the largest in the EU. (1) Fully 75% of Scotland’s agricultural area is held by fewer than 9% of farmers in holdings of over 200ha in extent.

As a consequence of this and the operation of the system of Single Farm Payments (a system of transferable “entitlements” to subsidy that have been much abused over the past 10 years), the amount of subsidy received by the top 50 recipients has risen from £22 million in 2008 to £35 million in 2011.

The simple fact is that these 50 people (who include the Earl of Moray, Earl of Seafield, Earl of Southesk, Duke of Buccleuch and Duke of Roxburghe) do not need any of this money but they are the beneficiaries of the system.

There is a proposal to cap farm subsidies at €300,000 (£254,000). Neither this nor the question of whether it is to be mandatory or voluntary have yet been agreed and are to be dealt with separately within the Multi-Annual Financial Framework for the overall budget. (2) In any event, it may have little immediate effect since the Scottish Government seems keen to phase in the new CAP regime over, perhaps, as long as five years.

At a time when welfare payments to the poorest and most vulnerable in society are being capped at £26,000 per year, perhaps it is time to consider capping farmer welfare at a level considerably lower than £254,000

UPDATE 27 June 2013

George Lyon MEP reports in a tweet that capping will be voluntary. He says this is good news. I am not sure why.

Press Release from European Commission on the final shape of the CAP.

UPDATE 28 June 2013

Excellent analysis from Professor Alan Matthews – “A triumph for the Irish Presidency – a damp squib for CAP reform” including the astute observation that “The bulk of the CAP budget will continue to be spent on land-linked payments under Pillar 1 with no obvious rationale other than that to remove them is opposed by the current beneficiaries.”

(1) For detailed analysis of farm holdings see Eurostat – Large farms in Europe.

(2) According to Alyn Smith MEP today, “capping of direct payments is “square bracketed”. Council are adamant that capping should not be mandatory for Member States to apply.  A likely compromise will revolve around degressivity of payments above 150,000 EUR, with Member States deciding on the percentage to be applied.”