A report was published today by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) entitled Family Estates and Rural Resiliance. It contains the findings from a series of 23 interviews with landowners of so-called “family estates”. The report contains a few interesting observations but adds little to our state of knowledge about landownership in Scotland.

First of all is the problem of definitions. What is a “family estate”? The report does not say. One presumes it is an estate owned by a whole family but I know of none that meet this definition. The report contains no analysis of whether estates are owned by companies, trusts, individuals or other legal entities. Such structures are important not least because they often constrain precisely who in the “family” is the owner – often this may be a son or grandchildren. But the most important information that is missing is any analysis of gender. Are these estates owned by men or women in the family and what stake do children have? Given the long history of primogeniture and male landowners, this missing gender dimension makes it difficult to understand precisely whose voice is doing the talking and on what basis.

Another problem is that the research in so far as it examines the role played by “family estates” in their wider community, only interviews the landowners and not the wider community. It would have been interesting to see whether the opinions of the interviewees are shared by the community with which most of them seem so enthusiastic to embrace.

For example (and this is purely anecdotal of course), I received this email today from somebody who is dealing with a well-known “family estate” I guess you might call it.

they have a huge influence on life in this area and I personally have noticed a fundamental change in the last 10 years or so where they have gone from being generally a well thought of and benevolant influence in the community to the complete opposite where now they are obstructive, disliked and untrustworthy. You will be hard pushed to find someone who has a good word to say about them.”

The most obvious problem with this piece of work, however is the sample. The findings are based upon interviews with only 23 landowners. That is a very small sample but there are two more serious flaws.

The sample is derived solely from the membership of Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) which immediately biases the sample towards those who choose for whatever reason to join this organisation. The most serious flaw, however, is the fact that Scottish Land and Estates had the final say selecting the 23 owners. SRUC initially selected random estates using codes from an anonymised database provided by SLE. Once selected, the codes were sent to SLE. In the words of the report, SLE “then checked that the ones we had selected were resident family estates. if not, we then re-selected, again from the anonymised database“.

This means that SLE had the opportunity of selecting those data subjects which would show “family estates” in the best light. Whether it did or not I cannot say and neither can the researchers – and that is the fundamental flaw in the research design. We cannot therefore trust that the sample is even representative of “family estates” who are members of SLE (a problem exacerbated by SLE who, it appears, used their own unpublished definition of a “family estate”).

Moreover, knowing the identity of the subjects means that SLE had the opportunity to speak to them in advance of the research. Whether it did or not I cannot say and neither can the researchers.

Not surprisingly perhaps, SLE are very happy with the report and are majoring on the theme at their trade stand at the SNP conference where they are launching a “Community Engagement Programme“.

In a tweet today, SLE Chief Executive revealed the flawed premise upon which much of their argument rests. I will leave you to spot it.

This kind of design flaw has happened before with research undertaken by the Scottish Agricultural College, the predecessor to SRUC. Nine years ago, in a study of nine estates, it was revealed that the subjects were chosen by the sponsor of the research – the Scottish Estates Business Group – my critique of the time is here).

The next report will look at the role played by “charity” landowners. I trust that SRUC will adopt a clear definition and it would be very interesting to see whether they include the Applecross Trust and Mount Stuart Trust in their sample.

This report is based on a seriously flawed sample methodology and cannot be trusted. It tells us little beyond the opinions of 23 individuals whose authority even to speak on behalf of their “family” is never explained. No attempt is made to validate the views and opinions of the 23 interviewees by seeking the views of others with whom they engage. The research amounts to little more than a series of chats with individuals who have a vested interest in findings that can be presented, interpreted and promoted in a positive light.

In the acknowledgements, the author writes, “I would like to thank the 23 interviewees for their time in sharing their views with me“. That about sums up the research.

But please don’t take my word for it. Read it and make up your own mind.

 

As someone engaged in asking questions about land and its ownership, I have always been aware of the paucity of academic study of land tenure and ownership. That striking absence has, in part, motivated my ongoing investigations. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I noted some years ago that the Centre of Mountain Studies at Perth College/UHI was to undertake research into landed estates in Scotland. A project entitled Sustainable Estates for the 21st Century began in 2007 with the overall aim of “integrating the concept of sustainability into the management of large, upland estates in Scotland”.

My interest, however, quickly faded when I learned that the research programme was not acutally going to query the legitimacy of the current division of land or its ownership but merely investigate how they can be made more “sustainable”. This line of inquiry takes the rational and existence of such landholdings as a given. Now universities are perfectly entitled to pursue what questions they deem appropriate. But sometimes it is worth asking why academics ask the questions they do. In particular, who is funding the research.

Before we proceed any further let me make it clear that I am not calling into question the academic rigour or quality of the actual research that has been carried out. I am not qualified to do so and so have no view on the matter. I have met the researchers and they have gone about their work with diligence.

The Sustainable Estates website states that “The Sustainable Estates for the 21st Century project was generously funded by the Henry Angest Foundation.” So who is Henry Angest and how did this relationship come about? Turns out he is one rather interesting fellow.

Henry Angest is a banker and was born in Switzerland. He was an international executive with The Dow Chemical Corporation in Europe, USA, Latin America and Asia. Currently, he Chairman and Chief Executive of Arbuthnot Banking Group and is a former master of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

He and his wife, were named as having had dinner with The Prime Minister in the wake of the cash for access row in March 2012. According to an Observer investigation, Angest has provided almost £7 million to the Conservative party in loans and donations between 2001 and 2010 (1) He was also a funder of Atlantic Bridge, the charity that funded Adam Werrity’s excursions around the world with Liam Fox. He also owns Ashmore estate in Perthshire under the name of Rora investments Ltd., a company registered in Jersey.

The Henry Angest Foundation was established in April 2006 and has since donated a total of £285,000 to Perth College/UHI. This represents 75% of all its charitable giving in the period to 2010 since when it has had no income. Given the scale of this donation, I asked UHI for details on how this research contract had arisen. Specifically, I asked in October 2011

“Please could you supply me with information contained in correspondence, reports, agreements. memoranda or other recorded media in relation to the circumstances, purposes, terms and conditions of donations made to Perth College Development Trust 2004 by The Henry Angest Foundation in 2007 (£125,000), 2008 (£80,000) and 2009 (£80,000).”

UHI replied with the requested information on 29 November 2011 and it contains a great deal of interesting material. I noted in passing, however, a paragraph of the covering letter which stated that:

“Copyright in the information you have been given belongs to Perth College or to another party. Copyright material must not be copied, distributed, modified, reproduced, transmitted, published (including published on the Internet or an Intranet), or otherwise made available in whole or in part without the prior written consent of the copyright holder or as expressly permitted under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998. Should Perth College agree to give consent to the use of the information, Perth College must be credited as having done so.”

I therefore sent an email to UHI:

“In relation to the last para on the first page of your covering letter (Copyright), I now formally request that I may use extracts from the material provided in a written article to be published on the internet.”

They replied:

“On this occasion, we choose not to grant permission for use of these materials for web publication, or any other distribution media.”

Which leaves me with something of a dilemma. Material released under FoI is considered to be in the pubic domain but may still be subject to copyright restrictions. I propose therefore to tell you what is contained in the documents rather than reproduce them. The documentation consists of emails and letters. There is a fair amount of redaction.

The relationship between what was originally Perth College (now UHI) and Henry Angest begins in November 2005 with a donation by Angest to the Perth College Development Trust. This is followed by a meeting between Angest and Perth College Principal, Mandy Exley. She follows this up by a letter, the first paragraph of which is redacted but which goes on to state that “I fully appreciate your views about the direction and tone taken by the Scottish Executive” before mentioning research on estates that the College is proposing to undertake. By August 2006, Perth College are highlighting the tax refund that Mr Angest can expect as a higher rate taxpayer (18% of the donation) and proposing that he be made an Honorary Fellow of the UHIMI (University of the Highlands and Islands Millenium Institute – UHI is not at this stage a University). Angest replies saying that he beleives the Sustainable Estates research Project is “very important for Scotland” and poses questions about the timetable for University status and about how one is proposed for an honorary degree.

In January 2007, Perth College announced the “donation of £285,000 towards research into Scottish estates.” The research, it is announced, will “look at the economic and employment benefits of estates to local communities and how owners and managers ensure that their estates fulfil their diverse roles.” “To say that we are thrilled would be an understatement”, said Mandy Exley. “We are tremendously grateful for the gift.”

At this point it is worth noting that the research is designed to look at “benefits” and how estates “fulfil their diverse roles” The hypothesis that estates may provide no benefits, may even harm local communities, and may not fulfil any useful role at all is not to be subject to any inquiry or analysis.

On 21 September 2007, Henry Angest received his Honorary fellowship at Blair Castle. By early 2008, research students had been recruited and had begun work. By early 2010, the question of further funding arises and Angest writes to Professor Martin Price, the Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies to lay out two issues. The first is redacted in its entirety. The second is revealing.

“Before I could even consider any further support for the project, I would want to see the outcome of the studies. I have no idea what the conclusions are. I would not wish to give further support to a project where I would personally find the conclusions wrong or unacceptable.”

Of course, Mr Angest, as a private donor is perfectly entitled to give money to whomsoever he likes but in this statement is revealed a motive that is inappropriate in any private donor – namely that they wish to be assured that the outcome is not “wrong” or “unacceptable.” It should be obvious that such reassurance can never be given since it is impossible (or should be) to know at the outset what the results of any inquiry will be.

Mr Angest is also angling for an Honorary degree but is told that this could only be considered when University status and research degree awarding powers are granted. Mr Angest’s response to this news includes a substantial redacted section. But he is told by Professor Martin Price that “I will do all I can to assure that, when this time comes, you are proposed for one of the University’s first honorary Doctorates.”

In May 2011,Mr Angest writes to Professor Price to congratulate him on a recent research presentation to a meeting of the owners of Scotland’s largest estates. He then goes on to talk about community-owned estates. A whole paragraph is redacted but he continues,

“Having observed some of these community estates as a bussinessman, I have great trouble in believing that they can be truly financially viable, for the following reasons:

Some of these estates have been endowed with huge amounts of public money, including money from charities. They were therefore acquired without debt and some may well have surplus funds. Furthermore, I would be very surprised if they didn’t continue to draw subsidies, including possibly, personal benefits for the people living and working there. I don’t consider that such a privileged situation makes an estate independently financially viable (or sustainable).”

Professor Martin Price, in the 10th annual report of the Centre for Mountain Studies, thanks Henry Angest “for financing what will, I hope, be regarded as a landmark study on estates.” (7) I’m not sure it will tell us anything of any great import.

However, the fact remains that this is the most substantial research programme on Scottish “estates” in recent decades and yet begins from the premise that such landholdings are a given. The inquiry fails to consider a range of issues central to a critical understanding of their role and function such as succession law, taxation, land tenure, the role of charity law, offshore trusts, trust law and the peculiar fact that these estates are exempt from business rates.

If I can be sure of one thing, it is that Henry Angest would never have funded research that examined these questions and that might have undermined the legitimacy, benefits or role of Scottish estates.

Mr Henry Angest has not, at the time of writing, been offered an Honorary Doctorate.

(1) In particular, his company Flowidea Ltd. has donated money to the Conservative Party in Scotland as follows

£10,000 North Tayside 2002
£3,865 North Tayside 2004
£5,000 Angus 2008
£5,000 Angus 2010
£5,44.71 Angus 2005
£3658.86 Angus 2005
£1896.43 Angus 2006
£5,000 Murdo Fraser MSP 2011

 

12. March 2012 · Comments Off on Community Ownership in the Highlands & Islands · Categories: Land Reform, Land Rights, Research, Who Owns Scotland

 

One of the first serious books I ever read (my 1982 John Donald hardback edition sits on the shelf beside me) was James Hunter’s The Making of the Crofting Community. It is a mark of Hunter’s brilliance that his PhD thesis not only broke new historiographical ground but was at the same time a gripping read. It remains in print, now with an extended preface exploring the controversy the book stirred up in the academic community.

Jim has gone on to write many other good books but his latest may well be destined to join the Crofting Community among his classic works. From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops charts the remarkable story of how more than half a million acres of land has come into community ownership in the Highlands and Islands in the past 20 years. A flier is available here or order online here. An excellent essay by Hunter was published in the Sunday Herald of 11 March 2012.

This week sees the 10th anniversary of the community buyout on Gigha as well as the annual conference of Community Land Scotland. On Friday, the subject of crofting is explored in The Claim of Crofting – a series of celebratory musical, theatrical and poetic form at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye.

I hope to blog at greater length on where we are with this particular element of land reform. Meanwhile, do buy the book. You won’t be disappointed.