‘Land Justice’ the next chapter in the ‘gains of devolution’ story – Mercedes Villalba MSP


“My aim is to change the law to end one of the greatest symbols of inequality in Scotland, whereby a huge concentration of land rests in the hands of a small number of extremely wealthy individuals.”

Mercedes Villalba, Labour MSP, challenges the SNP-Green government to support her bill limiting how much of Scotland rich landowners can buy.

Taking decisive action to limit the amount of land that the wealthy can own is the great unfinished business in the story of Scottish devolution.

For Socialists there have been genuine hard-fought gains of devolution, made during the 23 years of the Scottish Parliament’s existence.

MSPs voting for the abolition of the Dickensian practice of Warrant Sales – that had allowed bailiffs to seize the belongings of working class families for non-payment of Thatcher’s Poll Tax – stands out as an early advance.

The introduction of free personal care, the abolition of hunting, and blood sports, as well as the introduction of free NHS prescriptions, and free university tuition, all stand out as transformative legislation from the early to middle years of the parliament.

Similarly, Holyrood’s vote for same sex marriage, and the ban on the smacking of children, are yet more examples of devolution delivering flagship progressive legislation.  

My comrade, the former Labour MSP Neil Findlay’s success in forcing the Scottish Government to launch a Hillsborough style inquiry into the 1984-85 miners’ strike after years of resistance from SNP ministers, was a triumph for a Socialist politician using parliament as a platform to give the working class a voice.

The next great chapter of landmark transformative legislation passed by Holyrood, and championed by Socialist MSPs at Holyrood, must be the passing of a ‘Land Justice’ bill.  

This year I will bring that bill to parliament to set a legal limit for the number of acres that could be held by a single owner.

Under this proposed shake-up of the way that Scotland’s countryside is owned and managed, publicly owned community trusts and co-operatives will have the option to take over land.  

In the coming months I will be launching a consultation to examine the potential scale of the cap, with options starting from 1,500 acres, for how much land an individual could legally own.

That’s a cap on land ownership that equates to approximately 750 football pitches per person.

For the avoidance of any doubt: crofters, the vast majority of farmers, allotment holders, and other small scale land-owners will be completely exempt from my proposed legislation.

This ‘Land Justice’ bill is about getting to grips with a historical wrong, which so far has been untouched by the Scottish Parliament.

My aim is to change the law to end one of the greatest symbols of inequality in Scotland, whereby a huge concentration of land rests in the hands of a small number of extremely wealthy individuals.

By the end of the current parliament, when we will have celebrated more than a quarter of a century of devolution, it’s my firm ambition that there will be legislation to end once and for all the centuries old, entrenched inequality of land ownership in Scotland.

The most recent findings about the concentration of land ownership in Scotland, published on the SNP’s watch in 2014 by the Scottish Government’s land reform review group, found that 432 private land-owners own 50 per cent of the private rural land.

It’s shocking that this archaic arrangement has been ignored by the SNP during its 15 years in power.

Yet the best we get from SNP ministers are vague promises about greater transparency on a public right to know who owns the land, something that leaves the wealthy just as wealthy as ever and the rest of us no better off.

That’s why I’m calling on Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, as well as their coalition government partners the Greens, to support my bill and ensure that it passes onto the statute book.

Progressive campaigners, many of them pro-independence, will never forgive SNP and Green MSPs if they sit on their hands or, worse still, vote with the Tories to protect the privileges of the small wealthy landed class, whose dominant ownership of the countryside resembles that of 16th century lairds.  

Land Justice can and must be a defining issue for this new era of Scottish devolution, standing alongside the abolition of warrant sales and justice for the striking miners.

As a Socialist MSP I will use the platform of parliament to seek to deliver this long overdue modernisation which will allow community representatives and cooperatives to manage land for the benefit of all and, in doing so, win real change for the many not the few as we write the next chapter of devolution.

  • Mercedes Villalba is the Scottish Labour Shadow Minister for Environment and Biodiversity, and an MSP for North East Scotland. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.
Scottish Highlands in July, 2012. Credit: JD Rucker attributed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

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