Sunday 7 December 2014

Quarter of a million crofts

Imagine a Scotland where the rural areas are not desolate but vibrant, where the glens are not empty but populous as they were 250 years ago. Where the landscape is littered, not with desolate ruins of abandoned homes, but the cheerful life of new-built ones. Where the village schools are not empty and closing, but packed with children. That isn't a dream: that's achievable now, and all it takes is land reform.

The average agricultural holding in Scotland is 101 hectares: just over one square kilometre, or, to make it easier for you, the size of one of the National Grid squares on an Ordnance Survey map. That's enough, on reasonable land with reasonable husbandry, to provide an income for a family - and in many cases, more: enough to employ someone in addition. A countryside with one farm per square kilometer, with one or at most two working households per square kilometer, is a sparsely populated landscape, a landscape which finds it hard to support village schools, village pubs, village shops, village post offices.

Of course, a lot of Scotland doesn't even have one working family per square kilometre; a lot of Scotland is big estates, where a small gang of men, or contractors, travel from somewhere off the land - probably somewhere urban - to work its various jobs. Many of the big estates do, it's true, also rent out farms - family sized farms, around that 101 hectare size we came in with - and I'll come back to that later.

By contrast, the average croft in Scotland is five hectares. That's a slightly misleading figure; for crofting to work, crofters need access to common, and the area of the common they have access to should ideally be at least as much as the sum of the area of the crofts that have access to it. So you cannot realistically replace one farm with twenty crofts, except on the best land. Nor, perhaps, should you, in general, replace farms with crofts, I believe, because Scotland needs to produce food, and while the most efficient crofters may produce more food per hectare than the most efficient farmers on the same land, I don't believe the average crofter will.

A landscape of ten crofts per square kilometre, however, is a peopled landscape. People have neighbours close by. With between five and ten times the population, there's more support for local schools, pubs, post-offices, shops, health facilities. Here's the rub, however: it's extremely hard - not impossible, but hard - to make a family living off five hectares even of good land. That's the reason we have a Common Agriculture Policy, after all - not to pay enormous fortunes of public money to the already very rich, but to help support small peasant farmers. But even if we did succeed in reforming the CAP, for crofting to work, there needs to be alternative employment in rural areas - as there is in South Germany, an area with a very successful economy with very small farms and largely part-time farmers.

However, that's not the point I'm trying to make. 432 people, we're told, own half the private land in Scotland. Scotland is 7,838,700 hectares. The Forestry Commission manages almost 1.19 million hectrares, and at a guess other public lands (road network, ministry of defence, et cetera) may make up another 300,000 hectares (I'm being generous here). So the private land in Scotland is about 6,330,000 hectares. Half of that is 3,174,350 hectares. The Land Reform Review Group recommended a limit on the size of holdings [p166]. Let's suppose that limit were set at one thousand hectares (I'll argue why that should be so later). Those 432 people who own half of Scotland do not all individually own estates; some estates have more than one owner. So I'm assuming, more or less, that those 432 people together own 400 estates; if in fact they actually own fewer, then my calculations become more, not less, favourable.

Four hundred maximum size holdings would then make up 400,000 hectares. Subtract that from 3,174,350 and you're left with 2,774,350 hectares - that's the land that would be released by reducing each of those estates to 1000 hectares. That's enugh land for 277,435 crofts, allowing that each croft has 5 hectares of 'own' land, and that the area of common available to the crofts is equal to the area of the crofts.

But wait: some of that land is steep hillsides that we really should not be grazing (although at present we mostly are), and some of that land is high mountain land or deep peat land which is either impractical for any kind of agriculture or which shouldn't be worked for landscape, ecological, and wildlife reasons. So you can't really create quarter of a million new crofts...

Well no, you can't. Not out of the biggest 400 estates alone. But there are a lot more than 400 estates in Scotland which are each bigger than 1000 hectares; and there's no particular reason why those 1,190,000 hectares the forestry commission manage should be immune from this revolution. After all, the purpose for which the Forestry Commission was set up was to provide rural employment in remote upland areas, and to keep people on the land; it's signally failing to do that, and should cheerfully step aside to allow a different strategy to be tried.

And in any case a lot less of Scotland is 'naturally' unproductive than you probably think. The highlands were not cleared because the people who lived there could not make an adequate living, on the contrary. The highlands (like the lowlands before them) were cleared because they did not produce enough cash revenue for the land 'owners' - generally speaking, the ancestors of those people who still 'own' the lands now.

In practice I'm reasonably certain that the limit on the number of new crofts would not be the available land, but the people willing to settle it. Quarter of a million crofts need something like half a million people - equal to the whole population of Edinburgh. A revolution like that does not happen overnight.

But think, for a moment, of what it would mean: a populous, vibrant rural Scotland. Much more of our land much better cared for and more productive than it is now. Far more people in touch with, engaged with, invested in our landscape. More people with a much more active life - fewer health problems arising from sedentary lifestyles and lack of exercise. More people eating healthier, locally produced food. The revival of a Scottish food culture.

The availability of land is a necessary condition for such a revolution, but it isn't a sufficient condition. Crofts, by themselves, don't provide enough income. A crofter needs other sources of income, sources local enough to be accessed. The Internet helps, of course, but it isn't enough. Tourism can be developed, but it isn't enough. A crofting revolution won't happen if the planning authorities retain their current objections to small industrial development in remote rural areas. Part-time farmers - which is what crofters essentially are - must have something to do with the other part of their time.

A thousand hectares

You'll notice, above, that I suggest limiting the maximum holding size to one thousand hectares. Why that number, rather than any other? The answer is that it is not entirely arbitrary but may be a little over-generous. The largest industrial site in Scotland is the Grangemouth refinery, said to be seven hundred hectares. Edinburgh Airport is around four hundred hectares, and Glasgow Airport around three hundred. These are, as far as I can see, the largest individual private land holdings in Scotland which are necessarily single entities, and whose existence provides a public benefit. But, they're each special cases, and they are each very substantially profitable - sufficiently profitable to pay a very substantial amount of tax to the community, a point to which I'll return.

One could very reasonably argue that - apart from these few special cases - there's no public interest in allowing any private land holding to exceed twice the area of an average farm. However, if one sets the limit at the more generous one thousnd hectares, there's no need for any special cases.


Maximum holding size

The Land Reform Review Group report, as I said above, suggest a maximum size of holding. While I broadly support the idea, I think simply imposing a limit and confiscating any land beyond the limit would risk complex and long-winded challenge in the courts and might well ultimately fail. Imposing a limit and allowing existing owners to sell off excess land gives them a windfall profit they in no way merit, and doesn't redistribute land in a sensible way; we'd end up with a Scotland largely made up of 999 hectare holdings, many of the absentee owned, and managed (poorly) by gangs of contractors operating from urban centres.


My preferred method for achieving a transition of half of Scotland from 401 larges estates (the extra one being the Forestry Commission) to quarter of a million crofts is tax. Andy Wightman and other land reformers have argued persuasively for Land Value Taxation. While Land Value Tax has a lot of merits, it won't achieve the breakup of large estates because the same hectare of land attracts the same tax whether in a large holding or a small one.

Instead, I prefer the idea of an exponential tax - where the tax scales very sharply with the size of the holding. Small holdings would pay almost nothing. Family farms, an easily affordable amount - a few hundreds of pounds a year. Large, profitable sites like the airports and Grangemouth, a few hundreds of thousands, which, given their profitability, they could well afford. But very large sporting estates? They'd be assessed for billions or trillions of pounds a year, on the same eminently reasonable scheme. Of course, even gulf sheiks couldn't pay that, but that's not the point. The point is not to collect revenue but to destroy large land holdings. So the scheme should make it as easy as possible for the current owner to define an area of their estate - perhaps his house and its surrounding buildings, perhaps a home farm - on which they could afford to pay tax - and to surrender the rest of their estate as common.


We've got into this mess because we've treated ownership of land as persistent and heritable. There's no reason it should be. There's a public policy interest in giving management of an area of land to a particular individual who has the skills to care for it and live off its profits. But the children of that person may not have the skills or the motivation; is there any public interest in the children of a land holder being able automatically to continue the holding after the death of their parent?

Honestly, there isn't. Honestly, you cannot have a just society in which any significant wealth is heritable, since it locks wealth into the families which are already wealthy and prevents social mobility. Honestly, the right solution is to declare that land is not heritable, that interest in land ceases with the death of the holder. But in the modern world with our legacy of legal mess, that raises two very significant practical problems. The first is that we - perversely - treat corporations as legal 'people', and corporations don't naturally age and die. So if we declared land non-heritable, land holders would simply set up limited companies to 'own' their land. The second is buildings.

Most people in Britain, even fairly modest people, have most of their wealth tied up in property, but which they think they mean buildings. Buildings in Scotland have not traditionally been built to be movable. Making land non-heritable would make the houses even of the comparatively poor non-heritable, and while I believe this would be the right thing to do it would be very hard to build a democratic concensus for it.

Disposition of lands

However, if land is released from the big estates as I recommend, I'm not suggesting that it should be passed as heritable property to new owners. On the contrary, I think it should be held by local communities, and that the new crofters should be granted only a life interest in their crofts. Heritability may have suited the needs of weak, turbulent medieval kingdoms but it does not suit the modern egalitarian state and we should not thoughtlessly repeat the mistakes of the past.

Tenanted farms

As I said earlier, many of the big estates let tenanted farms, and tenant farmers are by and large the most marginal and most exploited people in rural Scotland today. If we do break up the big estates, should they, too, be forced off their holdings, or made to downsize to crofts? I don't believe that's either fair or necessary. I believe that the communities to which the land should pass should grant them a non-heritable life interest in the holding. How the community divides the land after the death of the current tenant, though, should be a matter for the community.

Is this fair?

Whether we do it by imposing a maximum holding size, by confiscation, or by deliberately unaffordable taxation, what I'm proposing will deprive four hundred and thirty two people - powerful people - of what they view as their property.

Let's put that question another way: to what extent is this legitimate property in the first place? No-one can argue that inherited wealth is merited wealth. No-one has earned the property that their parents passed down to them. But more than that, as I wrote in the Levellers' Rant:
let's be clear about this: the soil of Scotland was not created with title deeds attached. No single square inch of Scotland has passed peaceably from parent to child over the twelve thousand years since first it was settled. Rather, every grain of Scotland's soil has been seized, stolen, conquered, embezzled, fought over - not once but dozens of times. No land in Scotland - not even my own ten acres - is held with any moral right. Not even estates granted by kings, for wherein lies the source of their moral right? If there's any right in this, the Levellers were right. It is not right to take the livelihood of the many to provide a surplus for the few.
Yes, if we reform land in Scotland, a few hundred people will lose what they had thought of as theirs, and they will inevitably experience that as hurtful. While I may at times express anger or impatience at them, I am genuinely regretful that hurt must be caused. But, let's be clear about this, Scotland has more than five million people and fewer than eight million hectares. A fair share of Scotland, if we're talking about what is fair - a fair share of Scotland is less than two hectares per person. It may be hurtful to disposess a few hundred people of some - but not all - of what they thought was theirs, to benefit hundreds of thousands of others. But it's by no means unfair.

Another Scotland is possible

So, in conclusion, if we are prepared to think boldly of land reform, another Scotland - a revived, rejuvenated, vibrant, healthy rural Scotland - is possible. But it won't happen without many of us - very many of us - actively work, agitating, campaigning for it to happen. We've talked for years about a thousand huts. How much harder are you prepared to work for quarter of a million crofts?

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