Can landownership be fair in net-zero Scotland?

Will green lairds monopolise Scottish land to offset their carbon emissions? Or can the nation achieve more equitable landownership? A recent Holyrood debate explored emerging trends


  • Fiona Mannix

12 May 2022

Winter sun on frozen Lochan Mors, Cairngorm National Park, Scotland

In late September, Holyrood debated a Labour motion from Rhoda Grant on community landownership. It focused specifically on community wealth and the emergence of so-called green lairds, private investors who buy land in Scotland with the primary aim of offsetting emissions.

The debate covered recent developments in the land market and the different motivations of purchasers. MSPs noted the growing emphasis on purchases for climate-related reasons – which they feared is likely to mean that a small number of people will end up owning most of the land.

They expressed concern about private landownership in Scotland, which is highly concentrated compared with other countries. Politicians also addressed the country's unregulated land market, and what some see as the commodification and financialisation of the climate emergency. The Highlands and Islands are at the forefront of these new forces.

One of the actions of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Strategy is to explore natural capital and net zero opportunities. There is concern that some of this natural capital might be privatised and commodified ostensibly to mitigate climate change by offsetting carbon emissions, through tree planting for instance, while carbon continues to be emitted elsewhere.

There are calls from Labour for the Scottish government to consider regulation and public expenditure controls to achieve greater equity in the land market and share the benefits of public policy. The government is also urged to prioritise greater community ownership of land and built assets. This can build community wealth and empower them to respond to the climate emergency.

Recent purchasers of land include BrewDog. The beer producer wants to offset its carbon emissions, promote its green credentials and win investors by purchasing thousands of hectares in the Highlands. Standard Life Investments Property Income Trust has also just bought thousands of hectares in the Cairngorms national park. Meanwhile, asset management firm Gresham House is promoting a £300m private investment targeting Scottish forestry.

The Scottish National Investment Bank launched in November 2020 to be a development investment bank for Scotland. It is a cornerstone investor in Gresham House, the UK's largest commercial forestry manager and has committed £50m of public funding over five years to create new woodland and forestry management in Scotland.

In this context, the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish government are committed to a public interest test for landownership. Grant's view is that 'We need to protect the public interest by acting especially on off-market land purchases. The Scottish Land Commission needs powers to act on land monopoly issues and to better enable public interest purchases. We need to make observing the land rights and responsibilities statement statutory and its expectations much firmer.

'We need to consider capping the total public subsidy of any large-scale landowner, and we need to see the uplift in the value of land effectively underwritten by public subsidy clawed back for public benefit. We should act on Community Land Scotland's suggestion for a community wealth fund, and we need to task Co-operative Development Scotland with promoting co-operative and mutual ownership of land in Scotland.'

SNP committed to land reform legislation

During the debate, Emma Roddick of the SNP said she is proud to have been elected in May last year on the strength of a manifesto that included a specific commitment to land reform legislation. She explained a community empowerment act would be brought forward by the end of 2023.

One policy she is particularly excited by is the presumption towards community buy-outs of land. She said this will help not only to increase diversity in landownership but also ensure local people are involved in deciding how their land is used.

Roddick added that she favours restoration of the natural environment by rewilding. However, she said lairds and MSPs alike must keep in mind that true restoration of the Highlands will include the reintroduction of people as well.

Conservative highlights private investment

Conservative MSP Dean Lockhart noted how the motion highlighted the need to transition to net-zero carbon in a fair and sustainable way, and that the UK will have to invest £50bn a year in this process. He mentioned some of the private-sector investments already cited by Labour and maintained that the benefits of these should be highlighted.

'For example, Standard Life Investments has a project to restore woodland and peatland areas over almost 1,500 hectares and to plant 1.5 million trees, with between 50 and 100 people working on the project over the next six years, using land that has no existing agricultural or other value. Such land use and the benefits that come with that investment are to be encouraged. It is not just the private sector that is directing money and investment towards such areas. 

'The Scottish National Investment Bank has invested £50 million in a managed forest growth fund, which aims to capture 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 over the next 20 years.

'Those are just some examples of how public and private investment can help to deliver necessary reforestation, rewilding and peatland restoration, all of which will be vital to meeting our net zero targets. Without such investments, the public sector would not have the capital available to meet the necessary targets.'

Lockhart also said that the scale of investment required to meet the net-zero targets presents huge opportunities for community and public landownership, and will bring much-needed investment and jobs to rural Scotland.

Labour advocates greater community ownership

Mercedes Villalba of Labour maintained that land is a public good and a natural resource that should serve Scotland's common interests. However, she believes the current system of land ownership operates at the expense of the social, economic and environmental benefits land offers.

Villalba said she could not therefore welcome the growing trend for wealthy individuals and corporate interests seeking to use land for greenwashing. She thinks it is not a sign of growing corporate responsibility or the rich engaging with the realities of the climate emergency. Instead, she said it represents an unjust transition and a further transfer of wealth and power at the expense of working communities and Scotland's natural environment.

She added that if Holyrood is serious about tackling the climate and ecological crises, it is time to redistribute land. She did then welcome the SNP's commitment to a public interest test for land transfers. More radical proposals such as caps on private landholdings and a land value tax must also be considered, she said.

Villalba's fellow Labour MSP Paul Sweeney emphasised the importance of building community wealth, which is important to urban as much as to rural areas. This can redirect wealth into local economies and put control back in the hands of communities, he maintained.

Minister foresees opportunities

Minister for environment, biodiversity and land reform Màiri McAllan said Scotland can afford to be ambitious given the ample potential of its natural environment to sequester greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and support biodiversity. But she thinks there are no simple answers, and Scotland must pursue its ambitions in a way that complies with the Human Rights Act 1998, particularly around the right to own property and the consequences of compulsory purchase.

She said private investment will be essential to Scotland's net-zero ambitions. It can play a positive role when done responsibly, paying regard to the rights of communities.

'Nature-based solutions are critical to meeting our net zero objectives. A just transition to net zero can provide real opportunities for rural and island communities, including green jobs in tree planting, peatland restoration and renewables, as well as in the means by which we tackle fuel poverty. We will need a blend of private and public investment to realise those benefits, because, frankly, the public sector cannot do that alone. We must seize those opportunities and mitigate the risks at the same time.'

McAllan said Scotland's continuing land reform will make further substantial progress during this parliamentary session. She maintained that the forthcoming land reform bill will help to address some of the challenges raised in the debate.

'Tackling climate change fairly, supporting empowered communities to thrive in rural and urban Scotland, and continuing to redress Scotland’s historically unfair patterns of land ownership are some of the most important issues that we, in the Government, and members across the chamber face. It is up to us to deliver for the people of Scotland a fairer, greener, more equal future, and I very much look forward to working with members on that.'

While there was no consensus among the politicians on a number of points such as the extent of the merits of private investment, what was clear throughout the debate was that the transition to net zero will have consequences for the Scottish land market as a result of the new investor base. It will also affect the land itself with the subsequent transformation in land use. This might include for example, more tree planting, peatland restoration, planting more bioenergy crops and adopting low carbon farming practices.

RICS and land prices information

The Scottish Land Commission has commissioned a report into the nature and value of current rural land sales in Scotland. This will be crucial in considering the implications of new natural capital and carbon value in the land market.

Scotland's Rural College, in partnership with land agents Savills and Strutt and Parker, with support from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) will publish the report in the spring.

RICS and RAU have now published their Farmland Market Report and Farmland Market Directory covering January to June 2021. Forthcoming editions of these publications will include additional questions about natural capital and the land market. 

RICS/RAU are always interested in having more contributors to these publications to ensure the data compiled is as representative of the market as possible. Contact Fiona Mannix if you would like to contribute.

Fiona Mannix is senior specialist, land and resources, at RICS

Contact Fiona: Email

Related competencies include: Environmental management, Land use and diversification, Legal/regulatory compliance, Management of the natural environment and landscape, Sustainability

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