Green mountains

Below Mike Daniels shares his views on Dick Balharry’s vision for land use in Scotland. This article is the second in a series of responses that we have collected and hope you will enjoy. We will be sharing a further three responses over the next three weeks.

Land Use and Ownership

Mike Daniels

In his paper Delivering change through vision, empowerment and recognition, Dick Balharry set out to address “the need for quality jobs in rural areas, the need to break the dependency cycle, the need to see our wildlands as an economic asset, the need to have regard to carbon emissions and the need to think long term.” The land reform bill published in June 2015 provides a catalyst for change towards Dick’s vision. But the full potential of this vision can only be achieved with comprehensive land use reform as well as land ownership reform.

The main thrust behind the bill is empowerment for local people. While undoubtedly control of land can help empower change, change to promote sustainable land use will also require reform of the other key drivers: incentives regulation and culture. If we only change one of these drivers (ownership), but leave the others intact, we cannot expect land use to change. Moreover, even if the Scottish Government were to achieve its ambitious target of a million acres of land in community ownership by 2020, that would still leave three-and-a-half million acres of privately-owned sporting estates. Land reform is broader than just increasing community ownership: it involves a cultural shift in how we view our land – as an asset for the long-term common good rather than a commodity for the benefit of the current owner (be they private, community, state or NGO).

So how do we describe the common good? Of paramount importance to Dick was the idea of ‘public interest’ and the fact, rarely acknowledged, that the phrase itself is poorly defined. There is an argument in some quarters that grouse moors, deer ‘forests’, wind farms, forestry plantations or ‘farming’ land with no agricultural viability serve the public interest well. So long as it remains poorly defined, there remains the opportunity for all who manage land for whatever objective to claim the ‘public interest’. In reality, as a society we don’t value what we pay for – or pay for what we value. Our current land use focus is not on enhancing and regenerating our environment for the benefit of everyone for now and the future. Instead, government incentives and policies tend to benefit a minority, paid for by wider society.

There is also a strand of opinion that portrays conservation as being at loggerheads with rural communities. According to this narrative, protecting nature – whether by individuals, NGOs or government – stifles development and exploitation of natural resources, frustrating the efforts of communities to use ‘their’ natural resources to create jobs and stem population decline. The recently adopted SNH Wild Land Areas map, for example, is portrayed by some as an obstacle to rural development. The sad reality, from a long-term perspective, is that the Highlands have many bad legacies of deforestation (and subsequent inappropriate forestry plantations), overfishing, overgrazing with sheep and deer, and excessive burning of vegetation. Many of these were supported or incentivised by governments of the day, based on short-term gain and later regretted. In recent years, energy companies driven by limited duration public subsidies with lasting impact have targeted the uplands. Short-term exploitation and destruction of nature for any purpose is not sustainable development. ‘We cannot exist without nature, yet nature has no need for humans’ is a truism seldom acknowledged. Truly sustainable management is about looking after our natural resources, not just for ourselves and for future generations but for the sake of wildlife and for the health of our planet.

So how do we encourage sustainable use of natural resources? How do we empower large-scale ecological repair and regeneration, essential for maintaining fragile rural communities? Surely the way forward is to integrate all of the elements rather than persist with a sectoral approach (agriculture, environment, energy, etc.). From the public sector that would mean regulations and incentives based on protection and enhancement of the Earth upon which we all depend. Regulation and protection is about avoiding the tragedy of the commons. It is in our wider societal interest, both short-term and long-term. The appreciation and protection of Wild Land Areas is part of that process. Recognition and confidence in the unique value that these assets hold will help local communities progress their wise use. Use based on long-term benefits to society (including local communities) as a whole rather than exploitation for short-term gain by external commercial interests.

Rather than viewing protection with suspicion or seeing it as a threat to livelihoods, the promotion of nature and creation of ‘wildlife destinations’ not only safeguards the natural life support systems, but also provides real jobs and real incomes without dismantling the Earth’s fabric. In Scotland, rural communities and landowners are in a powerful position to take more pride and be more ambitious in valuing, protecting and enhancing the natural resources on which they and we all depend.

Nature should be prioritised in rural development payments. Financial incentives should be targeted at the protection and restoration of native forests and peatlands; the creation of new woodlands; the preservation of native species and reintroductions of ones we’ve eradicated. Land management needs to be incentivised to produce long-term sustainable public goods rather than focus on maintaining ‘traditional’ lifestyles or short-term exploitation. We can only begin to change the culture through recognising and rewarding good practice if we are agreed on what that looks like. Empowerment is certainly part of the land reform equation. Currently few rural dwellers are actively engaged in managing the land around them. As a society we have lost the culture of woodland management, hunting, livestock shepherding and mountain guiding by local people.

Unless we change all parts of the land use equation – clarity on the public interest, appropriate regulation and incentives, and a significant cultural shift towards a ‘land ethic’ – we will not achieve the full potential that land reform offers.