There was a fantastic piece of journalism on Channel 4 News last night, as Alex Thomson visited the town of Langholm in Dumfries & Galloway to see the land which the community is trying to get back from the Duke of Buccleuch.
I say “get back” because part of the area the community is trying to buy was in 1759 ruled by a Court to be common land. This story has an important place in the radical traditions of the area, with an annual ‘common riding’ held on the last Friday of July every year to mark the boundaries of the common land. In 1812, the Duke had sought to seize another piece of the common land in the town called the Kilngreen by planting trees and thus claiming it to be his, despite the 1759 ruling. In 1816, the local people rose up, and were charged with “mobbing and rioting”.
“The direct action of these Langholm men who marched up the High Street to the Kilngreen carrying spades, with the Town Drummer to the fore to prevent the attempted enclosure, then uprooting the young trees and tying them to the end of long poles and returning down the street were engaged in as militant a demonstration of public feelings as one can imagine,” Andy Wightman MSP finds, in a fascinating account spanning over 300 years of how the Duke of Buccleuch stole common land in Langholm.
This community buy-out has not started out so radical, but who knows maybe it could end up there. The Duke is willing to sell it to the community if they can come up with £6 million, the independent evaluation of the market value of the land. But where are the community going to get £6 million from? The Scottish Land Fund gave them just £1 million, so they are £5 million short and the Duke has set a deadline of the end of October to find the cash.
Thomson speaks to Kevin Cumming, project leader of the Langholm initiative, who explains that the community plan – one of the largest community ownership bids in the UK so far as they seek to buy 10,000 acres – would not just be good for the natural environment, re-wilding a large area and restoring peat bogs for carbon capture, but would also create rural jobs in an area badly affected by the closure of a textile factory.
Thomson then speaks to Wightman, who explains how the land laws the Duke of Buccleuch continues to benefit from were written by people just like him – male, aristocratic landowners. Thomson then tries to find the Duke to ask him his view. After getting him on the phone, the Duke pretends he can’t hear him, then switches his phone off! The Duke’s new chief executive, Benny Higgins, does speak, and comes across as wholly unsympathetic to the community’s plight.
Asked by Thomson whether “it is right when the country is trying to get itself back on its feet following Covid that taxpayers money goes into the hands of someone who is already fabulously wealthy?”, Higgins replies: “Well we are running a business, and we have put the land up for sale, the communities are interested in that land, if they don’t buy it we’ll sell it to someone else”. Asked why the Duke can’t just give Langholm community the land as other big landowners have done on occasion, Higgins replies “businesses don’t just give assets away, we’re not giving it away”.
Of course the government could simply re-write the laws so that Buccleuch Estates cannot dictate terms quite so easily. As Lesley Riddoch has said in an excellent piece on Langholm, the case highlights the weakness in present land reform laws, as old feudal estates like Buccleuch only have to sell to the community at market value at a time of soaring land prices, and only if they want to. Add to that public subsidy which goes to community groups to buy land, and it’s yet another case of the public subsidising the super-rich, all because more radical land reform, like compulsory purchase at use value and land taxes, has been avoided by government.
“I’m sure the Scottish Government, dealing with big enough issues right now, will cast a weary sigh at the notion they need to revisit land reform again,” Riddoch writes. “But this is what happens when legislators pull their punches and fail to enact bold, simple moves to create equity in the distribution of land. How hard would it be for the SNP to stop dealing with land in a piecemeal, defensive, reluctant way and spend some time framing legislation that takes the burden off communities and leaves no-one dependent on landowner largesse?”
It wouldn’t be hard, if the Scottish Government were genuinely willing to confront entrenched inequalities in its economic recovery plans. But considering the self-same chief executive of Buccleuch Estates, Benny Higgins, was inexplicably given the job of writing those economic recovery plans, I won’t be holding my breath, and neither should the Common Riding when it gathers on Friday.
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