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Land & Climate Change – Exploiting our natural capital for the benefit of all

Shona Glenn

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Ardhuncart Estate is in many respects unremarkable – a typical Scottish estate. At just shy of 1,600 acres it comes with a range of forestry and farming interests, shooting and fishing rights, a small property portfolio and the obligatory “big house”. In July it went on the market for £5.6 million.

A glance through the glossy sales particulars shows that Ardhuncart is likely to be particularly attractive to those looking for “ecological restoration opportunities”. Ardhuncart is not unusual.

Ecological restoration is fast becoming big business. Research published in March by Savills reported that 2020 had been an “extraordinary” year for the Scottish estate market with a 98% increase in buyers interested in rural property. The main drivers? Natural capital and forestry.

Whereas previous generations of estate buyers were attracted to land by its amenity value or sporting potential, today’s generation is increasingly interested in its green credentials. Whether driven altruism, a need to offset carbon emissions generated elsewhere or simply an appetite to take advantage of generous public subsidies for tree planting, “Green Lairds” are in the ascendant.

They have not arrived unnoticed.

The effect of this trend on land prices and the increasing risk of communities being priced out of the market by deep pocketed ecological investors has left many in the community sector feeling uneasy. In April veteran land reformer Peter Peacock warned that a new century of land exploitation may be around the corner. Given the history of land-use change in the Highlands this fear is not unfounded. Many are now calling on Government to act.

But Scotland must also act on climate change and our natural endowments put us squarely in the frontline of this fight. It is not without reason that the UK Commission on Climate Change challenged Scotland to reach net zero fully five years ahead of the rest of the UK.

This should give us a competitive edge in the global green investment market, which has grown to staggering $754 billion since 2007 when the first green bonds were issued. Scotland can’t afford to miss out on this bonanza – but a free-for-all is not the answer

We can’t allow the drive to net zero to pitch community and private interests against each other. Our approach must benefit everyone.

Part of the solution to this may lie in a more sophisticated models of land governance. Previous research by the Land Commission shows that the binary distinctions we tend to make in Scotland between private, public, or community owned land are not the norm elsewhere in the world. There is a whole spectrum of models between these three extremes.

Could these hybrid models help us to harness private finance in ways that also benefit local communities?

Perhaps we also need to be asking more fundamental questions.

While we have become used to thinking about land as a commodity, in reality landownership is nothing more than a bundle of rights that allows the holder to use a given area in particular ways – and the content of that bundle is not fixed.

In the early 20th century for example landowners had the right to develop their land however they saw fit. That changed in 1947 with the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act, which required landowners to obtain permission from the state before undertaking significant development.

Why should the rights to exploit embodied carbon be any different? Is it a foregone conclusion that they come as part and parcel of a standard legal title?

Looking at past experience could help provide answers.

In the early 1970s Scotland stood at the cusp of another economic bonanza based on a different natural resource. The story of how this opportunity was squandered has been well told since – but what can we learn from this?

What role did mechanisms like tax and licencing play and how could these mechanisms be used more effectively this time round?

Similarly, what can we learn from Scotland’s more recent experience with renewable energy?

By many measures the benefits from renewables have been shared more equitably than those from oil. At the last count 82 of the 731MWs generated by locally owned operational renewable generation installations in Scotland were owned outright by local communities and £15.7 million was raised each year through community benefit funding arrangements.

Some would argue this approach still leaves communities short-changed. Others lament Scotland’s inability to secure a leading position in the global renewables supply chain. This raises important questions.

What does the supply chain for ecological restoration look like? Does it even have one – and if it does how can we make sure Scotland captures it?

And what does a fair share for communities actually look like? While few would question the right of local communities and economies to benefit from the opportunities of land-use change – should those benefits be restricted to those who happen to live nearby?

The industrial forces that drove climate change shaped and scarred the whole of Scotland. Rural depopulation and urban dereliction are two sides of the same coin. As we seek to harness our natural capital in service of climate objectives we must remember that it belongs to us all.  In looking for solutions that deliver a just transition we need to question what a fair contract between urban and rural Scotland would look like.

Finding answers to these kinds of questions needs to be a shared endeavour – a national conversation involving government, industry and communities that draws on our collective knowledge, skills and experience. We’ll be kickstarting that discussion at our conference in October – see you there!