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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 March 1995

The House met at Ten o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Wilderness Areas (Scotland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]

10.4 am

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate this subject, not least because it allowed me to spend last weekend hill walking in the Scottish highlands and to justify that as research. The Under-Secretary may like to know that I visited An Teallach--a magnificent mountain just above Loch Broom on Wester Ross. I reflected, as everyone who walks the Scottish hills must do, that we are custodians of a truly spectacular landscape that is unique in the world.

There is a growing consensus that particular areas of the Scottish hills are under great pressure from tourism, recreational use and all the other factors that arise from a mass leisure society, and that such areas merit special protection backed by Government regulation and administration. That is especially true of areas around Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms, where there is an overwhelming case for national parks.

We must be careful that regulations and controls designed to protect areas do not smother or stifle the people who live and work in those communities. The last thing that we want is another undemocratic quango. Democratic accountability and input from local communities are essential. However, the need for special protection and regulation is undeniable. I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) to pursue that aspect in detail, because he has a constituency interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), who also has great expertise in the subject, feels strongly that there is a need for national parks, and I know that he would have liked to be present this morning to hear this important debate.

Last year, the World Conservation Union published a report, "Paths for Life: Action for Protected Areas in Europe", which was welcomed by the Secretary of State for the Environment and strongly supported by Scottish Natural Heritage. However, there has been a conspicuous silence from the Scottish Office so far, and it is suggested that the Department is less than enthusiastic about the report. I shall be glad if the Minister will give the report a warm welcome and describe the steps being taken by the Scottish Office to implement the report's recommendations.

The rest of the highlands, beyond the high-pressure hot spots of the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond, and the wilderness areas receive fewer visitors and are therefore less controversial, but they are every bit as special. Their vulnerability arises not from the rise of mass leisure but

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from centuries of neglect and abuse. We think of the highlands as a wilderness, but as Francis Fraser Darling wrote in his classic account of highlands and islands ecology, it is a man-made wilderness and a unnecessary desert, and it could be restored and regenerated with the right land use and management. Jim Hunter, the historian of the highlands crofting community, pointed out that to describe the highlands and island as a wilderness or unspoilt, as people frequently do, is to abuse both the language and history. Jim Hunter has cited the words of the Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan, who is a great grandson of a 19th-century immigrant from the Scottish highlands, and who, in an essay called "Scotchman's Return", recorded some impressions of the highlands from which his ancestors had been expelled just a century before. In MacLennan's view, in some ways the landscapes of highland Scotland resembled those of the Canadian Arctic, but he found one fundamental difference.

In his essay, MacLennan wrote:

"This Highland emptiness only a few hundred miles above the massed population of England is a far different thing from the emptiness of our own North-West Territories. Above the 60th parallel in Canada, you feel that nobody but God has ever been there before you. But in a deserted Highland Glen, you feel that everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone."

A similar point was made more recently by the chairman of the north west region of Scottish Natural Heritage, Sir John Lister-Kaye, in a pamphlet which he published last year called "Ill Fares the Land". He points to the great damage caused by sporting estates over the past century, and their role in the general process of environmental degradation of the highlands. Sir John wrote that the sporting estates were a purely extractive form of land use, extracting nutrients from an already impoverished landscape, and returning nothing to it.

It is often claimed by patrons of sporting estates that the estates provide some kind of economic boost to the highlands, but that is yet another myth. Deer stalking estates cover almost 20 per cent. of the total land area of Scotland, but red deer management was estimated by Scottish Natural Heritage in 1991 to provide only 316 full-time and 458 part-time jobs in the whole of Scotland, with 173 downstream jobs. The total income from commercial shooting and from subsequent venison sales was about £8 million.

That has to be set against the annual income from recreational activities such as hiking and hill walking, which the Scottish tourist board estimates brings about £270 million a year to Scotland. That estimate was made in 1989, and the figure today is probably nearer £300 million.

Such misuse and abuse of land in the highlands has reduced much of it to what is now perceived as wilderness--an empty, depopulated and degraded landscape, which also suffers from environmental and social and economic degradation.

It does not have to be like that. The scenic and ecological integrity of the highlands can be protected and enhanced, while promoting healthy and economically active rural communities. The two go best together: wilderness does not have to mean emptiness. To the extent that the highlands are devoid of people, it is not to the benefit of nature or the environment but rather to their active detriment, because it leads directly to neglect and abuse.

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I should like to make a comparison between Scotland and Norway. It is an apt comparison, and will be recognised as such by the Minister, because it was used by the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), at the time of the setting up of Scottish Natural Heritage three or four years ago. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that Scotland's ecology was more like that of Scandinavia than that of southern Britain.

Two years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage supported a study visit to the Hardaland region of western Norway. It took a representative group involved in land use community issues in rural Scotland, and a report of the visit was published last year in a pamphlet called "Scotland and Norway: a Study in Land Use". In ecological and climatic terms, the Hardaland region has much in common not just with Scotland in general but with the highlands in particular, including incessant rainfall. Like the highlands, Hardaland was extensively deforested centuries ago, but, unlike Scotland, the natural forest has been allowed to regenerate over the past 150 to 200 years. The biggest difference is that, although the Hardaland region is slightly smaller than the highlands, it carries almost twice the population-- 414,000, compared with just over 200,000. About half the Hardaland population is in the city of Bergen, but even beyond that, in the rural areas the population is significantly greater in Hardaland than in the highlands. The reason for that difference lies in the system of land use and forestry that is employed in Hardaland.

In Scotland, forests are owned by large private estates or large state enterprises such as the Forestry Commission. In Norway, the tradition is to combine a small family farm with a small family forest. Typically, the family farm in Hardaland consists of about 10 hectares of land and about 60 hectares of forest per family. Land use and land ownership in Norway is small-scale and decentralised. Forestry and agriculture are integrated at all levels of the system, and Government intervention and support are geared to encourage a range of farming and family-linked activities. That is in contrast to the highlands, where all support is focused on intensive sheep farming or blanket forestry.

The Minister will remember that I wrote to him a few weeks ago asking why support could not be provided to people who wish to raise goats for cashmere wool in the highlands, instead of all support being directed towards sheep or forestry. The Minister said that that was not possible, but it is exactly the kind of multi-purpose farming that is carried on in Norway, and we should encourage it more in the Scottish highlands.

The result of such diversified farming is healthy and stable rural communities in Norway, and a landscape that is obviously cared for and looked after. That is obvious to any visitor, and the land provides employment and income for local people. The contrast between that kind of community and landscape and the so-called wilderness areas of Scotland could not be more stark.

The fundamental difference between Scotland and Norway is one that I have not yet mentioned--land ownership. Land use and land management ultimately depend upon the control and ownership of the land. In

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Norway, the people own the land upon which they live and work. As the Minister well knows, in the highlands the land and its products are in the hands of a tiny few.

It is depressing, but far from surprising, to read that the titles of the top landowners of 1995 are those of the top landowners of 1875. They are the Duke of Atholl, the Countess of Sutherland, Cameron of Locheil and lesser grandees all the way down the social scale. Of course, there has been some turnover of ownership, but even where land has changed hands, the community has had no say, influence or input whatever.

Land ownership in the highlands is a speculative market for private investors, who buy up the highlands for the same reason that they buy up jewellery or oil paintings--to get a tax advantage. It is somewhere to store surplus cash. The sale and transfer of estates bears no relation to the environmental needs of the land or the interests of local people. It is a lottery, with a responsible landowner perhaps emerging now and again, but more frequently estates pass into the hands of people who have no genuine or long-term interest in the highlands.

I want to give one or two examples of the resulting fruits of land speculation. The Knoydart estate has 16,500 acres. It is one of the jewels in the highlands crown. It was sold for £1.7 million to a company called Titaghur plc, a jute manufacturing company with half a dozen mills and 17,000 employees in India. It also has a reported debt of £67 million, and the company is apparently going bust. I hear that the Indian authorities have served an extradition order on its chairman. What on earth are we doing allowing an estate like Knoydart to pass into the hands of such a company?

Strathconnan estate has 60,000 acres. It was sold recently for between £1 million and £3 million to the Danish owners of the Lego toy company. It is notable that Lego's owners would not have been able to make such a purchase in Denmark, because the Danish Agricultural Act 1973 excludes the purchase of land for recreation or hobby farming. It also prohibits wide disparities between the selling price of land and its productive value. It is not simply that Scots would not be able to make such a purchase in Denmark; even the Danes cannot speculate in that way-- but they are allowed to come to the highlands and do it there.

The openness of the land lottery is well illustrated by an article in the Aberdeen Press and Journal 29 June last year. It quoted a company called Bowlts, in Elgin, which was trying to sell the Strathvaich estate. The article said:

"A great deal of interest has come, not only from Britain but also . . . America, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Italy and the Far East" --

interest from everywhere, it seems, but the local community. How could there be local interest, with an asking price of £2.5 million? The issue matters deeply, because a feudal pattern of land ownership is not a harmless relic from another age; it profoundly distorts the social and economic life of the highlands, and it contributes directly to the environmental degradation and the economic and social decline associated with that.

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That was recognised by the Highlands and Islands development board in a consultation document in June 1978, in which it called for greater powers for the board over land use and ownership. It stated on page 7:

"Detailed case studies . . . have illustrated the effects of losses of production, tenancies and employment in fragile areas on the structure and viability of local communities. In some cases, whole communities have been put at risk. These studies illustrate the clash which can, and does occur between the interests of owner and community in the Highlands and Islands, and emphasises the measure of power, for good or ill, that can be wrought by one private individual over the lives of whole communities . . . under present legislation, the only necessary qualification for wielding this power is sufficient means to purchase the land."

That must end. The management of Scotland's wilderness areas and the prosperity and future of highlands communities cannot be left to the whims of the speculator and the dilettante. Nor can they be held for ever in the hands of an unelected few, who owe their positions of power to nothing but the accident of birth.

I want to suggest four ways in which we can begin to change the position. First, we need to know who owns the land, how much, and where. We need a comprehensive land registry, open and available to the public, of a kind not available in Britain since the late 19th century--150 years is too long a wait for such basic and essential information. It is time the Government acted and made it available to the public.

The second change must be in the taxation of land. Scotland's landed classes thought that they had pulled a neat trick last year, when, in the other place, an amendment was moved to the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill, abolishing sporting rates on large land estates. That is worth about £2 million to the wealthiest land owners in Scotland. On 22 January, an article on the property page of The Mail on Sunday reported that the exemption was

"the big bang that Scotland's hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity has been waiting for. From April, the tax paid on land used for field sports will disappear, as announced in the last Budget. As a result, the value of sporting land is set to rise". I believe that that move will blow up in the faces of Scotland's landowners. It has placed the question of land taxation firmly back on the political agenda. If sporting rates had been left undisturbed, perhaps no one would have questioned them more deeply. Now that they have been abolished, there is the unacceptable position of large land estates paying no local taxes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's blanket condemnatioof all landlords in Scotland, which is quite unreasonable in view of the high standard of management on many estates, especially with regard to sporting rates. Is he saying that he would rather continue the policy under which Scotland pays substantially more sporting rates than England? Does he believe that that unfair practice should continue?

Mr. Macdonald: The Minister cannot possibly compare the large sporting estates of Scotland with estates in England. The difference is obvious. Indeed, it was apparent to the Victorian legislators who originally decided to impose sporting rates. I also do not see how the Minister can justify the anomaly of exempting sporting estates from paying local rates when even a Holiday hotel has to pay local rates, as do other businesses.

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The exemption for agricultural purposes is accepted, and nobody challenges that. However, there is no justification for exempting recreational and holiday estates from local taxation. That point was made to the Scottish Office last year in a joint letter to the Secretary of State from the chairmen of Scotland's rating valuation tribunals, which are independent.

In a letter that was leaked to the Glasgow Herald , they condemned the exemption as indefensible, and said:

"It is clearly totally wrong that a large estate . . . valued well into the seven figure bracket, should pay no local taxes". That is especially true when they use local services such as roads, the snow clearing service and the police service. That is especially relevant to the salmon estates, which make great use of the police service. Does the Minister think that those chairmen are wrong? No Government who are not in the grip of Tory landlords could possibly defend that anomaly. Large landed estates will have to be brought back into the taxation system. The move to exempt sporting rates has vilified the whole issue of the taxation of large land estates. We should now use the opportunity created by that to conduct a comprehensive review of the fiscal position of large land estates throughout Scotland, not just in the highlands. We should consider taxing land values as a means of taxing land speculation out of existence.

Taxation can help to deflate the speculative lottery of estate sales, but we need to do more than that. We require a set of public interest criteria that a prospective purchaser would have to fulfil before being permitted to take over ownership of any large estate. That is not an entirely new idea. In the same report that I cited earlier, the HIDB called for changes to the Highlands and Islands Development (Scotland) Act 1965 to bring about more effective powers over rural land use. In that report, published in June 1978, it called for special powers in designated areas in the Highlands to veto any prospective land sale that did not conform to the HIDB's development plan for that region. Its proposals are contained in detail in section 68 of its report, a section called "Mechanism of Control Over the Sale of Land." It points out that its proposals have parallels in legislation in at least six European countries, notably Denmark and Norway.

We should bring out those HIDB proposals and examine them once again. I would make three changes to that 1978 plan. The first involves the fact that the HIDB, or Highlands and Islands Enterprise as it is now, is probably not the appropriate body to undertake such a scheme for the 1990s. A specialised land commission or a land use council would be more appropriate. It is worth remembering that a land use council was proposed in the 1970s by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in its report "Land Resource Use in Rural Scotland". Today, the need for a land use council is even greater.

Secondly, the scheme should apply not just to small designated areas, as the HIDB suggested, but to the whole of the highlands. Thirdly, from the point of view of the public interest, the development criteria against which large land sales should be evaluated should contain not just the social and economic goals that the HIDB were concentrating on in the 1970s, but the environmental goals that we now accept as being profoundly important.

The HIDB proposal, or my changes to it, would involve no compulsory purchasing, no nationalisation, no state ownership and no cost to the public purse, but it would

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leave a competitive, tightly regulated market in the sale of land. It would soon begin to have a dramatic effect on that market by weeding out the most unsuitable speculators and purchasers of estates--the Kluges and the Schellenbergs. It would contribute gradually to the deflating of the speculative value of Scottish estates. Only people with a genuine environmental, social and economic interest in developing the highlands would commit themselves to buying. That should have a significant effect on lowering prices. That in turn should make a purchase easier for public interest groups such as the John Muir trust, which has been active in recent years, and it should bring estates more within the reach of local communities. That final aspect is the most important. We need to introduce measures that will begin to return the land to the people and to local communities so that they can manage the land directly. Three local, democratically elected and accountable land trusts exist in the highlands. The Stornoway trust in my constituency has been going since the 1920s, and the Assynt trust in Lochinver was formed amid great publicity and great public approval last year. There is also the Borve trust in Skye. Those trusts will act as an inspiration and as a model that other communities will wish to follow.

The Government should actively intervene in the land market when local communities express the desire for more democratic control and direct ownership of their land. The initiative must come from local people, but, when it does, the Government should help in all ways possible, including financial. In that way, step by step and estate by estate, such community initiatives could begin to change the face of the highlands.

That would, of course, cost money, but resources are available that could be used even now. I wish to cite just a couple. In January, for example, the Duke of Atholl, whose lands are estimated to be valued at about £140 million, claimed £400,000 from the Forestry Commission for planting tress in Glen Bruar. Lord Strathnaver is claiming £150, 000 from Scottish Natural Heritage, not for planting trees, but for not cutting them in Loch Shell in Sutherland.

Those are two of the biggest landowners in Britain--the fifth and sixth biggest respectively. They are engaged in a racket at the expense of the taxpayer. Lord Strathnaver wishes to be paid not to chop down trees and not to commit an act of environmental vandalism. If millions of pounds can be handed out to large landowners for doing literally nothing, the ordinary people of the highlands have a right to Government support and financial assistance when they aspire to take over their land.

That is one source of funding. Other resources could be used to finance the success of community ownership. Last financial year, for example, the sums allocated to promoting environmentally sensitive areas in Scotland were underspent by 86 per cent.--some £4 million. The previous year, underspend totalled around £3 million. What is the explanation for those massive underspends in environmentally sensitive area budgets, and why can they not be diverted into helping communities such as Assynt to reclaim and restore land? Why can those funds not be used to help communities that wish to purchase

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small estates that are up for disposal from the Forestry Commission? Local communities wish to take over those small plantations, so why cannot the Government step in and help them realise their ambitions?

Those various alternative sources of funding are available to the Scottish Office, but a public fund is already in existence and it is even more ideally suited to that purpose. The National Heritage Memorial Fund started life as the National Land Fund. It was established by Hugh Dalton in 1949 to purchase, in his words, "the loveliest parts of this land",

as a dedication to the memory of the war dead and for

"the use and enjoyment of the living for ever".

Unfortunately, after 32 years of Conservative Government since 1949, and two name changes to the fund, it has become better known for purchasing stately homes, sculptures and oil paintings than for buying land for the people--its original purpose. The next Labour Government can and must change that. If the fund can spend £1.5 million on a single painting for the National Gallery, as it did last year, it can afford to spend many millions of pounds more on its original mission of buying the land back for the public.

I have made four suggestions not just for the management, but for the restoration and regeneration, of Scotland's so-called wilderness areas. Those measures, or measures like them, would bring about a revolution in land management and land ownership in the highlands. They should be a major priority of the next Labour Government and of our new Scottish Parliament, so that local communities in Scotland can at last retrieve that power over their lives, which is the essential foundation of the economic revival and environmental regeneration of the highlands.

10.38 am

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland): The House is greatly indebted to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) for introducing this debate. The highlands cover almost half of Scotland's land mass, and much of the land covered falls into the category of wilderness, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke. Like the hon. Gentleman, I too have long been interested in the use of that land for enjoyment and economic activity that retains the environmental attractiveness and scenic interest for visitors. I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to the 1978 Highlands and Islands development board proposals, which, alas, dropped out of sight as soon as the present Government took office. Those proposals followed rather closely recommendations that I made in a private Member's Bill back in 1973, which were debated in the Scottish Grand Committee.

The essence of the proposals seems not to have dated entirely and, like the hon. Gentleman, I very much hope that they will be reviewed and reconsidered at least as a starting point for discussions about how to deal with the conflicts, in the highlands in particular, over the use of land and the conflicts of interest between those who effectively regard the devastated areas of wilderness as places that should not be touched, and those with other views.

The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to Fraser Darling, the father of the study of the problem, and his famous west highland survey, and to remind us that the

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present degradation of much of that land is due to human intervention and neglect and, at various times in history, to a single concept being brought to bear on the use of the land, to the exclusion of other interests.

Sadly, it is not the case, as the Minister perhaps implied in his intervention, that all is well in the highlands. He made a rather sweeping attack, which I thought misrepresented the hon. Member for Western Isles, who was not attacking landlords in general. The hon. Gentleman criticised some landlords for some activities, although I do not entirely agree with him about at least one case--that of Lord Strathnaver--which affects my constituency.

In that case, the principle is not unlike that of the set-aside arrangements: if one is not going to harvest a crop and derive an income from one's plantations of trees, it is reasonable to be compensated. However, it is a detail, about which we could have a useful discussion.

It is clear that there are still significant conflicts. I am sorry to say that there is even an eviction case in my constituency which recalls past events. It involves James Moffat and Forest Farms near Croick in Strath Carron. It is a most distressing case. Scottish Natural Heritage was involved from the beginning, although it was not responsible for the threatened eviction of Mr. Moffat, who is the last remaining sheep rearer in a valley that produced great flocks of sheep which were known at the sales--especially the Lairg sales in Sutherland--as the best in the county.

That Mr. Moffat and his family should be left without a home, and the fact that the eviction means the disappearance of his sheep enterprise from the valley, is a reflection on the inadequacy of the existing arrangements for multi-purpose land use. As I said, SNH was involved at an early stage in order to try to encourage the development of native broadleaved species there and supported the new proprietors in their enterprise, but the way in which the matter has been handled is wholly unsatisfactory.

The Minister will be aware of another case in my constituency--that of Mr. Alec Sinclair of Stirkoke in Caithness, who owns the farm of Munsary, which is a large area close to Dubh lochs of Shielton. The Dubh lochs were properly designated as sites of special scientific interest by SNH. The matter was originally handled very well, with suitable management agreements being entered into with the proprietors.

However, when Mr. Sinclair wanted to sell his farm, which was certainly not in the same category of sensitivity or importance as the Dubh lochs of Shielton, the SNH moved in and proceeded, without adequate inspection, to have it declared an SSSI. It has thereby destroyed the prospect of afforestation in the area and the prospect of Mr. Sinclair using the resources drawn from the sale to develop appropriately his low-ground farming activity.

That case is a very sharp illustration of how unsatisfactory the present arrangements are for considering multi-purpose land use. It should not be possible for an agency, which is ultimately able to dispose of such matters without appeal to the Secretary of State, to be able to intervene and destroy a venture of the kind on which Mr. Sinclair was embarked. Parliament will have to return to the question whether it is satisfactory not to have a democratic appeals system against intervention by such an environmental agency. I do not believe it is, but the picture is perhaps more kaleidoscopic than when I first discussed these matters in the early and mid-1970s.

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As the hon. Member for Western Isles said, it is true that land use has remained in the hands of some of the great landowners, but new elements are appearing--such as the arrival of great foreign investors such as the owners of Lego from Denmark. A further new development is the acquisition of land by bodies whose sole purpose is environmental protection. I am thinking of, for example, the John Muir trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, both of whom have acquired substantial estates in Sutherland in the past two years. The John Muir trust has an estate at Kinlochbervie, and the RSPB has an estate at Forsinard.

Although I have some admiration for the way in which the RSPB has set about its task, I am concerned to ensure that the acquisition of estates by organisations with a single use in mind does not mean the exclusion of economic activity, and that, in their understandable enthusiasm to protect what they own, such organisations do not seek to exclude visitors, hikers or those who are of great value to the communities in those areas.

Nor would I wish that type of organisation to have priority over developments which are locally owned and locally based. The Assynt trust development is, in its way, a model. Indeed, the extent to which public bodies were prepared to be involved in the Assynt trust was particularly encouraging. It was financially backed by the local enterprise company and the Highland regional council in the first instance, and it is possible that we shall see the kind of multi-purpose use evident in Norway, to which the hon. Member for Western Isles drew attention, which seems to be very much a model. I am particularly interested in the thinking of Assynt on the use of small plantations greatly to enhance the environment.

I do not wish to take up the time of the debate, because many hon. Members want to speak. I am most grateful for the opportunity to support the hon. Member for Western Isles in his call for the study of four specific measures. The land register, the taxation of under-used land, the set of public interest criteria against which to judge activities and the bringing of land under local management and control are all worthy of debate. His initiative should be strongly backed.

10.50 am

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): I shall be extremely brief. I add my congratulations to those which have already been given to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) for bringing this very important issue before the House. Although this is a fairly lengthy debate today, the subject merits additional attention, and should certainly be taken forward by the Government and Opposition parties. It is worth while reminding the House that, when we talk about land, especially in the highlands and islands of Scotland, we do so with a great deal of passion. Seared into our psyche is the memory of the highland clearances:

"The people damned by the black-faced ram,

And the factor's fire-raisers"--

as the folk song goes. That memory always colours our attitudes to such matters.

It is important that we stress to the Government that we are looking not for a patronising attitude toward the highlands and islands, but for positive action, so that our people may remain in their glens, by their lochsides, and earn a decent living in a modern context. We have moved

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well past the stage of thinking of the highlands and islands as having a productivity of half an ounce of grouse per acre. We now recognise that the people of the area can bring important factors into play through tourism, their skills and their knowledge, and, particularly with the development of information technology, by work which makes it possible for them to stay in those remote areas. I emphasise the importance attached by the hon. Member for Western Isles to the ownership and management of land. All of us want to see a correct balance. I certainly endorse the view that we should not ever have the attitude that all Scottish landowners are good and everybody else is bad, because the reality is that there is a mixture of good and bad landowners from all different origins in the highlands and islands. We want a people-centred policy: centred on the people whose linguistic and natural skills should enable them to make a living in their own area. We are looking for a sensible balance.

I remind the Minister that the Public Accounts Committee substantially criticised the failure to develop a land registry in Scotland. A report in November showed that no registration had taken place north of the Tay. It is high time that a register operated in the highlands and islands. I welcome the fact that my party has set up an independent land commission to which everyone is invited to give evidence, so that we may try to process information a little faster than Government tactics have made possible.

10.53 am

Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian): I shall also be brief, because time is running out. The highlands are also dear to me, as a representative of the central belt of Scotland and as a Scotsman. In fact, they are dear to every person in Scotland. I was a councillor for 16 years, and I ended up as the chairman of the Lothian planning committee. We set up the reforestation of the central belt in the moorlands between Strathclyde and Lothian. I believe that the scheme is going very well. The trees were scientifically planted and looked after, because the lands needed that investment.

As a keen angler, and also, I must admit, as a member of a quango--non- paid, by the way--because of my role as an adviser to the forestry commission of the south and west of Scotland, my eyes were opened to what was going on and what could be done under good management. I had to compliment the commission: I had no criticism of it at all. It gives access and opens up places to the public in and around Galloway, Dumfries and the Borders region.

My aim is to achieve a joint effort. The panic button is set off when I see privatisation. Privatisation means "Private: Keep Out". One of my ambitions --it should be an ambition of all Scotsmen--is to get to know Scotland. How can people get to know Scotland when there is a "Keep Out" notice? How can we get to know the land of our birth when people are standing there, defying us, pushing us away and building obstacles, so that we cannot even stop our cars at the side of the road?

Those notices and obstacles are all part and parcel of the supposedly well- run estates. I have paid to fish in some parts of Scotland. I am sure that the hon. Member for Caithness Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) would agree

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that the flow lands have a beauty of their own. Again, the panic button was pressed when people were talking about using the lands for a dump for toxic or nuclear waste. The whole of Scotland stood up and said, "No, you can't do that." It was once a proposal, and I hope that it will never become a reality.

I join my colleagues from Scotland in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) for raising the subject. I emphasise how sensitive it is. I am sure that, as a Scotsman from the part of the world that I was praising earlier, the Minister is well aware of the sensitivity of and need for this debate.

It is all very well to say that there are well-managed estates. So there are, but others are the private domain of a group of people who are intent on using their land for one purpose only, and the community around it can get lost as far as they are concerned. There has to be public input, and for large tracts of Scotland there must be joint responsibility among the local authorities--the elected representatives--and obviously the Government, as well as private owners, landlords and others.

As a representative of the semi-rural area of Midlothian, I appreciate the country. As a miner, I used to use the countryside as a lung. Scotland should be used as a lung for people in industrial areas, and they should have access to land where they can enjoy its beauty and the fresh air. I hope that the debate has succeeded in emphasising certain points which have been made by my colleagues, and that the Minister will reply positively.

10.58 am

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald)? He has done us a great favour in introducing this debate. I shall talk exclusively about a wilderness area in my constituency: Loch Lomond.

I had to telephone the Minister's office to get a copy of the Government's response to the Hutchison report on Loch Lomond, despite the fact that the Minister and Mr. Magnus Magnusson publicly launched it on Monday, and that every Scottish journalist with an interest had that document. Will the Minister have some respect for the Opposition, and at least give us information at the same time as journalists receive it? Also, I hope that Sir Russell Hillhouse, the permanent secretary to the Scottish Office, will ensure that the civil servants act impartially, so that we obtain documents at the same time as journalists.

It has taken a long time for a response to the document to appear. Ten years ago, the Government set up the Countryside Commission to consider Loch Lomond and the national parks. The Countryside Commission reported in July 1990, and the Government refused to accept its recommendations. The response to the document on Monday is illustrated in the comments in The Herald , which referred to a "Trumpet of disbelief for Loch Lomond's voluntary solution." I have been very concerned about Loch Lomond for many years. On at least three occasions over the past six or seven years, I have convened meetings in my constituency which, on each occasion, were attended by at least 150 people from all parts of the political spectrum--by those from the town and the countryside, and by environmentalists, recreationists and anglers. On every occasion, a firm and universal view about the problems of Loch Lomond was expressed. The only person who is out of step is the Secretary of State.

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I can inform the Secretary of State and the Minister that the community body, the Friends of Loch Lomond, met last night. They described the document to which I have referred as "procrastination". The Minister has friends among the Friends of Loch Lomond--witness the fact that three members of the executive council of that body were appointed by the Secretary of State to the Hutchison committee. They are deeply dismayed by the response in the document.

Sir Peter Hutchison, whom the Secretary of State appointed personally, said on Monday that the Secretary of State must not lose ownership of the problem, because it is not a local problem; it is not within the fiefdom of the local authorities. It is a national problem, and the Secretary of State has abdicated his responsibility to Loch Lomond and to the national dimension.

The Secretary of State is cheating on the timetable. He set up the Countryside Commission 10 years ago to examine the issue. It reported, and he immediately shelved its report. He set up the Hutchison committee a few years ago. It reported two years ago, and he delayed a response until last Monday. The Secretary of State has passed the Hutchison committee report on to the local authorities, but he has given them no succour or indication of what finance will be available. That is a complete and utter abdication of his responsibilities.

I remind the Minister that the Countryside Commission report stated that Loch Lomond should have national park status, because, among other aspects, it would then join 130 other countries which have national parks in having indicative land strategies for land management, for key land uses, for the establishment of land management forums, for the integration of grants for conservation and agriculture, and for protection for wilderness land, better land management and access to open country.

It is crystal clear that we are totally out of step with our neighbours in Europe. Not only are we out of step: we will not have an opportunity to have grants and financial assistance that are available to other countries.

The essence of the document published on Monday is that the Secretary of State has set up a joint committee, as witnessed in paragraph 12 on page 7, to consider a joint committee. According to paragraph 12, the joint committee of Loch Lomond park authority, which exists at the moment, will be superseded by another joint committee, which will then consider the feasibility of having the Loch Lomond park authority and the Trossachs as part of yet another joint committee.

Leaving aside the question of the creation of a joint committee to consider a joint committee, why in the interim, cannot the Minister consider the whole area? If the Secretary of State so decides, he could exclude the Trossachs now, and could fund the existing joint committee--the Loch Lomond park authority--to the minimum of 75 per cent. which the Hutchison committee report recommended. He could also provide additional borrowing for capital consents to the constituent local authorities. However, he is not doing that, because, contrary to utchison's recommendations, the document contains no hint of what the funding will be.

The Secretary of State could appeal to the local authorities today--I would join in that appeal from the House of Commons--to give over their powers to the joint committee, as recommended by Hutchison, so that the finance, consent and lead from central Government would be given. The Secretary of State would have the

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