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10.17 am

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for securing a debate on the very important topic of land tenure and land ownership in Scotland. I shall make two or three quick points in the short time that I have.

My first point--an important one--is that, as the hon. Member emphasised, land tenure and ownership has risen to the top of the political agenda in Scotland during recent years. He knows that many of the issues of land ownership and land use were mentioned in a debate that I secured last year on wilderness areas. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) secured a similar debate earlier this year.

Those debates, the spate of articles that have appeared in the Scottish national press in recent months, and the two excellent books--one by Andy Whightman and the other by Auslan Cramb--show that the issue of land tenure and land ownership is climbing the political agenda in Scotland. It is doing so because people realise that the feudal pattern of land ownership in Scotland is not a harmless relic but has real implications for people's lives, especially in the highlands; and I shall speak about the highlands.

One good example has already been mentioned: the legislation proposed by the Government on crofting trusts. It is not merely an irony that the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill was launched in the House of Lords. It is a well-worn pattern under this Government that legislation affecting land management and land use issues originates in the other place. That was the case with the Deer (Scotland) Bill in the previous Session, and we saw how it was mauled in the other place. I am afraid that the pattern will be repeated with the crofting trusts Bill.

That is a clear illustration of the continuing power given to a small class or caste of people by their ownership of vast tracts of land in Scotland. That could have immediate financial consequences for the Government, because the crofting trusts Bill creates the possible right of pre-emption, which may be exercised by former landowners over estates now owned by the Secretary of State, and might result in their receiving a small--or even a large--financial windfall. That is a clear example of the continuing effect of land ownership on public policy in Scotland.

My second example is more local but still relevant to the debate. It shows that the impact of land ownership is manifested not only in what landowners can do, but in what they can prevent.

I refer to the activities of the Uig and Hamnaway estate in my constituency, which recently objected to proposals by local business people to set up a mussel farm near one

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of the lochs on the estate. Many people have grounds for objecting to economic developments, but the stark fact is that such an objection from a large estate carries more weight with the Crown Estate Commissioners who finally decide those matters than would an objection from an ordinary crofter. That is a further example of the continuing power and influence of landowners in the highlands.

I shall not reiterate the arguments that I advanced in the debate last year, except for one point that is particularly relevant. I proposed the introduction of new and strict controls over the sale of large estates in the highlands. There is currently a controversy over Eigg, but each year large tracts of land are sold off to the highest bidder, regardless of community interests or environmental need. That is a continuing abuse, which must be halted.

I suggested last year that we pursue the proposals by the Highlands and Islands development board almost 20 years ago, when, in a report in 1978, it called for mechanisms to control the sale of land. It is about time we legislated for such mechanisms. That will be an early task of the Scottish Parliament that will be set up by the next Labour Government.

My proposal is that there should be a specialised land commission or land use council covering the whole of the highlands and islands, which would have powers to veto the proposed purchase of any estate which did not conform to the environmental and economic criteria set down by the land commission. Every prospective purchaser of a large highland estate should be obliged to carry out an environmental and a developmental audit, and the purchase should be allowed to proceed only if those audits were passed. Any subsequent failure to conform to the terms of those audits should result in the purchaser having to relinquish the title and sell it on to another person or body able to fulfil the terms of the audit.

My proposal would involve no compulsory purchase, no nationalisation, no state ownership and no cost to the public purse, but it would soon have a dramatic effect, as it would weed out the most unsuitable speculators and purchasers of large estates in the highlands. It would deflate the speculative value of those estates and thereby put land ownership within the reach of ordinary communities, which, as we see, are aspiring to take over ownership and control of their own estates.

Scotland's feudal pattern of land ownership is not just a quaint relic from another era; it still represents a serious distortion of the social and economic life of the highlands and islands, and it is about time it was reformed.

10.25 am

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye): I shall contribute briefly to the debate, to enable other hon. Members to make their contributions.

The only part of the speech by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) with which I would take issue was his description of the crofting legislation that will shortly come before us as "too little, too late". It is certainly too late, but my anxiety is that it is too much, in terms of its blank permissiveness. It grants a blank cheque, financially and legislatively, to the Secretary of State. I agree with the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) that, in the coming weeks, we shall see the extent to which it is gutted in the other place.

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It is 20 years since the last Government-proposed crofting legislation went through the House. It is not satisfactory for a matter so complex and convoluted to be considered only once in a generation. In a Scottish Parliament, we could do better.

In a throwaway phrase, the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) highlighted the problem when he spoke about the many good estate owners and landowners who "look after" their tenants. Some of us find such paternalism offensive. It has no place in the last few years of the 20th century, as we head into the 21st. It should be a matter not of tenants being looked after, but of people having their own rights.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the Ross and Cromarty district issue. Let me probe the Minister on that. The matter is before the courts and has arisen with a right of pre-emption which has been exercised locally. It could have considerable knock-on effects. The basic problem, which arose from the Black Isle originally and has gone all the way to the House of Lords, is that the Government thought that they had attended to the issue of the rights of pre-emption in 1982, and that council house sales overrode those rights. Of course, that was not the case. Although we would very much wish their Lordships to overturn the situation, that is clearly taking some time.

The Government seem to be contradicting what they said in the mid-1980s. As long ago as 1985, the Scottish Office expressed the view that, if litigation highlighted the problem, which it now has, the Government would immediately contemplate amending legislation. They have been immediately contemplating it for more than 10 years now.

The Government could have addressed the issue with what would probably have been a one-clause Bill. They themselves acknowledged that there had been an oversight when they passed the right-to-buy legislation. They should have addressed the issue rather than causing cost to the public purse--the local authorities, the Government and the Law Lords--and distress, frustration and anxiety for the individuals concerned. I make a plea to the Minister: why have the Government waited so long, and why have they not acted in the way they said they would act 10 years ago?

Two recent examples from my constituency underscore the growing sense of anger about the issue. Two rural primary schools are being closed on the Lovat estate. One is at Knockbain near Beauly, and the other is at Kirkton five miles away. Despite the fact that both schools were built and maintained with public money, Highland council has no option but to give them back to the Lovat estate, which owns the ground on which they were built in the 19th century. There is no question of the legality of that; the Lovat estate is on all fours and is quite right.

Councillor Jimmy Munro, who represents the Beauly and Strathglass ward, sums up the problem well. He says:

When one considers that a community asset, which has been in community use and community upkeep for more than a century, is reverting to an estate, one can understand why people feel so strongly, especially as the money could have been better applied elsewhere.

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Another example concerns a constituent who came to me recently, who wanted to build a small workshop and back porch on his house. He is not a well-off constituent, but a small business person who is operating at the margins. The estate on which he lives demanded a fee of £500 to give approval for him to carry out the work. It advised him that that was standard practice. The fee is £500 a throw, and there are many such approvals every month of the year. That is pernicious activity by estate owners in this day and age.

The Scottish Law Commission has been mentioned. I was not filled with enthusiasm by the response from the Minister of State when I asked him when he intended to take up the gauntlet thrown down by the commission, and to embark on a degree of reform. He replied that the matter was one to which the Government would give due priority. The letter was signed by the Minister of State, who is the younger brother of the Duke of Hamilton. He contested the succession to the earldom of Selkirk in the heraldic court. That does not fill one with enthusiasm or a belief that the Minister of State will give as high a priority to dealing with feudal issues as many of our constituents would wish.

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