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10.32 am

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): All of us are grateful to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for introducing this debate on a very important topic. He was more restrained than usual, and rightly so, because the feudal system and laws about which we are talking are a relic of the Scottish Parliament. In other words, they are laws enacted by Scots to the detriment of Scots.

Although he may contend that a Scottish Parliament might have removed those laws, fortunately for his case, the matter has never been put to the test. The hon. Gentleman was also correct to be restrained, because the last Labour Government started to do something about the feudal system, with the redemption of feu duties. They did not abolish feudal rights, but they might have done so if the hon. Gentleman's party had not brought down the Government and sided with Margaret Thatcher.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan had another reason to be constrained. From the cases he described, he seemed to be making the point that has dogged all land ownership questions in the country for some years. It is not a question of who owns the land and whether it is in foreign ownership or Scottish ownership. The people the hon. Gentleman described were Scots abusing the Scots. I hope that we shall hear no more of the argument that, if only all the land was owned by the Scots, everything would be fine, and that the only problem is the foreign owners.

As the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) rightly pointed out, there are two issues here. One is the ownership of land, which is important, but the other is how the land is managed, the point on which I shall concentrate. A good owner can manage the land well, and a bad owner can manage it extremely badly. That is true of management of the grouse moors, the lochs and the deer forests. That point also affects the area in which I am particularly interested, which is access to land. The approach to access is variable; the Minister and I have discussed this on other occasions.

As the Minister knows, a concordat has been established by Scottish Natural Heritage which is a major step forward in agreement and co-operation between

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1167

landowners and those who use the mountains about access to the land. This is probably the last chance the landowners have before legislation giving the right to roam is introduced, and they have a duty to make it work. The great problem with the concordat is not that it is voluntary, but that, although it was negotiated with the Scottish Landowners Federation, about one third of landowners are not members, and the federation cannot enforce the concordat anyway.

Despite the concordat, there is still a persistent hassle factor in the Scottish mountains. By that I mean trying to gain access to the mountains and finding notices that say, "Because of Government restrictions, no access". We know that there are no Government restrictions and that the notices are misleading, but the signs hassle individuals and restrict their access.

There are locks and gates throughout the highlands, but not because there are picture house queues waiting to gain access to the mountains. I am not talking about areas like Snowdonia or Sca Fell. I am talking about places like Arkle and Foinavon, where, at almost any time of year, one can walk for a week and never see anyone. I hope that the Minister will keep an eye on access, especially in the particular area that we discussed when we considered the Deer (Scotland) Bill.

Since that Bill was passed, I have done a quick check on notices saying, "Stalking in progress, no access to the hills". Again, those notices are not legally binding, but people adhere to them, partly because they do not want to be shot when they are moving around the mountains. As the Minister will know, stalking is not permitted on a Sunday, yet my recent check has shown that such notices are still up on Sundays. I have asked the Deer Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage to consider the matter, and I hope that the Minister will ask them what they are doing about the problem. If we are to get access, there has to be a two-way process.

I now return to my hobby horse--the national parks, an important form of land management. They have been around since just after the second world war. The Minister of State was responsible for setting up the Countryside Commission study into the matter in 1988, and it reported in 1990. We are still no further forward with national parks. The pressure on Loch Lomond is getting unbearable, and the pressure on the Cairngorms is ripping the area apart. There is bad land management there, and scars such as the Cairngorm funicular are being proposed.

It is proposed that the Cairngorms should become a world heritage site. That, however, will not happen under the current arrangements. The Cairngorms are important not just to this nation's heritage, but to the world. Will the Minister please once again consider national park status, if not for all the areas proposed, at least for the two I have mentioned?

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was right to say that land is an important political issue, and it will become more important. As people get more time and as cities expand, we need the lungs of the mountains, the wilderness and the countryside. It is wrong that those areas are exclusively in the hands of individuals, be they Scots or foreigners. We all have an interest in those lands. They should be held in trusts. We must give this issue more importance; otherwise, we are in peril of reneging on our responsibilities.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1168

10.39 am

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing this debate, and on his speech. Before I come to the specific issues he raised, I want to mention briefly a matter that has been a constant source concern and complaints in my constituency: the management of Blackford estate. It is not a highland estate, so it shows that these problems are not confined to the highlands and islands.

The problem of the Blackford estate is often raised by farmers, local residents and local ministers of religion, who are concerned by the issues that are brought to the fore when they consider the management of the estate. The estate contains many farmhouses--they are in double figures--some of which are visible from the A9, which is one of the main roads through Scotland. Those farmhouses have been allowed to fall into rack and ruin over a period of years. Many people living in the area were raised in those houses, and they must stand by and watch what was a perfectly adequate family home being allowed to fall into dereliction. The estate is in absentee ownership. The owner appears to have little concern for the local community, especially in Blackford.

Those houses could have been used as homes in a part of Scotland that has a housing shortage. As recently as last week, the estate owner was trying to obtain planning permission to demolish some of those houses.

Ian Thomson occupied one of the bothie cottages to highlight the fact that it is nonsense for houses to be allowed to fall into dereliction and for land not to be used, yet when someone tries to do something about one of the houses or one of the fields, attempts are made to remove him. Those attempts failed in court at the first hurdle. The sheriff felt that it was hard to see how it could be argued that Ian Thomson was doing damage to property, given that he was repairing property that the owner was allowing to fall into dereliction. It is an astonishing case, but unfortunately it highlights what is happening.

Land ownership seems to be an area in which vandalism is legal, which is exactly what is happening on the Blackford estate. Even the Scottish Landowners Federation, which is hardly a radical body, does not defend the management practices of Blackford estate. That estate is 30 to 45 minutes from Glasgow--a centre of population in Scotland. This issue is not confined to the far north-west or to the islands.

The Minister will try to convince us that matters are not as bad as they seem. I dare say that he will boldly state that the Government's support for private ownership rights is paramount, and he will condemn any outside interference in those rights or in the land market. Perhaps he will even call such attempts bolshevik, which was the Government's considered response to the 17,000-word Land Commission report.

If he does so, he will have failed to grasp the central arguments of our case. It is precisely the interference of a handful of occasionally unpredictable feudal superiors and landowners in the private rights of the majority that concerns us and the people of Scotland. We urge the Government to undertake land reform to protect the rights of the majority.

I am sure that the Government will ask us to wait for the report of the Scottish Law Commission before they take any action. That head-in-the-sand attitude is not good

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1169

enough. Why should the House accept that nothing can be done to remove the threat to the majority posed by pre-emption rights, when the Government blithely propose to remove such rights as they affect their own property in the forthcoming Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill?

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan raised the issue of casualty clauses and their impact on the villagers of Boghead. Letters from the Boghead residents' solicitor, to which he referred, have been copied to me. They offer a way forward, with or without the Law Commission report.

They point out that the Feudal Casualties (Scotland) Act 1914 abolished feudal casualties, but not the leasehold casualties that have had an impact in the Boghead case. In the opinion of most experts, that was an oversight. The principle of removing those casualties is not in question. From what I have heard today, it is not called into question by Conservative Members. Those letters offer a solution: an Act of sederunt passed by the Lord President of the Court of Session amending the legislation to prevent the likes of Mr. Hamilton from enforcing his right to payment of casualties.

The Scottish Office reply says that the Lord President is concerned about the vires of such an action. I am sure that hon. Members would offer him full support if he took such a course of action. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point.

That is a short-term solution, but it would have an impact on Boghead residents. In the longer term, it has been suggested that the Long Leases (Scotland) Act 1954, which contained a provision for the transfer of such leases into feus--but only for a period of five years--be reinstated. That is a simple measure, following on from an accepted principle, but it has been rejected by the Government in favour of a wait-and-see approach.

Those are two possible solutions to the problems outlined during the debate. I hope that the Minister will take them as constructive suggestions. I think that there would be consensus in the House on reform, but I fear that it is a challenge that the Government do not want to take up.

With the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill, the Secretary of State has given us a purely cosmetic Bill that will make little difference to the lives of crofters affected, and absolutely no difference to more than 90 per cent. of crofters. That is not good enough, and the Government will be judged on their failure. I hope that they will accept that we can have consensus on the changes that can be made, which will make a difference to many people in Scotland and which will be welcomed by the people of Scotland as a whole.


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